One of the most prestigious private schools in the country has found itself at the centre of sexual abuse claims. St Paul's girls' school, which charges £24,000 a year and counts a string of famous and accomplished women as alumnae, asked former pupils to recall their experiences of sexual harassment for a drama project – some of which, it emerged, had occurred during their time at the school.
The drama department at the west London school, attended by the likes of actor Rachel Weisz and journalist and presenter Susanna Reid, contacted former pupils – known as Old Paulinas – as part of research for a “real life” Edinburgh fringe festival play on sexual harassment in the workplace, inspired by the #MeToo campaign.
The school's high mistress, Sarah Fletcher, wrote to former pupils this week informing them that she had asked the Local Authority Designated Officer to conduct an independent safeguarding inspection at the school in light of the allegations.
Isabel Foley, director of drama at the school, wrote in her original email to former students: “Shocked by the Weinstein stories in the press? Surprised? Not surprised? Did you post #MeToo? Then we need your help.
“We are looking to interview women and men from all sectors and age groups to gain a greater insight into what seems to be commonplace sexual harassment in the workplace by men in a position of power, be it low level ‘banter’ or more extreme cases of physical abuse.”
Fletcher, in her follow-up letter, said Foley's email had prompted allegations against the school but didn't identify any alleged perpetrator. “The police can only do their job, however, if they have a name," she continued, adding that she had asked the alleged victims "whether they would feel able to identify the individual(s), so that they can be held to account."
"I realise this is a big and difficult step to take, and we shall do all we can to support anyone who decides to go to the police. It is only through proper reflection on what went wrong that we as a school can ensure that present and future students are as safe as possible."
Fletcher added: “This is the power of #MeToo and of the stories of these [former pupils] who contacted us." In an official statement, the school said it takes such allegations "extremely seriously" and that it had passed information to the relevant authorities.
A former pupil of the school, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Refinery29 she was "not surprised" by the allegations but only because "it doesn't surprise me that any school anywhere would be accused of sexual assault".
"I don't think St Paul's is any worse than anywhere else," she added, saying she had never experienced anything similar during her time there. "I reckon there's been assault at any school – or even every school – especially if you're going as far back as the 1960s and 1970s."