It has been clear through many private forums and discussions that the hearings at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) on 1-2 October 2019 into Chetham’s School of Music (see this page for links to the videos and transcripts) have generated many powerful reactions and also wider thoughts on reflections on the school and individuals’ time there. I feel it is important that these be preserved, and so am posting here a series of sections of text sent to me, all presented anonymously (unless people request otherwise), to which I will keep adding more as I receive them. The only editing done will be for legal reasons or to preserve anonymity. I am not personally going to express a view publicly until after the end of the hearings, other than to point out that while John Vallins claimed in the hearings that I was at Chetham’s for 4 years, I was actually there for 8, from 1978 (in Junior A) to 1986 (upper sixth), and also a story related to me by my mother, which I am sharing with her permission.
There had been a time when one of the PE teachers (I think) had been taunting some boys including me by bending their fingers back (for obvious reasons, definitely not something you should do to instrumentalists, though I think this teacher disliked musicians, thinking all the boys to be gay and not ‘hard’ enough). I told my parents about this, and they mentioned it when they came to meet John Vallins next, who was very down on me at the time. He said in response ‘Mrs Pace, I didn’t hear you say that’ [Corrected from earlier wording], and suddenly his behaviour towards them and me changed quite considerably, much more positive (I went on to get the best A-Levels anyone had yet got at the school, with 6 Grade As, and a place at Oxford, also later studying at the Juilliard School as a Fulbright Scholar). Make of that story what you will.
I am numbering the testimonies AL1 (Alumnus 1), etc, and will continue to add to them. Anyone who has any thoughts they would like to be posted (which can be as short as a sentence, or much more extended) should e-mail them to me at ian AT ianpace DOT com. I can attest that I know who every individual is who has supplied testimony, and when they attended the school, but would not disclose any of this information without their express permission.
WARNING: some may find some of the material below distressing or triggering.
I found the collective amnesia and abdication of responsibility displayed by Vallins, Hullah and Moreland at the inquiry as utterly repulsive and cowardly as I found the testimonies of those who spoke of abuse to be both horrific and awe-inspiringly courageous. Vallins in particular made my blood boil as I was able, by dint of having been there at the time (1975 to 1981) although a child, to contrast his account with the reality of life as a boarder. It is a matter of deep regret that the history books cannot be rewritten to show that he and others never existed. May the Chet’s of today flourish and prosper under sound governance whilst at the same time being aware not only of its proud past, but also of its obligations to those who saw its darker side. May those who suffered find peace, and may those who wish to do so but have hitherto remained silent find the courage to speak out and expose these animals for what they were and possibly still are. May Vallins, Hullah, Moreland and any staff whose voices have not yet been heard devoid themselves of whatever misplaced sense of loyalty or plain arrogance has thus far held them back and – dare one say it? – tell the truth.
The lady who interjected 5 hours 47 minutes into the Inquiry, and who was asked to leave the room, said it all. Whilst giving evidence at the Inquiry, John Vallins displayed an arrogance that was deeply shocking. He showed scant remorse for failing to protect vulnerable children in his care. It was disingenuous of him to suggest that the music and academic departments were separate entities and that he had no knowledge of, or control over, what was happening in certain parts of the school. He was Headteacher, with responsibility for the whole school. If he did not know about the abuse, he was incompetent. If he did, then he turned a blind eye to it. Although there were humble, kind and compassionate members of staff, I hold John Vallins responsible for an abject failure to provide a safe and happy place in which to learn.
My dear friend A1 [anonymised name as used in the IICSA hearings] was giving live evidence , who I’ve been in contact with for a few years now and have had the pleasure of a few visits to my house… the subject of Chets was always at the forefront of our conversations – which after 30 years is alarming at how fast time has passed , along with regret that during these years, the torment of the school still lives with us.
[After a phone call from Operation Kiso] I froze – I remember it clearly, I burnt my wrist taking the croissant out the oven – I was alarmed to think that the past wasn’t in the past … and I refused to comment…. It’s disturbing to think that the Chetham’s mess has been carried with us for so long.
I was terribly disappointed to find that my friend A1 had several minutes missing , that were removed to protect her anonymity , which is of course understandable , but at the same time distressing to know that these comments were all about [houseparent]’s appalling behaviour.
When A1 returned from America , we were all called into the ‘common room’, as it was known then, by [houseparent], to be told that A1 is returning and no one must ask her any questions or ask her why, and that we had to pretend everything was normal. Everyone knew anyway ! We all knew they had to get naked … so I’ll never understand why Vallins said he had no idea at the time. . In my knowledge, we all know rumours spread fast in any industry … so to hear him admit this , was rather alarming. The head after him – what a disaster. Terribly dismissive on all matters regarding Brewer. I could have hit him. Retirement a typo for Resigning ??? – none of my iMacs could have done that ! !
The main thing at the time for me , is the tremendous strain [houseparent] and Vallins put my parents through – the impact of their behaviour leaves deep scars. I went to [houseparent], and asked her if she was aware that [redacted] was shagging most of his students. She accused me of being a Liar, and explained that this is Libel and I should be worried and will suffer for the consequence of my actions.
My parents were called up the school immediately, which was a 6 hour round trip for them, where they met with Vallins, [redacted] and [redacted]. The torment this caused my family is unforgiving. They were told that this could be a Libel case, and therefore my parents were worried sick – they could lose everything, including the house , if this were to be a sue-able case which [houseparent] threatened it would be.
How can you do that to someone?
I cannot tell you how much impact this has had on our lives. Nor can I understand why [houseparent] can’t be called into this investigation. I feel so terribly angry at her and ended up subsequently with major depression, a lot of medication, and an alcohol dependency.
They were only ever concerned about the school’s status – and never once considered the vulnerability of, and long term damage to the child.
In Loco Parentis ? ? ? LIARS.
Overall, I thought the questioning at the inquiry was well done, though I would have liked it to have been made clearer that the abuse referred to by different perpetrators was only a fraction of the abuse experienced by students at Chetham’s. Vallins came across initially as a genteel old man, who was shocked at findings. This impression quickly departed. The head of a school is ultimately the one responsible for the safety and welfare of all within the school. It is their duty to be aware of what is going on throughout their school. What became evident is that there was simply little, if any, main staff responsibility for what went on in Palatine House. Children and teachers alike were completely unsupervised, creating an easy environment for perpetrators to commit their crimes. Even in the Junior School (7-11) there was little if any supervision at break times, leaving young vulnerable children free to roam the corridors and rooms of Palatine House unchecked. No child, of any age, should walk in fear as to when the next assault might take place.
That there was little if any formal training in safeguarding available at that time is totally irrelevant. This is about common sense caring. Making sure children and young people are safe.
Chetham’s was anything but safe in the 1970s (and beyond) and far too many of us carry scars from our time there.
School for me when I entered in 1981 for my sixth form appeared a wonderfully free arena. I enjoyed my music making tremendously and the freedom I had to meet boyfriends, go to pubs, get drunk and sneak out for whole nights at times whilst at school. Luckily I was a very sensible person who didn’t get into any trouble but looking back as an adult, I am horrified that I had these chances. The pastoral care was lax – I survived.I heard all about Fran Shorney and Brewer even though I arrived in the September of the July she left. I learnt all about Malcolm Layfield and his behaviour with girls in my year and above. It was so open I cannot believe that teachers and Vallins did not know. I went on the Venezuelan Chamber Choir Trip In 1983 where alcohol was available on several occasions – to excess. Mrs Brewer engaged in kissing one of the sixth formers in front of many of us and a party was held in the Hilton Hotel where a sixth form boy was pulled up from hanging over the 17th floor balcony under the influence of booze by other boys while Brewer and other staff were inside and unaware. Pastoral care???
I also have close knowledge of abuse (which started in school) on a summer tour where [name redacted] was in cahoots with Brewer on a Chet’s Summer tour to take a girl away from the rest of the group. This tour was organised by Chet’s and not on a Free Weekend when Vallins could wash his hands of responsibility. ‘Not knowing’ about this is not an excuse. Those involved have been affected for the rest of their lives.
I think the very least the new regime can do is write a full letter of apology on behalf of the school and the way it’s predecessors acted. It should for the current pupils outline any proposals and why they are so important, much in the same way Germany and Japan did with its youth following the war. They should all be aware. A guidance counsellor should also be set up should the same problems ever occur again. The pupils must know there is someone they can go to almost independent from the school, who will take any accusation seriously. A final one may be for the school to have a former pupil to go and speak to the pupils once a year about what went on and what they should and shouldn’t do. Also pointing out how easy it is to be groomed or worse. The overall message to all at the school is even if you just hear about something which is not right, regardless who you think is right or wrong, report it. I just think that a lot of those things would have helped those who needed it and also been of use to people like me. Had the attitude at school that it was girls trying to further their careers by sleeping their way to the top. Only on leaving did I realise how wrong I had it. This was further reinforced at [music college] where I met others messed up by the same things at different institutions. There were also those from Chet’s who quit music after finding out the same teacher from Chet’s would be teaching them at [music college] too.
With Chethams in the news again I thought again about my conflicting feelings about the place. It has taken 2 decades to build up self esteem after being there for ten years, and I know that if I had not gone there I would have had no career in music and I would not have met all the wonderful friends, who are still supportive and lovely after many years, friends for life.
I was one of the lucky ones, though, I was not exposed to the worst crimes there.
I have always remembered this though..
‘there are kids out on the streets of Manchester who have more talent in their little finger than you have in the whole of your body’
Did I make this up? Was it said? It is of course true.
I entered Chet’s at 11 as a happy child who was considered to be bright at primary school. By the time I was 12, I was so depressed that I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. I felt like a complete failure, especially academically. This has stayed with me my whole life.
I came out of my 2nd study piano lessons crying every week for 4 years. The teacher used words that I did not understand and then used to yell and call me hopeless and useless.
In my end of year assessment when I was 14, the assessor told me I had no musicality. I’ve found it very difficult to perform to anybody since.
I feel like Chet’s failed to prepare me for an ordinary life outside music. It took me a long time to adjust after leaving music college.
I started at Chets around 1960 as a six or seven year old. I left in 1969 at the end of the first year of the school becoming a music school and becoming co-ed. I had recently been orphaned but prior to that had lived in a very loving environment. The shock of being at Chets and my abject unhappiness there affects me to this day. I know that the hard environment there added hugely to my state of mind and deep unhappiness.
When I arrived and for all but the final year, corporal punishment was meted out not by the staff, but by prefects. Effectively by seventeen year olds.
Many of these prefects were inarguably sadists ( I could name them even now ) who prided themselves on how much pain they could inflict on young children. Those children could be guilty of nothing more than wanting to go to the toilet after lights out in the dormitory. This would involve knowing that you were going to be ‘slippered’ in the morning and having to therefore spend the night in fear and dread, followed by attending the study block for punishment in the morning.
The ‘slippering’ involved not a slipper but a size twelve plimsoll. The child being assaulted would then have to bend down with an audience of a number of six form sadists whilst the hero administering the ‘ slippering’ would often take a run up in order to inflict as much pain as possible three or six times. The pain was dreadful, causing you to even feel sick.
The audience of sadists thought that this was hilarious.
I often wonder how they, as adults, would react to their own children being assaulted in this way
This punishment was carried out on a trial without jury basis. In other words, sixth formers could decide who would be slippered without any redress or need of explanation or real justification.
Some kids even wore their ability to take slipperings with some sort of warped pride. That in itself paints a picture of a very strange place indeed.
All the staff, and the governor (Harry Vickers ) knew all about this brutality. Some, I know were sickened by it, but I only ever remember a decent PE teacher named Eric Stevens ever trying to do anything about it but being ignored. He was prompted by seeing horrific bruising on young children during swimming lessons.
To me, it is little wonder that an environment where physical assault was actually encouraged, would lead to a culture where sexual assault would also be tolerated by those in positions of trust and authority.
Many of the staff who were in charge during the era that I describe above were still at the school when the sexual assault began to take place. I actually know that they swept it under the carpet for the sake of the school and there own private world.
Also, on reflection, the lack of pastoral or emotional care during my time there now looks astounding. To run a school on a military basis plus condoned violence reflects on the type of people ( or person ) whose influence was overpowering in the extreme.
Is it really any wonder that the previous regime morphed into the disgusting and damaging one that followed?
Finally, I should say that during all my years at the school, I saw no evidence or heard anything about any sexual assault taking place. Of course, this does not mean that it was not happening.
One male teacher did take an unhealthy interest in me and orchestrated an uncomfortable extra- curricular outing with me which to my alarm was allowed by my family ( innocent souls ). But, although I knew his likely motivation, nothing actually happened despite his offer of cider. Back then, I would have been quite capable of flattening him anyway !
I met privately over coffee a few years ago with a retired formerly very senior member of Chets staff. That person had been in post throughout what seems to have been the worst of the abuse issues.
Whilst I cannot remember the precise wording of our conversation, I do remember gaining the strong impression that he and those others at the very top were aware of what was happening and had brushed the issue under the carpet.
There seemed to be an environment where the managers of the school had put the reputation of the school and their positions within the school ahead of justice and the well-being of its pupils.
Perhaps an environment of collective self-importance ?
The scale of the abuse has been way beyond anything I realised. What I HAVE realised is that so many of us little people were at the mercy of big egos whose main agenda was the glorification of themselves with no real awareness of the consequences… I teach in SUCH a different way to how I was “drilled” – hopefully in a climate of care and positivity as opposed to fear and negativity… But I consider myself as a survivor!! I’m well, happy and have an extraordinarily rich musical life…
My male personal tutor told me when I was 15 and feeling upset about a disagreement with my dad. ‘you don’t need your family now, you have us… When you go home you don’t need to talk to them, don’t you have a pet you can hang out with? just stay in your room.’
I know these were the words, I can’t forget them… So horribly controlling and potentially worse. Luckily I realised this was not normal behaviour. But I remember years later doing compulsory child protection training and being in tears after reading the grooming section…. I still wish, in some ways, I could approach him and challenge him about it.
I’ve suffered from asthma since I was two. I can remember [gym teacher] scaring the life out of me when she would tell us nearly every lesson how we were all suffering from sheer ignorance and would end up in wheelchairs by the time we are 30 because we were so all unfit. I remember [another gym teacher] as well yelling at me to carry on running in the PE hall even when I begged to stop. That resulted in me having an asthma attack and staying in hospital. Sooo many teachers back then were cruel. House staff telling us we’re not academics, even though we did well in academic exams. I remember being told by a member of the boarding staff at the sixth form leavers party I probably won’t have passed my German A level as I’m not academic. I got a grade A in that subject for the A level exam. I remember house staff telling other students they weren’t academics yet they went to Oxford and Cambridge. What was it at that place with all the confidence bashing?! There are so many horror stories, way worse than I’ve mentioned just now that happened in the 8 years I was there. I was very glad to leave that school and I’ve not wanted to ever consider sending my child to a boarding school because of it. That and the fact there has never been any need for my children to be boarders anyway.
I still remember the science teachers making kids stand on desks in lessons as punishment. Then wiping the chalk board markers over kids faces and telling them if they see them walking around school without the chalk they will be in trouble. These kids would then walk into lunch with it on their faces; nothing was said! Totally illegal to do that as teachers were not allowed to physically abuse kids at that time. I was hit over the head countless times by [teacher] in Junior A for things like forgetting my glasses. Again, she wasn’t allowed to do that but she got away with it plus her abuse of other kids in her class; emptying boys bags in front of the whole class and mocking them. [Instrumental teacher] (I think [another instrumental teacher] before that) who would tell me I was a useless bassoonist. Then when I won the BBC TV Young musician of the year woodwind section, she came up to me in the bathroom and said ‘Well I’m shocked! You must have improved!’ I remember amazing teachers like Mr and Mrs Hatfield, Mrs Peak, Mr Little and some others. But there were far too many bullies. I too was taught violin by Mr Ling. He scared the crap out of me so I gave up the violin because of him. Just as well. Maybe I would have ended up one of his victims. [House parent] who made little juniors hold pillows at arms length for ages as punishment for talking after lights out. Often we were talking as we were just little kids or felt homesick. Yes we had great opportunities there, but they came at a huge emotional cost to many of us. I gave up the bassoon and never played it again the day I left the RAM. I felt burnt out and didn’t want a life that Chet’s had made me feel I would lead. A life of constant pressure. I have good and bad memories of Chet’s. But it is true. What happens when you’re a kid has a big impact as to the person you become as an adult.
As a day student, much of this passed me by, but as a young 14 year old I knew my good friend was emotionally destroyed by a ‘relationship’ with Layfield. If you weren’t there, I imagine its hard to believe that, to many of us, this behaviour was ‘normal’. At least it was all normalized. I remember envying those girls in the ‘in’ groups, wishing I could be as good as them. I do also have another memory which never really made sense, or at least I used to find rather funny, until the Brewer trial. My teacher was away for a week and during that time, Brewer had me in his office, asking me to try a viola on for size. Weird experience, he was too close, etc. etc.. (every woman reading this knows what I mean). It was too big for me and I was a violin snob so I just didn’t want to continue and left his office. I told my teacher when he got back. My lesson was at the foot of the stairs. He stormed out (this was not a guy who stormed. Instead he was exceedingly zen and calm at all times), went through two fire doors and into Brewers office and I heard him yell ‘Keep your hands off my student’. At the time, I thought it was about the viola. They all knew.
I was at Chet’s 1987-91. Looking back, I feel sad for the vulnerable girl I was, that loved ( and still do) music. I held my teacher in such high esteem..if he said jump, I jumped. At 15 I was given an opportunity to study piano with Bakst and I remember feeling so excited. That was soon to change. A naive, country girl – I couldn’t understand why I felt so uncomfortable during my lessons. Surely, he couldn’t be touching my private parts whilst I was trying to play..it must be my imagination I thought. However, I soon stopped the lessons through feeling scared. My house parent questioned me why I stopped lessons with Bakst and after he asked the question, ‘has he done something’ I reluctantly told him about the way he touched me. I remember my house parent shaking his head and saying, ‘not again’. I was told by a member of staff that it would ruin the career of the very talented male students who were taught by Bakst if it was reported. Naturally, I could not have lived with myself if I was deemed responsible for this. I wondered why Bakst didn’t have any female students back then except one Chinese girl I think. Some piano teachers at Chets were old pupils of Bakst and they referred their talented students to Bakst. If my house parent knew what was going on, surely the other staff knew?! This ‘blind eye’ was endemic in the piano department. We were children and no one cared enough.. shame on all of them. By 17, I had been groomed by my first piano teacher, prior to Bakst, and had regular trips to his house where intimacy occurred. Still 17, I had a nervous breakdown..2 suicide attempts and was unable to complete my last yr at school. I taught myself my A levels and locked myself away in my tiny bedroom for months. I loathed myself. I couldn’t be the ultra slim student that my teacher wanted me to be ..he continuously made remarks about my weight. I developed a serious eating disorder and this subsequently destroyed years of my life and any career prospects. BUT, I survived! Whenever I think back to those darkest days, I break down. I was a kind, loving, trusting girl. It broke me.
Although my experience is one of deep sadness, I feel it is now time for Chetham’s to grow into the best school it can be. I have witnessed changes and I have seen how happy the children are. With the right, strong leadership, Chetham’s can be an amazing experience for so many children. Friends who have recently worked at Chets and current pupils I know there, feel it is now a happy and safe environment and this is all I could wish for the future. Knowing this, has helped me deal with my past.
I was 14 when I was groomed and sexually abused by Ling during my time studying at at Chethams. Ling gave us letters to take home about the courses at his house, they were like the typical school trip letter with a slip to fill in at the bottom and information on how much the course cost and date. They were printed out. There were often other letters from school about tours and trips. This was just like one of those.
From my parents point of view, this was a letter from Chethams because it came from the school and from one of the teachers who worked there.
Chetham’s responded to my civil case by disputing whether I’d even attended the school during that year and asking me to provide proof. This is the only communication I’ve had from them, no apologies or letters or emails or in fact ANY acknowledgement of what happened.
Since op Kiso started seven years ago I’ve been looking towards being able to formally address the abuses of trust that I suffered whilst a student at Chethams in a legal manner.
This still hasn’t hasn’t been possible and I couldn’t be more disappointed that victims voices have been silenced and that there has been no apology or acknowledgement from the school.
I hope that the inquiry has taken into account the devastating and destabilising effect childhood sexual abuse has at such a critical point in life. I’d also point out that a boarding school setting makes it even more isolating when all the power resides with the teachers who were also the abusers and family support is a very long way away
Unfortunately I have few positive feelings about my time there. I, also was not exposed to the worst crimes but the emotional abuse that was inflicted on us has left us with demons and scars that last a lifetime. We were commoditised as children and love and praise was determined/ conditional on our a ability to perform on cue. I did not take up a career in music but that toxic environment shaped the early years of my adult life.
I have made it public that I was abused from 1971-1977. I was shocked to the core, when I turned on the News last Tuesday teatime and heard the names Brewer and Ling being mentioned. I knew nothing about this inquiry and would very much have liked to have been present. Why were we not informed?
I was the first girl to report sexual abuse in 1971 and would have appreciated that being recognised. I felt that my existence hadn’t mattered and this has really affected me very badly this last week.
It was only after my mother telling me the day after my father died, that I had been the biggest disappointment in their lives, was I then able to tell her about the abuse and the reason for me returning to [place of abode]. My father died, never knowing.
If only Chet’s had thrown Professor Bakst out of the school in 1971 and not 1991/2, how many other poor girls could have been saved.
The RNCM also knew that Bakst was abusing. Clifton Helliwell (Head of Keyboard) invited Bakst’s students to his office and offered us a different teacher, if we so wished.
My life path changed for good, thanks to Professor Bakst… why isn’t he getting the same mentioning as Brewer and Ling? I am seething about this.
Bakst abused not only sexually and mentally (when I tried to stop him, he would sulk and sit and read his Polish newspaper during my ‘lesson’) but also physically. On one occasion he insisted I repeat a certain part of Rachmaninoff’s G minor Prelude over and over and over. I told him several times that my right hand was paining… he wouldn’t allow me to stop. It resulted in me seeing 2 specialists and not being able to use my right hand for a year! I still have problems with it, to this day.
Reading this has made me realise FOR THE FIRST TIME that many of the repeating anxieties in my life (no talent, wrong appearance, not thin enough, etc.) stem from the way that various staff members at Chet’s got into my head and have never left. [String teacher] told me I wasn’t pretty enough to be a cellist. [Houseparent] often criticised my weight. I was told by Mike Brewer that I would have to requisition to keep my place had I not been in Fast Set Music…. Somehow all these years I have believed all these things, and believed that they only applied to me and that everyone else was entitled to be at Chet’s, just not me. To read of such wonderful musicians that I look up to and respect receiving similar comments has surprised me to my core and made be reassess just how much insidious damage was done to me and to many other pupils. And that is before you even come to the sexual abuse and the generally toxic culture that made us believe that this was the reality of life in the music business.
I was at Chets from 1986-1991. I was one of the “lucky” ones; I was a woodwind first study and the wind tutors seemed to have mainly been able to behave appropriately and professionally.
However, I wanted to write and say how let down and angry I feel towards all the staff at the school at the time, but especially the houseparents and headteacher. We all knew that something wrong was going on – most of us didn’t know the whole story, but rumours abounded about playing naked and “dares” (or punishments) at the house gatherings at Ling’s house. Yet in our young impressionable minds, somehow, despite the fact that we were aware our friends and peers were being abused, the reactions around us and the fact that the people who were in loco parentis – who we also knew were aware and did NOTHING to stop it or to prevent it happening again, meant that we accepted it as normal, and worse, something to be envied. Ling’s Strings, were – in our minds – a group of special chosen ones. They had the cool teacher that drove around in the sports car and leather trousers, they got to go offsite to gatherings that were secret and grown up. We envied them. How utterly messed up and wrong is that?
I feel a massive sense of guilt towards my friends. That we didn’t speak up on their behalf more, that we left them feeling isolated and vulnerable to more abuse because there was no guidance from the adults looking after us that these vile men were doing anything wrong.
I am aware of at least one close friend approaching [houseparent] detailing an unthinkable situation of abuse and her response was to minimise and dismiss. That left this vulnerable teenager in unbelievable turmoil.
There was no morality amongst the staff – the reputation of the school was the only thing that mattered. Threats about libel, threats about ruining people’s careers, dismissals of horrendous situations with phrases like “silly girls, making everything so dramatic” abounded. There was no-one to go to for advice and guidance.
So I want to say to all the staff there in that very long period where Brewer, Ling, Bakst, Layfield et al abused at will and without remorse, if you were there and you knew and you didn’t speak up, SHAME ON YOU. SHAME ON YOU ALL. You all knew, we know you knew. How do you live with yourselves?
My mum was very concerned about one of my incredibly vulnerable friends, and tried to intercede with Vallins on her behalf. She was dismissed and her offers of help were rejected – she was made to feel like an interfering busybody. She, along with another parent, petitioned the school to try and set up some kind of parent consultation group to enable the parents to have more input to what was going on in the school – this was not allowed.
She was told by a wind tutor that there were bad things going on and that they would never send their own kids there. My parents agonised over whether to withdraw, but as none of us were encouraged to talk to our parents, they presumed that if something was wrong we would tell them. Yet we perpetrated the veil of secrecy and silence, because we knew that’s what we had to do to protect the school.
My own story is minimal compared to most – I was lucky. [Houseparent] was a monster behind her smiley exterior. She encouraged so many of us to be worried about our weight and appearance – often telling me I was too chubby and needed to lose weight. She made many hurtful comments in public and private about it. At the time I weighed 9.5 stone and was 5ft 4. She wasn’t approachable, everything was dismissed as we were being silly and needed to get over it. She once told me I was a monster and would never amount to anything in “decent society” because I borrowed an unsuitable video off one of the boys and showed it in the common room. Yet, we were left unsupervised long enough to show a whole film. We were rarely checked on until it was time for lights out. The assistant houseparent was having a relationship with the head of strings, and so wasn’t approachable either, although she was kinder.
My experience of Brewer was twisted. He didn’t like me and used to play mind games with me. He withheld coveted positions in the orchestra deliberately and taunted me about it. My very worst time was when I was in Upper Sixth and he summoned me for a private chat in his office at night. When I went in he was wearing those tiny shorts he often wore that left nothing to the imagination. He sat behind his desk and regarded me with amusement; I was clearly nervous as I didn’t know what he wanted. He wrote something on a piece of paper and then put it in the top drawer of his desk, locked it and laid the key on the desk. Then he stood up, put one foot on a chair, so his genitals were exposed, and said to me “I know what you’re going to be”. I had no idea what was going on or what he meant. He gestured to the drawer “that piece of paper says what will happen after you leave school. Do you want to know what it says?” I didn’t know what to do, and stood there frozen. He regarded me with contempt, put his leg down, and shooed me away, saying “you can go”. I escaped. I didn’t tell anyone; what was the point and who should I tell?
When I left I went to one of the most prestigious universities in the UK to read music. Despite this, I was seen as a failure by the music department and the fact I’d rejected a place at the RAM to go down a more academic route was seen as a disappointment.
I want the staff of the time, those that are alive, to know about our stories, and for them to acknowledge how wrong their decisions were and to apologise without reservation. [Comments about veracity of testimony of former head teachers in the inquiry] Claire Moreland claimed that a letter was sent to the alumni informing them of the police investigation – but nearly 200 people have responded to say that they’ve never received any such letter.
If the present head is serious about helping the alumni affected, he should be seeking out those members of staff and asking them to write public letters of acknowledgement and apology. I think it’s outrageous that none of them have been called to account for themselves during these proceedings, especially the [houseparents mentioned in evidence to inquiry]. It’s even more appalling that members of their family have held prominent positions of authority at Chets until very recently.
After two years at Chetham’s my parents had seen enough and took me out.This was in ’76. My dad (a teacher himself) told me later that he had been to see Vallins and told him-based solely on their experience of my treatment there- that in his opinion there were serious problems with how the school was being run, both in the music AND in boarding and academic. He said that he may as well have been talking to himself. Not interested.
I attended Chet’s as a boarder `70-`73.
I remember the physical abuse meted out to younger boys by the 6th form boys.
There was `slipper` treatment, where the 6th form boys stood in rows down either side of their narrow corridor of the 6th form rooms and the child had to run down the corridor between them as they hit the child with slippers. This wasn’t too bad. The worst was the `pillow` treatment. The child was held by arms and feet and dropped on their back onto a pillow on the floor.
Generally, they were not supposed to punish girls, but my friend and I were once locked in a cupboard in the 6th form block and incense sticks were lit through the key-hole until we were coughing so much, and screaming, that the head boy at the time [name redacted] let us out. I have always been a severe asthmatic but they thought it hilarious. [Head boy] refused to take part in any abuse.
I also remember being so hungry that one night, myself and 2 other girls crept into the kitchens and stole all the stale bread. (Naughty but desperate!) We developed quite a taste for it!
My personal sadness was that I had a boyfriend in the school. There was no sex education so we were both very naive. I fell pregnant at 15 yrs old, had a termination and we were both promptly expelled. I suppose back in those days they didn’t know how to handle the situation. At the time, Mrs Littler (house mother) supported me in every way she possibly could. My hopes of becoming a concert pianist died. My teachers, Anthony Goldstone, Pat Shackleton and Fanny Waterman all encouraged me not to give up, but my heart and soul died too. I became a nurse and taught in my spare time.
I hold no animosity whatsoever towards Chet’s. In fact, I have a pupil there now, and another on the way next year.
I only learned of other horrors at an alumni meet a few years ago. [X] told me her story and scorned the hypocrisy relating to my being expelled. [Y] was a few years younger than me. I used to put her to bed and read bedtime stories. She told me that my departure led her to depression, and another friend told me she subsequently developed an eating disorder as she couldn’t believe how badly my predicament was handled. [Y] had other awful tales to tell but it is not my place to relate them.
I was not sexually abused at Chet’s. However, my 1st instrumental teacher told me I was ‘rubbish’ and would not allow me to play in the senior orchestra. After hearing me play about a year later, Brewer told me I was ‘nowhere near as bad as my teacher had told him’. He allowed me in the orch. After that I played in everything (not a common instrument). I had a very difficult time in the 6th form and left with an eating disorder and a habit of self harm. I did not go on to music college, due to my illness, but always felt a total failure.
Addendum: Reading the other testimonies I just recollected an occasion where we were all dressed up in the summer. It was some kind of open day I think. I was wearing a ‘gypsy’ style dress, tight around the bust and lacy. I can vividly remember Brewer leering at my chest and saying what a lovely dress it was. The other member of staff did likewise and said ‘ it’s what’s underneath that counts’ I was 14 at most. Bastards!!! After I left Chets (ill with an eating disorder), I was groomed and raped. No connection I know but just one more fucked up ex Chets pupil…
It has been difficult to watch Mr Vallins, Mr Hullah and Mrs Moreland all apparently not knowing anything about anything. No authentic compassion was visible from any of them either.
Memories of Chetham’s:
String section rehearsals on a Saturday: being asked to play passages by myself because the conductor thought I couldn’t play it. He was right. Incredible shame in front of peers.
Science classes: I was so frightened of one teacher’s sarcastic cruelty. He could tell when you didn’t know something, and would choose you on purpose to explain it, so that you were shamed in front of the whole class. Because I was so nervous I couldn’t concentrate, and had to rely on copying another student’s answers whenever I could.
In another science class, the teacher became angry because people kept saying “What? when we were learning about watts. He called a boy up to the front of the class and punched him in the face.
Maths: a teacher saw me writing in my text book in pencil, he crept up behind my desk and put his arm across my shoulders and pushed me down onto the desk until I was crushed. My chest was very painful and had bruising afterwards.
Another teacher threw a very fat text book at me because I was talking in class. It missed.
Boarding house life: Being patted on the bottom by the housemaster as I was speaking on the public phone in our girls house.
Being put off alcohol forever when I was 13 and new at the school, when I went into the communal toilets and several drunk students were throwing up in there!!
Nurses: only advice available: take 2 paracetamols.
Mr Brewer: he stared at my breasts whenever he spoke to me, and licked his lips. His lips were always cracked and dry, with horrible white deposits at each side.
The friends I made.
Being in the orchestra when Christopher Adey came to be a guest conductor.
During my School years at Chets I felt abandoned to a place where the staff took very little notice of me. The House Parents barely seemed to register who I was, and I felt uninspired by my violin teacher, so I coasted, doing the minimum I could get away with academically and musically. Having started the school lauded by Brewer as a ‘star talent’, my violin playing was falling behind and so consequently I was called into his office. He proceeded to belittle and humiliate me instead of offering solutions.
After several meetings he concluded I should either leave the school in perceived disgrace, or be transferred to a new teacher who would turn me around. So without any choice I started lessons with Ling.
This was, of course, a disaster.
In my final year I tried to fight back and I threatened to report him. (It had suddenly become clear it wasn’t just me he was ‘picking on’). In response he vowed he would make sure I never played the violin professionally, would ruin my reputation, and would absolutely bar me from getting a place at any music college. We came to a hideous truce where he agreed he would leave me alone if I stayed silent, and I was to pretend to still be continuing my weekly lessons.
I spent that last year facing my music college auditions with no violin teacher (they couldn’t understand why I hadn’t prepared the set scales etc having come from Chets), whilst he still got paid, and continuously bullied and undermined me, in order to keep me toeing his line.
I was by this time withdrawn, painfully thin, often tearful and deeply stressed. My friends tried their hardest to shield me but none of the staff seemed to even notice. In fact my house parent described me to my room-mate as a misery who needed to pull herself together. I wondered why she never once thought to ask me what was wrong, but on reflection I suspect she either knew outright or had, at the very least, heard the rumours, that were rife, of what was going on on the string corridor.
After leaving Chets I buried everything that had happened.
I had barely heard of child abuse and certainly didn’t realise the term might apply in my case. To be clear, Ling manipulated, threatened and isolated me. It was never once consenting – he made my skin crawl. But the atmosphere that pervaded the string department; cello teachers ‘dating’ pupils, violin pupils being ‘girlfriends’, teachers generally sleazing over us girls, making crude comments and unwanted advances, had normalised what I had suffered. Horrifyingly I thought I had just been more unlucky than most, and that it was our lot to be treated as sexual game.
In light of reading the reports from the inquiry, and especially Vallins’ testimony I would like to add some final thoughts.
It was absolutely common knowledge at Chets during my time there, and subsequently, that there were ‘relationships’ happening between staff members and the children. This included the Head of Music and many of the string staff. Ling was known for being the most blatant; taking girls out for drinks, keeping them late in practice rooms, taking them off site in his car etc.
If we all knew, and Vallins had his ‘ear to the ground’ as he claimed, and yes he lived on site, how, at the very least, did he not suspect there was inappropriate behaviour going on? Why did he not question and investigate the rumours, as ultimately it was his job to know the goings-on of the school?
The answer is – because he absolutely did know. A close friend reported the abuse to him shortly after I left. She was squashed by him and [houseparent], and a cover-up ensued.
Appallingly it was during these miserable years that Vallins received his OBE.
I was at Chets from 1973 to ‘81. I entered as a fat 10 year old in Junior A and I well remember the bullying and fear liberally meted out by Boss. He even removed the bedroom doors in Palatine as a punishment for some girls talking after lights out- completely unacceptable on every level! I also remember being called fat in front of the class by Brian Gee and the humiliation of being put on a diet and having to eat crispbread and tinned tomatoes whist everyone else around me ate the normal food. I remember being horribly homesick and having no pastoral care from any member of staff to help me to deal with that.
Academic teaching varied hugely in standard and whilst there were some really inspirational teachers there, having a board duster chucked at one’s head in maths or being called an imbecile was seen as a joke, which it clearly was not. I even set fire to the sleeve of my blouse in chemistry once but there was very little reaction from the teacher and I believe that the Geography teacher either left or was sacked weeks before our Geography O level, meaning that the majority of my class failed the exam.
As I got older, my status as a fat, average pianist protected me from some of the worst abuses from the teaching staff, as I was largely just ignored, although I do remember feeling very hurt that I was deemed almost irrelevant in terms of the hierarchy so prevalent in Chets society. The sexual liberties allowed during weekend tv times in the 6th form centre were legendary and yet I look back now in horror as to how little parental supervision and care we received then. I was in Millgate House looking after the juniors and one of my room mates frequently had sex in our room during the day with her boyfriend with no awareness from the house staff. As I entered the 6th form, I lost a lot of weight and eventually ended up becoming anorexic, which no one on the staff could cope with. I had my first sexual relationship with another 6th form boy and we had a key to an abandoned classroom which we used for sex, which had been given to us by a leaver and which we subsequently passed to another 6th former when we left. I was put on the Pill by the school doc, with no questions about my medical history, despite the fact that my mother had died young of a heart attack due to being on the Pill. My dramatic weight loss was questioned by him, but it was easy to lie my way out of it and I had no follow up or any ongoing care or monitoring of my weight. My piano teacher changed too during this time and my new one was emotionally abusive and demanding and acted inappropriately in her lessons. I’m pretty sure that she was an ex pupil of Bakst. I was terrified of her and although I became a much better pianist, it came at a huge price. Around this time, I also found out from a 6th form friend about the sexual relationship she was in with a member of staff, which, as far as I know, she still hasn’t disclosed publicly and may never do so. By this time, it was public knowledge that there were a group of girls, mainly string players, who were involved in sexual relationships with Brewer et al. This was almost seen as a joke and the girls perceived as flaky slappers, which is more a comment on how groomed we all were in accepting such behaviour than the girls themselves. Alcohol featured regularly and the 6th form boys brewed their own beer and cider. It was commonplace to leave school to drink illicitly at several city centre pubs, the Mitre being the most popular one. I can remember drinking there before I reached the age of 18, with staff members present and ignoring us. I also remember the pop up brothels on Long Millgate, the prostitutes’ clients fighting in the street and the Yorkshire Ripper… all of which made leaving school in the evenings a profoundly unsafe experience. Competition amongst pupils in terms of lunchtime concert appearances and orchestral seating was seen as ordinary and yet now, can be viewed as being undermining and abusive. When I was awarded a place at all of the four music colleges I applied to, I can’t remember a single Well Done coming from anyone! As an adult, I married another ex-Chets pupil who eventually became emotionally very unwell and my marriage to him broke down. This was partly a result of him having had a short lived affair on tour with another ex-Chets pupil who was herself a victim of Layfield and who had, in my belief, grown up with the consequential emotional vulnerabilities which allowed her to engage in such a way towards a married man. So her experience affected my husband and myself so many years later.
I left my dad on his own to go to Chets for 8 years and although it undoubtedly gave me social and musical opportunities I would not have had otherwise, it was not a good place to be. After the RCM, I got a post grad place at the RAM but I never went. I was seriously ill with an eating disorder at College and despite being a prize winner there , I could never slough off the legacy of Chets and the way it made me feel like a complete and utter failure. Instead, I gave up playing for almost a decade and only really returned to it by training to be a music therapist. I’m now a piano teacher but as a single mother, have never been able to have the time to give to a performing career; lack of confidence and the shadows of the reasons my marriage broke down in terms of my ex-husband’s mental health issues have prevented it. I have had a string of failed relationships, all fuelled by the profound lack of parental guidance I received at Chets where none of us were raised with an adequate sense of Self. Egos were either inflated or decimated and most of us were emotionally chaotic and unsafe and have grown up to carry unhappy legacies of our time there.
Chet’s alumnus 1982-1990.
Chet’s was a fiercely competitive environment where prizes defined you: being chosen to play in a masterclass, winning the concerto competition, where you sat in orchestra, scholarships to music colleges etc. Ling’s pupils were outstanding, winning internal and external competitions, leading the school orchestras etc. What we now realise is that they were coerced into accepting their abuse by him because they believed that that is what it took to promote their status.
It makes me feel sick that my friends suffered this abuse behind closed doors; my closest friend never spoke to me about what she endured, it was a secret. This secrecy has wrecked lives and it is now time for a redressing.
I also suffered abuse from Bakst. Most lessons he would put his hand at the top of my thigh when I played. At the time I didn’t consider this abuse, although I knew that it shouldn’t be happening.
When the Head of Keyboard asked me about Bakst’s behaviour during my lessons, I denied that anything untoward had ever happened as I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.
This is the first time that I’m talking about this incident. I suspect that I’m not the only one with untold Chet’s memories.
From the school: I would like counselling available for all Chet’s alumni from that period – no questions asked, just foot the bill. Also, Vallins to be stripped of his OBE and the Vallins building renamed.
In one of the boy’s dormitories, there was a cupboard/wardrobe, on which was written ‘X’s house’ (‘X’ was the name, extremely demeaning, give to one boy by many bullies and many others). What some of the bullies would do was force him into this, so he would be forced into a half-bent-over position, the width practically no greater than his one, so he wouldn’t be able to move, and leave him there for hours, calling and crying. They took great pleasure from this, and other boys found it terribly amusing. Other boys (this boy was a target for many) used to literally ride this boy like a horse around the pool table area in the Millgate building, laughing and cheering while he was crying.
There was the boy who wanted to prove his status over another (both would have been about 16-17 at the time) by delivering him the most pathologically awful hit in the face, so that he lost several teeth, swallowing one of them. Talk of this spread through the house, and the appropriate status was gained.
There was the group of older boys who set on one younger boy who was placed in boy’s house. Amongst the things they did was put sellotape over his mouth and hold his nose so he thought he was going to asphyxiate, or fill his mouth with washing-up liquid, and make him near-choke on it so it come up out of his nose. This as well as kicking him and punching him all over – a whole group of older boys setting on one defenceless boy like this. It was seen as a type of rite of passage, and the test was that he wouldn’t tell the housemaster. There’s more – it is only through talking through these sorts of events in therapy that I have been able to understand that this was not normal behaviour in a school.
And then there was the fact that every single boy in Boy’s House called the house master ‘Prole’. An alternative name was ‘Harry’, also seen as a name which would mock his working-class origins.
All sorts can happen in a brutalised environment. I’m not blaming the boys (they were children) so much as the environment which made this all possible.
I will tell just one story of my own. This concerns the teacher in junior school who made a point of singling out everyone else in the class for praise for what they had done, then holding me up alone in front of them all with that poisonous hatred behind her eyes just to ridicule me in comparison with everyone else. Now I also know that this same teacher, at school camp, actually slept with a sixth-form boy.
This school was a cesspit. It is a disgrace that John Vallins was ever let anywhere near a school, and he should feel nothing but shame and guilt for the rest of his days.
I was one of the lucky ones. I always felt that Chet’s was my home and the staff and pupils my family. I had never had a close relationship with my family and Chet’s became a sort of foster family for me. I was never aware of the terrible things that were going on but there were a lot of rumours about Brewer and Ling. I am devastated by everything that has come to light and my heart goes out to every child who was affected and those adults who continue to be. For anyone who was in a similar position to me, we are feeling a huge sense of loss at the moment. All those happy memories, what was lying beneath? What was true? Who was genuine? All those close relationships we developed with the teachers ([list of some names]), were they a lie? It is so terribly sad and I am absolutely devastated. To all those children who I grew up with – you were the most special, wonderful family to grow up with and none of you are to blame.
Just to add: I would like the school to find all past teachers and find out what they knew. They owe it to us.
It’s only after reading some of the impact statements from my fellow Chetham’s students in and around the 1980’s that the rather dysfunctional pattern of my life has become clearer.
I went to Chetham’s excited about the opportunities to be in a musical environment and develop my full potential. I left with shattered self-confidence and disillusioned not just with music, but with life.
In a nutshell,, I was taught by Bakst. Although I didn’t suffer sexual abuse as badly as some of the girls I knew who were taught by him, he bullied and intimidated me. This culminated in me walking out of a lesson – from which there was no way back as ‘nobody walked out of Bakst’s lessons’. I then took a step back and was taught by my first teacher at Chetham’s, losing all sense of direction.
In the sixth form after this had happened, I was close to leaving Chethams for the local grammar school back home. But I stayed. I seem to remember my parents talking to John Vallins, who encouraged me to stay
I’d never really understood why I dropped out of my first year of university straight after leaving Chets – and I tried to run away to France (but didn’t quite succeed due to a ferry strike at the time!!). I was desperately unhappy but thought it was just ‘me’.
I then went on to another university to do a languages degree and became obsessed with sport because the particular sport I pursued made me feel ‘strong’ and ‘respected’ for what I could do and achieve. I barely studied as I was constantly training, but somehow managed to get a decent degree despite failing a year and having to repeat it.
I couldn’t face the university careers service when I graduated – the sheer thought of any ‘structure’ being imposed on me in the form of a proper job and authority from above scared me rigid. Hence, I ended up working for 6 years in a cycle shop. A waste of my various talents, in my opinion.
I haven’t really played the piano since leaving Chetham’s. In fact, the piano my parents bought me when I started Chetham’s is in my garage.
Fast-forward to 2010 and I finally found the opportunity to become self-employed thanks to the rise of the Internet and entrepreneurial activities.
I am starting to look at my past, especially my teens, twenties and thirties, in a totally different light….
I remember also being bullied by the female junior school teacher with hatred in her eyes. At least I can’t imagine it being anyone else. Is there any reason we shouldn’t name her? She was called [X]. Perhaps her name can be redacted if needed. She is long dead I believe. She was in my experience a very opinionated, forceful, bitter person, very wrapped up in herself and without the maturity required of a teacher. She openly declared frequently that she hated girls and wished they had never been allowed in to the school. Her tenure dated back to before they were.
As with other teachers, ex pupils had mixed experience of her and some thought and still think she was marvellous. It is important to realise that abusers don’t abuse everyone and can present as quite charming to others. Nor do bullies bully everyone. They pick on people who seem vulnerable or who annoy or discomfort them for whatever reason. Teachers ought to be able and willing to rise above these feelings, be the adult and treat their pupils reasonably equally and decently, even in the face of provocation. She didn’t and in an environment where bullying was quite normal, she was a law unto herself. Perhaps, being conditioned into this environment, those who weren’t the targets also overlooked that others were. We all accepted our lot and that of others as normal. Playing favourites and targets is also of course a great way to gain the collusion of the class and make the bullying more painful for the target.
She had those she hated and those who were her favourites. She also had her figure of fun boy in my time who she liked to ridicule and dismiss in a seemingly affectionate but demeaning way. She made him the class joke. I believe, having heard since, that he was also badly bullied by other boys. No doubt her behaviour towards him fed into this if not causing it. She took a dislike to me, and I think a couple of my friends. She launched an ongoing bullying campaign against me that lasted the entirety of my time within her reach, which I think was two years due to lack of teachers. It was usually verbal although she hit me across the head once. She would ridicule my appearance daily as a matter of course in front of the class and would take any other opportunity going to try to undermine or humiliate me. I tried to ignore, resist or fight back in minor ways, but at age nine and ten being subject to a concerted daily hate campaign by an adult in front of my peers was hard to deal with. It made my life at school a misery and profoundly affected my self-esteem. I know I wasn’t the only one.
I didn’t know about her allegedly sleeping with a sixth former at camp, though I do remember her openly singing the praises of and fawning over a man who used to go to camp. He was no longer involved with the school. He might have been an ex pupil or ex teacher I’m not sure. She would often talk about herself and her opinions at length in class, so telling us how marvellous this man was and how much she was looking forward to seeing him at camp was par for the course. As I attended camp, I saw her flirting with him and we all assumed there was an affair or would be if it was up to her.
One disgusting practice that hasn’t yet been discussed was the ‘staking out’ ritual at school camp, where a group of adults or older large pupils would grab someone, overpower them and tie them spread-eagled to the ground with tent pegs. People would then gather around them to taunt them, laugh at them, poke them, throw things over them (I remember cold water and pig-swill being favourites). This was all treated as a marvellous joke and was expected to be laughed off by the victim. This was pretty much the approach to all public assaults and bullying, like the beatings with a huge plimsoll meted out by a games teacher ([Y], still alive) amongst others and perhaps his ‘red hand gang’, which boys from the late seventies/early eighties might throw more light on. I also know of at least one occasion when several junior school girls were assaulted by a female games teacher with a plimsoll. Like with corporal punishment it was usually the boys who were victims of staking out but not always.
One day at school camp a group of men, including the one that [X] had a thing for, grabbed me, dragged me somewhere and started trying to tie me down. I was told this was under instruction from [X]. They actually looked a bit sheepish like they knew they were doing something wrong and that even in a world where ‘staking pupils out’ for japes was normalised, they realised that this was crossing a line (big adult men, small girl, obvious, open animosity from the person instructing them to do it, obviously not a joke on either side). [X] came to survey what was happening and to openly gloat. I fought the men and didn’t give up until I managed to get away. I ran away and was gone for the rest of the day. I don’t remember any search parties being sent for me. I remember sitting on top of a hill with another friend who had run away to the same place, looking down at a view of several people being staked out. It looked like a crucifixion scene. We didn’t want to go back. I also remember a very large boy/man being staked out and quietly going along with it saying that he had health problems (asthma being one) and had to be careful. He was clearly struggling physically and afraid while they carried on regardless.
Another junior school teacher in the late seventies was Brian Gee, again remembered fondly by many, but not all. He once made a lengthy public speech to the whole junior school about what a despicable person the child was who had been stealing money from coat pickets in the cloakroom. He finished off by revealing the identity of the child. She was there. Was this an appropriate way to deal with the situation?
Funnily enough, in informal chat amongst alumni, the person who most viciously defended these teachers and attacked anyone who said anything against them, is someone who I remember as the chief bully in the junior school. He was the biggest boy and used to beat up the others at break times. He is now apparently in a senior position in education. I am not blaming him, certainly not the child that he was. It was the culture of the place from the teachers down. There was a lot of ‘fighting’ amongst the boys, certainly at junior school. That seemed to be what boys did at the time, and maybe it is, but from what ex pupils have said subsequently I think many boys were being physically bullied and assaulted and it wasn’t all in good fun. It wasn’t stopped by the teachers and in some cases it was modelled.
Some of us knew or subsequently worked out that the violence, bullying and abuse was wrong and some didn’t and haven’t. Some don’t want to think about it at all. Whilst there was a lot of useful discussion and support in alumni discussions and chat after Fran’s death there were also those who were very protective of the school and hostile to critics or abuse victims. Discussion could degenerate to a very low and abusive level as if we were going back in time and some shocking defence of predators and undermining of victims took place. Some of the defenders of the schools and abusers were still involved with the school as parents or teachers or were still friends and colleagues of sexual abuse perpetrators. So the toxic legacy and pain for unacknowledged victims goes on.
From the music side, some of my school friends were routinely bullied by instrumental teachers. Some of these people were seemingly quite disturbed and volatile, if not out and out sadistic or physically and sexually abusive, and were not suited to teaching. I didn’t know about the sexual abuse until recent years, but there was much undermining, criticism and whittling away at the children’s self esteem. I had plenty of this from my first piano teacher, [Z], who may have been mentioned earlier and was a pupil of Bakst. She would shout and verbally abuse and write heavy scrawled notes in my practice book with underlined capitals and lots of exclamation marks. The general drift was that I was not good enough and must try harder. She might storm out. She also advised her pupils to skip meals so they could practice more. She entered me into a competition once, which I hated and which terrified me. The result of going through it all was to be in the doghouse because I had played a wrong note. Apparently, according to [X], it was a matter of common courtesy to manage not to do that. So I was the lowest of the low. I was an eight-year-old child.
Another piano teacher of a friend ripped up her music threw it on the floor and jumped up and down on it when she was unhappy with her progress. In each case our parents eventually got our teachers changed, but there was no question of the teachers being challenged on their behaviour or stopped from doing it to the next poor kid.
I wasn’t the most conscientious, endlessly practising pupil, mainly because I was really unwillingly conscripted into this rarefied environment and this classical music ‘career’. I know some did have a real vocation and others probably bought wholesale into the ambitions of those around them. Even then, I’m not sure that a school like that is the appropriate vehicle for such an interest. It certainly seems inappropriate for children of such a tender age, even if all the abuse could be eradicated, which I doubt. Many who did have passion and dedication had it sucked out of them by their experience there, or had so many negative issues tacked on to it.
Whatever interest I had in music was certainly eclipsed by the verbal abuse, pressure, oppressive atmosphere, unwanted responsibilities and stress. I was told I had a gift that I had a duty to serve, and in a very specific, prescribed way. I didn’t want to dedicate my young life from age eight to a classical music ‘career’. I wanted to lead the normal life of a kid. I didn’t want to spend my free time sitting in a room on my own in front of a piano practising pieces I didn’t like for hours. I wanted to be out playing with my friends.
If I hadn’t practised as much as my first teacher wanted I would sometimes stand outside the door of the room where my lesson was to take place. Although I knew it would only incur her wrath further, I could stand there for ten minutes or more getting later and later for my lesson feeling unable to face going in.
Even when I got nicer teachers, the fact remained that I was being forced, as a child, to devote my whole life and being to something I didn’t want to do. All the pressure to unwillingly practice, perform, take exams, enter competitions, etc, just made me into a very stressed kid. Nobody ever seemed to pick this up, though it must have been clear to anyone with any emotional intelligence, something that was and I believe still is, sadly lacking in these places.
A subsequent relatively nicer piano teacher I had turned out to marry a choir master and music teacher who could be entertaining and was liked by some, but could also be quite a bully. That was [AA]. He once found himself accidentally giving me a compliment by bemoaning my recent absence and saying I was useful in the choir. Realising what he had done he quickly qualified this by insisting ‘not good, but useful’. This was a shame because the choir, and even performing with the choir in public, was the one musical thing I enjoyed there, and I might even have pursued and enjoyed singing as a second instrument if I had not been convinced of my inadequacy. Singing is something that I did do many years later and I know now that I do have a good voice. Of course [AA] delivered this put down in front of the rest of the choir and, whether he really thought it or not, it is hard to know what positive outcome he could have wanted to achieve by saying it and doing it in that way.
Once [AA] had married my teacher he took to telling me off, again in front of the rest of the class, if I was deemed not to have been practising enough. This destroyed any feeling of trust and safety I had with her. For reasons I can’t remember I changed to a third and final teacher who was nice, and even tried to find music I liked, but I think the damage had been done by then and there were so many other reasons to be stressed and unhappy at the school, so this didn’t salvage things for me there and I continued to lobby to leave.
It never seemed to be an issue what the kids did or didn’t want to do or what our interests in music were. We were there to get with the programme and be sacrificed at the alter of the almighty music, as selected by those in charge, the plaudits and reputation of the teachers and school and presumably keeping the revenue coming in the gravy train running.
I remember finding Michael Brewer creepy and immediately guessing his name when my husband told me a Chet’s teacher had been convicted of child abuse. I had some contact with him and he led my audition, but I didn’t have a lot of contact with him. I managed to leave in the early stages of puberty so I was probably not on his radar. I don’t remember Fran but she was there when I was, a couple of years above me. What happened to her was so tragic and now that Brewer and his wife are long out of prison, her husband and kids still live with her loss and it’s legacy. One thing is for sure, her death brought hundreds of ex pupils together, largely online, to share and better understand experiences and in some cases prosecute those who abused them. The chain reaction has been immense and affected far more people than those who have publicly testified.
I’m so glad I managed to persuade my parents to let me leave, a process that took 5 years, with every summer holiday an oasis that may or may not end with me having to go back there again. Come that day, like many others, I turned my back on the piano and any involvement in music for ten years. Later I did manage to enjoy getting involved in music I liked for fun, but the instruments I had played at Chet’s always had negative connotations, as did classical music which I was turned off for life. I also had to overcome as best I could a lot of associated insecurity and anxiety, including severe and crippling self-criticism, all of which dated back to Chet’s.
I thought I was the only one who carried the burden of not feeling good enough and feeling I was letting the side down, which was regularly reinforced by the adults around me at Chet’s. Little did I know that this was almost a standard part of the conditioning of pupils at Chet’s. I think the pupil who was confident in their abilities, felt nurtured and supported and enjoyed their music must have been rare. It is only by sharing stories that many of us have probably realised this.
Whilst my time at the school was unhappy, I fully realise that my stories pale in comparison to the horrendous accounts of abuse we now know. My heart goes out to all those who were sexually abused. It also goes out to those who were physically assaulted, bullied and otherwise abused and who were negatively affected by the toxic atmosphere and regime of Chet’s, as you would be. That would include me I suppose and I realise now would bring it to a very large number, perhaps even the majority of ex pupils. What is worse there seems to have been a similar culture in many other schools and colleges.
Although my memories are quite trivial in comparison to the worst excesses, I think they all form part of the context and culture within which the worst things happened. Even the things I remember and went through there were unacceptable and not something a child should have to deal with. I would certainly never send any child of mine to a place like that or accept them being treated in any of those ways.
I think that the accounts and memories from the past are still very relevant today, because there is no real evidence to show that all the welfare concerns are behind us and that the culture of Chet’s and elsewhere carries none of these negative issues. Even the concept of these schools and sending kids there has to be in question. Is it healthy to convince children they should embark upon a ‘career’ and adult responsibilities to which they should devote most of their time? Even if it is, is it actually being done in a healthy way?
Whilst it is a positive step that the latest head has apologised for past abuses and will communicate with ex pupils, this does not allay all concerns. The apology was after all given under extreme duress and this head has still stuck to the mantra that all these bad things were bad but are firmly in the past and everything is different now. There still isn’t enough humility or self-reflection. I also doubt that all the old guard and old attitudes have been completely shed.
Addendum: I forgot to mention that one music theory teacher, [AB], used to call kids up to the front who had displeased him and hit them over the head with an enormous book. Again, laughed off by him and most of the kids (usually boys), but a really silly, dangerous and violent thing to do in retrospect, not to mention the bullying aspect.
It should also be noted that for the boarders, the bullying and assaults from adults in charge continued into the evening and night by a fair few accounts, including more corporal punishment. I remember visiting a dorm with my boarding friend when we were eight and her telling me about being given ‘apple pie beds’ and how she hated boarding and really missed home. That sounded miserable enough, but I realise it wasn’t the half of it. Needless to say, led by the example of the adults or left unchecked, fellow pupils could also be brutal to boarders within their accommodation.
That has to be another scenario of dubious benefit in addition to the whole music hothouse / sweatshop idea: sending kids as young as seven away from their homes and families to live full time in an institution, for no good reason other than to apparently further their education and their musical ‘careers’ with little thought of their physical and emotional development and wellbeing. In this case this was frequently with bullying and uncaring ‘house parents’. How much more vulnerable those boarders were to sexual abuse as well, far away from their parents, under almost complete control of the school and unable to escape. It was the boarders who had it the worst. They were the most seriously let down.
Even the kind house parents wouldn’t love and care for the kids like their own parents would. How does this set kids up for happy, healthy young lives or indeed adult ones? A really silly, misguided practice in my view. I refuse to accept that this is a healthy way to bring up kids at the best of times, and the best of times it surely wasn’t for Chet’s boarders in the past. Research has been done on the emotional damage done to displaced kids in boarding schools, so I’m not the only one with misgivings and accounts from Chet’s ex-boarders are not the only evidence available on the folly of this.
I started Chet’s in lower sixth and having come from a normal comprehensive school in Greater London I felt very privileged to be a student there. Around the time of my audition I attended one of Chris Ling’s pupils concerts in London. I can remember being blown away by the standard of playing. Chris Ling was sitting in the front row being very flamboyant. In my final violin lesson before I left to go onto Chet’s my violin teacher had a long chat with me. She explained that Chet’s would be a fantastic place for me to blossom, but that I should be wary of some of the male members of staff. No plunging necklines or short skirts she said. Of course being 16 I didn’t pay much attention!
Within a few weeks of starting it became apparent that there had been many inappropriate things going on. Chris Ling had just left, everyone was talking about him and there were many rumours of relationships between pupils and teachers particularly in the string department.
During my first year I got taken out for drinks with another student by one of the violin teachers on many occasion. To be honest I’m not really sure why I went, maybe it was the free booze! He wasn’t even my violin teacher. I guess I felt lucky to be asked in some weird way. I can also remember returning from a night out very scantily dressed with another girl. It must have been late maybe 10.30pm. I walked through the string corridor to fetch my violin to take it up to my dorm and I saw Mike Brewer. I panicked, he looked really sweaty and had this big grin on his face and was looking up and down at us. We started to run off, we were giggling but feeling a bit freaked out to see Brewer at that time of night. He started chasing after us, he was laughing. We ran up the stairs and managed to get back into Palatine through the main door. We had a laugh about it afterwards, Mike Brewer being a pervert as usual! Looking back it seems so wrong!
But I was truly one of the lucky ones and remained unharmed at Chet’s. My playing did blossom, I made some lovely friends, some of which I am still in touch with. I went on to music college and now enjoy a successful career in music. My heart goes out to those who have been so badly affected and had a truly dreadful time at Chet’s.
I’m so sickened reading and hearing all of these reports. I was there from 1990-1996 (from memory).
I don’t remember much of my time there, just snippets? Not sure why this is.
However, I know what I’ve not heard anything about is the other house parents & other staff.. particularly [houseparent] from the [one of the houses in the school] who was in relationships with students. He wasn’t the only one, this was common knowledge across school that relationships between staff and students were happening! Brewer was one of them too in my time. He was in a relationship with the head girl who was in sixth form! I was 2 years below at the time!
Now that I’ve listened and read all of these reports I can remember some awful experiences of staff, for example, throwing a heavy text book at me Cos I had hiccups [name redacted] English teacher telling me I’ll never pass my gcse because I’m too stupid then accusing me of slamming a door in face (I hadn’t seen her behind me?!) – I got an A btw, the same comment from the science teacher – I got a B!
I went on chamber choir tours with Brewer! Did the staff know about the allegations of abuse against him before we went? Therefore putting us at risk! I’d really like to know? All of the staff there should be held accountable not just the few we are hearing about! All the house parents! All teachers…. everyone.
I’m actually a senior safeguarding officer with Manchester City council based in a large primary now!
I was not sexually abused while at Chet’s in the 1970s but my story is just another example of the neglect which was prevalent at the time.
From 1973/4 I had several symptoms, all relating to primary hypothyroidism, which were never picked up on. I had bald patches in my hair, I became increasingly tired (some of my reports said that I was lethargic), I became very depressed and just shut myself off from things so that I have very patchy memories of that time. I suffered such severe constipation that my bowel closed up. This involved me having to go to hospital and have really horrible procedures (completely on my own). My broken hip (a slipped epiphysis which was also related to an undiagnosed underactive thyroid) was not picked up on for 2-3 years; I was treated for a pulled muscle and given some cream to rub on until eventually I was sent for an x-ray. While in hospital I had various other symptoms which indicated that I had had an underactive thyroid for several years. Over this time I had become convinced that I was probably a bit of a hypochondriac and not so good at coping with aches and pains: the opposite turned out to be the case.
There was an utter lack of any pastoral care or creation of a safe and secure environment at Chet’s in the 70s. I could not share with my family how miserable I felt at school as they had enough problems of their own.
When I returned to the sixth form I was inexplicably boarded out to live with the PE teacher and his wife, an experience which further isolated me and for which I have been unable to get any explanation.
After all that has happened, and especially as I am now a mother, I feel so sorry for the girl I was back then. Totally alone and thinking that there was no place for her in the world because she was simply not good enough to exist.
I was at Chets 1970-72 then again 75-77 – I have very fond memories of a lot of that time and some of the freedom we were afforded as teenagers growing up together as a family. I still maintain some of those friendships now.
I just want to share an incident that happened at the end of the Easter term 1976 which took on greater significance when the trial of Michael Brewer became public.
It was the end of the Easter term and for some reason a few girls stayed behind an extra night before going home – there was a party in Miss Woodruff’s flat (Housemistress) which we went to – teachers were also there. A group went off to get pizza and I went to bed. Later that night I woke up to see a figure standing in the doorway of my room – and with dread realised I was the only girl on the corridor. We were in the centre of Manchester and I was the most terrified I’d ever been in my life up to that point – I pretended to be asleep and out of the corner of my eye I recognised it was one of the teachers, not music staff but an academic teacher who was in boys boarding at that time. He stood there for a long time and then came to sit on my bed – I don’t know if he knew I was awake and I can remember very confused feelings, mainly wondering why on earth he was there.. I could smell alcohol on his breath – as long as I feigned sleep we could maintain the status quo. As far as I remember he sat there for a long time – eventually I did pretend to wake up and at that point he got up and left. I can remember the courage it took for me to get out of bed, run down the corridor, through the glass doors, up the stairs to my friends’ room on the top floor. In the morning we went to see Miss Woodruff – all she said was, oh yes- he was a bit drunk last night… Instead of getting the train home I went to tell my then boyfriend – as I was leaving school she came up to me and said, ‘are you absolutely sure it happened?…’
The next term the teacher had left boarding but continued to teach at the school for many years. Nothing was ever said to me about it, although I remember JV coming to talk to me at supper in the Baronial Hall, which was unusual.
I’ve managed to piece all this together with the aid of my teenage diary – we’re talking 40 years ago! Gary Glitter, Jimmy Savile were up there as role models..
Around 2011 the teacher in question sent me a message on Facebook which must have been when Brewers trial started – it was quite breezy and I just thought it was a Facebook weirdo! Of course, later I realised he was watching his own back – I didn’t reply. He seems to have removed his profile now.
It has a significance as this was prior to some of the dreadful abuse that took place in subsequent years and surely JV must have known there was a culture at the school.. Bakst was reported as far back as 1971.
I listened to the live streaming of the Inquiry and cried at the evidence of women in their 40s describing their ordeals –
I actually hated the salacious way the trial and Fran’s suicide were reported and the sensationalism surrounding the ‘story’. However, it had a profound effect on me personally – not only did it make me question the situation I was in at the time relationship-wise, (probably a good thing), it certainly impacted on my teaching job at a private school – somehow, I felt I was tainted by being associated with Chets even though I had been a pupil there, not a member of staff.
Chet’s student 1989-1998.
On watching the inquiry and reading it. I am appalled at Vallins, Hullah and Moreland. Still using cloak and dagger methods (relaying blame elsewhere) to sweep things under the carpet and cover things up. I do not understand why Mrs Rhind or people from the board of governors at the time have also not been called up and made to answer questions. It is quite plain to see they all failed in their duty and the rest of staff there that knew or heard rumours (they were probably scared not to speak up as would lose their own reputation in the music world or job if academic staff).
It is the truth that there was another cover up around the time Brewer left and that was of another housemaster/[academic subject] teacher who had relationships with students.
The school failed massively in its pastoral care and welfare of its students. The whole culture was a toxic environment to grow up in. I myself suffered greatly with anorexia and in adult life have depression/anxiety with the root cause of life at Chet’s that my psychologist/psychiatrist can confirm.
The friends I made and the few staff who really did care about our welfare are the positives and I received an education and piano teaching and musicianship I wouldn’t have received back home. That is no compensation for the awful culture the school thrived on.
I want to see Vallins stripped of his OBE and the Vallins building renamed.
As a wind player, I feel that I was lucky during my time at Chet’s. However, even writing that feels so wrong. Why should there have been pupils who were ‘lucky’ enough to avoid the direct and immediate effects of the culture of abuse that existed there? As with many of my mid-80s contemporaries, there was always gossip about who in the Sixth Form Mike Brewer was involved with, Ling’s Strings and Bakst (to mention just a few) but this was normalised amongst pupils – and in some ways was seen as something to be emulated. From the distance we are now, and as a teacher myself in a boarding school, I’m staggered to consider that this could in any way have seemed to be acceptable.
Pastoral care was essentially lacking – why was it possible for us to spend nights in the boys’ boarding house, spend evenings at the pubs (often with member of staff turning a blind eye) and even be able to spend whole nights out in Manchester? We were essentially left to our own devices in the boarding house with little care or consideration being shown to us.
The testimony of John Vallins in which he simply abdicated all knowledge and responsibility sickened me. I fail to believe that there was no way he knew of this – and if that holds even a grain of truth, then at the very least, he proves himself to have been incompetent as a Headmaster. The complete lack of compassion from him even now is something that I just can’t forgive. I have questions also about how many other members of staff knew what was happening and chose to ignore it – I fail to believe that other senior members of staff were unaware, yet did nothing to address the many concerns.
As with many other ex-pupils, I feel an enormous sense of guilt that I didn’t act upon any of this at the time when friends spoke about such things, but the normalisation of the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse allied with the poor pastoral care meant that there was little understanding and the reputation of the school mattered above all else. That strikes me as such a poor excuse now and I wish I’d been braver at the time – but then, reading others’ comments, would anyone have taken any notice even then?
I arrived at Chetham’s when I was 14, in time to study for my GCSEs and A-levels. I spent my last 4 years of school there, from 1988-92. For my first two years I shared a dormitory first with 4, then with 3 other Chris Ling pupils. I could tell I was different but I didn’t know why. I had arrived at the same time as one of the girls and was really good friends to start with but then she drifted and got closer to the others. As time progressed, I noticed they were much more ‘advanced’ than me (this is what my 14 year old mind called it). They were experimenting with make-up, really extravagant sexy underwear. I always felt a bit of a frump but of course, that’s because I didn’t know what was happening to them. Once the news came out a few years ago, everything immediately made sense to me. I re-connected and found they had been affected, personally and directly, by this horrendous man. Suddenly their premature sexualisation made complete sense. As an adult I was horrified to look back and realise that was why they were so attractive, making such an effort, wearing these underwear garments. It was utterly devastating to learn what happened to them. And to learn that many pupils tried to tell staff and they were ignored or told to be quiet. I am shocked to learn that the very people who were meant to protect us were aiding and abetting abuse on a very large scale. I am fortunate to not have got caught up in anything directly but the school was known to be a chronically unhappy place. For years people teased me, saying everyone who came out of Chet’s was messed up. I thought it was because they practised too much. The other point to make here is I know the boys were very violent towards each other. I can’t help wondering if it was all part of the same terrible dereliction of duty. My friend said the others regularly beat him up. No staff stood in. I would like finally to underline that we were NEVER written to, invited to make statements, offered counselling or any other support. The school has NEVER contacted me about this matter. I am shocked that the school has behaved as it has and then claimed to have involved us. I am lucky to have a great career as a musician but many of my friends have been destroyed by the school. When will it face up to the lives lost to mental and physical ill-health (very serious in the 3 cases I know of)? When will it offer proper compensation to these people?
I was at Chet’s at the time of the Michael Brewer trial and through the subsequent press revelations about the school. Possibly the biggest issue is that my memory is still accompanied by the feelings of a 16-18 year old… a young person in a potentially vulnerable position. It is only when I look back that I realise that I was still very vulnerable at that age and that my understanding of the world was still generally very naive. Naturally the main concern for students at the time was protecting the reputation of the school. This was seen in the online conflicts on Slipped Disc every time a new article was published about Chet’s.
After many years those feelings still exist (though diluted), and I now realise that Chet’s didn’t do anything to support students who were at the school when all this was happening. There was no guidance on how to tackle news reports; no formal discussion about who had been affected or when; no acknowledgement of wrongdoing to the students, or reassurance that we were all safe. The only pieces of guidance we ever received were in the form of Ms Moreland standing up in assembly to tell us the school was being investigated but not to worry and carry on as normal. Ms Moreland was largely out of the picture the rest of the time.
Small class sizes, rigorous curriculum and homework from age seven.
Daily spelling tests, punctuation lessons. We were always encouraged to take books from the extensive library, take care of small rodents. Science with Mr Gee, art with [X], charity awareness from Mrs. Mainprize.
Someone who really stands out from this time was the exceptional music teacher Cecilia Vadja, a Hungarian émigré and pupil of Zoltan Kodaly. She hated and struggled with the ethos of the school which is saying something, coming as she did from behind the iron curtain. I learned so much from her.
There were only six girls in juniors in 1969. Until age eleven I was called only by my surname by my classmates. I developed an aggressive, tomboyish personality as a defence mechanism.
In the early days the only option was to play football in PE. The PE teacher Mr Pessel (before [Y] joined) solved this by allowing myself and two other girls to go to the swimming pool totally unsupervised during double games. Usually a boy would appear to tell us it was time for us to change and return to lessons after morning break. On one occasion this did not happen and we appeared with wet hair much later. For this we were severely punished and made an example of in assembly when it was simply not our fault.
Mr Gee was prone to episodes of mania. I remember the whole Junior A class being forced to write lines for a whole day for some minor misdemeanour by a few pupils.
Mr Vickers acted likewise. You could be bawled at crossing the yard and summoned to his office for a uniform inspection. Offences included not having all your cardigan buttons done up or unpolished shoes.
The Matron (Mrs. Vickers) had designed the girls’ uniform. Picture ‘Call the Midwife’ circa 1955. Originally only available from Henry Barrie, it was all wool and very expensive. You could easily spot a boarding girl because this uniform was ruined, washed out in the school laundry. There was also a school cape which made it impossible to carry anything while wearing it. Imagine on public transport hauling a satchel, violin case and duffel bag with hands protruding through the two small holes in front. All topped off by a blue beret. Losing or not wearing the beret had consequences.
From the time I started in Junior B, every breaktime we played cards in the class room. The game was Beggar my Neighbour. The loser of each round had to remove an item of clothing or show their genitals for an increasing amount of time. A ‘sentry’ on the door alerted us when the teachers were returning from the staff room.
Around age ten, swimming lessons consisted of us playing underwater kiss chase in full view of the staff supervisor.
School Camp – Around 1972
The school bus driven by Mr Tyler!
Cocoa in the marquee.
Complete freedom of movement.
It was run on strict military lines by Brian Raby, with accommodation which consisted of canvas army tents.
Communal cricket and rounders.
One night I organised a group of girls to sing in a seaside talent competition in Llandudno. What the trippers made of four part Kodaly folk songs is anybody’s guess!
A bizarre holiday that quickly progressed from ‘St. Trinian’s’ to ‘Lord of the Flies’.
All previous testimony about camp is true. ‘Staking Out’ could be done in the field or worse case, ‘suspended over the bog pit’. The game ‘Split the Kipper’ was played where your legs were progressively extended to the splits position. It was played with penknives or even larger lethal knives. There was no supervision.
There were a couple of boys, who had probably just left Upper Sixth, with whom [X] spent a lot of time. Every day one of them would rub suntan cream all over her on Deganwy beach. There was a lot of tinkering with her sports car as well. In retrospect I think there was a lot more to it than this…
At night the tents became orgies as the sexes mingled. I didn’t really understand what was going on at the time as I was very young. My father paid a visit and interrupted a daytime tryst on arrival. That was the last time I was allowed to attend.
In the day we fished for crabs. At night we walked them over the top of the nearby quarry and cheered.
I wore the same clothes including underwear for ten days. Nobody noticed or cared.
I encountered some exceptional and inspiring teachers, including Mr Richie, Mr McFarlane (a true eccentric), Mr Leach (15th century polyphony anyone? & Peter Sellers comedy records), Penry Williams and Mrs James, both of whom taught history.
I would put many of the staff in this category, including my first teacher who sent me for a trial lesson with Bakst when I was thirteen. I commented ‘He looks frigid’ and she said ‘Don’t you believe it’.
[Z]. A horrible bully (and I think a former policeman) who called me arrogant and always addressed me as Mozzzzzzzart after a mispronunciation with my Lancashire accent. There was a kind of show and tell in his lesson, every week we were encouraged to bring in our favourite recordings. My Brandenburg Concerto was abruptly turned off with the comment ‘terrible recording’. This was the sort of thing that destroyed confidence in a moment. I was terribly humiliated.
[AA]. A PE teacher and Housemistress. Straight from the cast of Prisoner Cell Block H. She would drag us into the showers by our bra straps, insist we undress and watch. I remember her forcing anti-smoking medication down a girl I knew. She was a sadist.
Nobody took much notice of me musically until I was about 13. I hated practising and gradually my inbuilt talent was eroded by the daily grind. All that changed when I became a Bakst pupil. Once on this fast track my playing improved. At the same time the sex abuse started. The worst of it was lessons at his house in Prestwich, ostensibly extra work before a concert. He would put on a record, sit close on the chaise longue, grasp my hand and place it on his lap. He had a peculiar odour, a sweet sickly mixture of cologne and sweat. All the while with his (much younger, stunning) Polish wife and infant child downstairs.
At school, he did the same sort of thing but would leave the room and return ten minutes later! I won’t elaborate further, as you already know about this from other testimonies.
The point about it is that by the age of sixteen I was being encouraged by Bakst to devote myself completely to the piano. So I went to Vallins and asked if I could give up all academic work and concentrate only on performing. Amazingly he and other members of staff agreed to this despite me having done well at ‘O’ level. So for the whole of the sixth form that’s what I did, only walking into the ‘A’ level music exam on the day. What I didn’t realise was that without two ‘A’ levels I couldn’t get a grant to continue at music college. Finally my local authority relented on condition that I did another A’ level which I did at night school. This is an example of the lack of knowledge and care that occurred on Vallins’ watch.
LATER YEARS – OUT OF HOURS
Here is a description of boarding life at the time. We all smoked, every lunch and breaktime in the toilets in Girls’ Boarding House.
Sometimes there were Saturday night parties at day pupil’s houses. The school presumably imagined birthday cakes and candles but they always degenerated into a drunken sexual free for all. Liberal seventies parents often disappeared for the duration.
Some sixth form boy boarders slept in a block of classrooms with the traditional storeroom at the back of each room. This is where the home brew was made. By this time we had keys to every door in the school and at night (after a swim) we would raid the kitchen for coffee, butter, bread and many more things that would also be kept in suitcases in the storeroom. At night I often used to sleep with my boyfriend at the top of Millgate House under the eaves. Several years later Vallins found our sleeping bags up there and there was a big investigation – too late. We also used my BF’s tuba case to transport bedding and booze if we wanted to meet up in Palatine in the evening. Sometmes we would be disturbed by David Usher, Brewer’s deputy. He would rattle the door handle in frustration but could do nothing. But he was one of the good guys….
As were [House parents AA and AB], Junior House. They made a real effort to understand and help me in the sixth form but I was off the rails by then. When the school doctor put me on the pill [AB] commented “how convenient”.
At weekends I used to tell school I was visiting my father. In fact I was attending parties all over the country with my boyfriend.
He knew the date of the sixteenth birthdays of all his female students. They were always invited to celebrate outside school on that day! He struck me as a weak and repulsive individual but there was no interaction with him as I was not a string player.
His camper van was always conveniently parked outside Palatine House. I was not in his ‘clique’ so never got to know anything of his crimes.
I agree with previous comments made about the ethos of music education. I could have been good at many things given the ten thousand hours theory. Instead I was narrowcast in a musical educational experiment. I believe music is an adult emotion and that the process of cauterisation, instilling Western sonata form in young brains is a destructive act. It is the opposite of creativity. The very best can survive and flourish as musicians. The rest are gradually deprived of the thing that originally gave them joy.
I have not played the piano since 1984.
As a former Chetham’s pupil (border for six years) in the era of both H. Vickers and the then moderniser JV , I feel in a position to say how I saw the writing on the wall for the situation that is now so evident. In my early days bullying was endemic at Chetham’s, in the way it probably was in the armed forces and any other closed institution.
The school had limited resources for control of children unseen, and it was left to a hierarchical system of older boys and the staff to be the ones in charge of the micromanagement on a day to day basis.
I was slippered in the sixth form study block surrounded by onlooking prefects. The flashman of the day was warming the sole on the side of a door to make it malleable and more effective, while the prefects ate sandwiches and laughed. They even threw one at me as I waited for my punishment.
A boy sitting in an armchair on the school yard outside in winter at very low temperatures with a dressing gown only. He had been talking after lights out and this was his punishment. I sent him back to bed and an argument ensued with the staff member because I had undermined his authority!
I was threatened with a knife by a member of staff who, incorrectly, said I had been spreading rumours about him having an affair with one of the sixth form. There was absolutely no possibility to share this threat because I knew, as we all did, that stories like that would undermine the schools public image. It would be denied !! I had to live with that threat 24/7.
I could write a complete book but you get the idea…….
As JV went about his business as a moderniser he took his eye off the ball. His suggestions that the music department had autonomy is consistent with his denial of the issues for which he is responsible.
As a prefect there myself I had many occasions on which to question the suitability of the house staff.
John Vallins walked up to me as we waited on the yard one day before I left and said out of earshot of anyone else “I told you to get your bloody haircut and if you weren’t leaving in three days I would throw you out”. The venom took me aback . I had put more of my life into that place than he could imagine and it almost destroyed my feelings for the the school. His only objective was to be totally in charge. I represented the old Chethams and he wanted to expunge that establishment and for it to become a new order under his stewardship.
To conclude! If Chethams had spent more of its energy looking after its children and less after its oh so inflated status in the world of music education people like Brewer and Ling would never had been allowed to flourish. It was a breeding ground for the swamp life below the surface. The school were so busy producing brochures and fundraising new buildings to they had lost their sense of priority!
I feel ashamed to be associated with the place now. When I was there I don’t believe the grooming had started . Brewer was there in my last year but had not achieved a position of power at that time. His presence seemed minimal it seemed.
My sincere sympathies to all those young people who were affected by what became an evil regime. There were some good people working there, and this diminishes their efforts and their memories.
I was at Chet’s in the early-mid 90s. I flourished musically and academically, and was given many performance opportunities, so I was one of the lucky ones.
However, I have memories of the overly sexualised environment, and also of the prevalence of eating disorders, self-harm and even suicide attempts, particularly amongst the girls.
I was a member of Chamber Choir, and also had aural classes with Brewer, so I spent quite a lot of time with him, and remember his pervy ways. He liked the chamber choir kids, we were his pet students i think. Lots of people thought he was having a relationship with a girl in the Chamber Choir, then when she left, he moved onto RS187, which led to his dismissal in 1994.
He used to get me to sort out piles of choir music in his office in the evening after dinner, and he used to come up behind me and massage my shoulders. He was usually in school until late, probably 10 pm.
He had a copy of Madonna’s book “Sex”, which was a sort of coffee table book of soft porn photos. He seemed to be delighted to have acquired this book, and invited me to have a look at it with him. I was really embarrassed. I think he also used to go on about what a good book it was in chamber choir rehearsals, or perhaps in our aural class.
He used to sprawl on a deckchair near the entrance to Palatine House, bare-chested with these green shorts, and leer at the girls as we walked into Palatine.
In choir, he took every opportunity to be smutty and crude, and used to make innuendos all the time. We used to sing a madrigal called “Hard by a crystal fountain” and he would make a big innuendo out of this. He was really excessive about it.
We were working on Kodaly Psalmus Hungaricus, and he wanted us to be expressive on the words “este könyörgök” so he said “Have you achieved “nyörgök” today?” Nearly everything he did was framed in terms of sex.
We were well aware that he was perverted, and we used to call him Screwer Brewer. I remember being in Palatine near the string corridor, telling a friend “Oh my God, Brewer was so perverted today” then he suddenly appeared from round the corner. He had heard me, and made a big deal of me having hurt his feelings. I don’t think he was really hurt though, he was smiling at me. I just felt really awkward.
There was also amazing music-making and some wonderful academic teaching. Mr. Little was a superb, inspiring English teacher. Academic music with John Leach, Robert MacFarlane, Stuart Beer and Sam King was excellent. Brewer, although deeply flawed and predatory, was an inspiring and charismatic choir conductor, and his aural classes were fun and challenging. I think that was partly why he got away with it all for so long, and why some girls fell for his advances.
I was the first and only junior boarding girl for some time in 1969. I was 8. I arrived a couple of weeks later than the other girls and was put in a room with 3 other girls older than me. I was violently sick the first day there and totally confused by everything. I wet my bed in the first few weeks and my mattress was paraded by the housemistress Mrs Stevens, in front of the other girls.
My first memory of complete isolation when I first went there, was standing in the middle of the yard and there seemed to be no one there in the whole school. I stood there crying not knowing what to do. Eventually a woman came up and asked me what was wrong. Apparently everyone was doing prep somewhere. She sent me to the refectory and there was all the bigger children there. I sat and did some work and only days later found that I was supposed to go to the junior school for it. I’ve never forgotten that feeling of being completely abandoned.
My Mother sent me some money at one stage, there wasn’t ever a lot in our family but the same person told my Mother not to send any more as I spent it in sweets. The two day girls in the two younger junior years had been going up to ‘Matron’ for tea and biscuits when I came along. They took me with them. After I had been there twice, Matron announced that I shouldn’t come anymore as I only came for the biscuits. ( Did I mention I was starving?) I’ve never forgotten the solidarity from the other two girls, they decided to stop going too.
My Mother told me that after my first half term, I came home with a suitcase full of diarrhoea covered clothes and everything fastened with safety pins. I fainted in church one Sunday morning because I was starving, I used to go to the 9 o’clock service as well as the other one we had to go to. I would go because we got tea and toast with butter afterwards. I had dry bread at school for 5 years as the ‘axle grease’ made me violently sick. Nobody looked after me at all that first year until Mrs. Littler came. She was strict but kind and tried to be a bit of a mother to me, when my beloved Grandfather died, she took me up to her flat and also another time when I had a suspected appendix, she let me sleep in her flat to keep an eye on me.
There was also an incident with the swimming pool that was mentioned in an earlier post. We were left down in the pool 7 and 8 year olds unsupervised, whilst the boys played football , a boy would come and get us and the end of games. One time we were left down there and admonished in front of the whole school, not the master who always left us there.
There was a doctor who came to inspect the girls, only the younger ones as I remember. We would be told to strip to our pants only and lined up waiting to go into the staff common room. Matron would be standing behind the doctor and we would file forward for our “ check up” and he would look down our pants and send us on our way.
Harry Vickers and Matron were vile to me the whole time and Boss would put me down constantly and ask me why I couldn’t hold up my viola like everyone else and other comments whenever he saw me. She was almost worse, so bitchy and uncaring. Musically it was great the first year, my violin teacher was Colin Callow and he treated me really well and used to make me play little things to some of the older pupils. He left after a year( I was very sad) and I went to David Usher and I told him I wanted to swap to Viola. He was a nice man but he sacked me after 3 years as I didn’t practice enough. He couldn’t even remember teaching me in later years and remembered me as a horn player in his wind ensembles. My horn teacher was wonderful, Andrew Jones, sadly no longer with us.
Later on there was an occasion when an older girl returned to say hello and came down our corridor to see us. Mrs Orchard came up and said “ Who are you” and it was said back to her by the girl. She was told to leave and I and two others saw her out.
Later that week we were called to the common room where Mrs Orchard and Harry Vickers were. They told us off for talking behind Mrs Orchard’s back. We hadn’t.
Boss pulled down my pants, over his knee and smacked me. After that incident Boss ordered all the doors to be taken of our dorms. He would come down our corridor unannounced quite often.
I also ran away with another girl , very unsuccessfully, we laugh about it now but I was told by boss if I did it again I’d be expelled. I was deeply depressed for the rest of my time there. My form teacher in my first year in the senior school , William Clarke, otherwise known as WC or bog face, gave a report that said ‘[Redacted]’s attitude to school and life is deplorable’. I have had a complete block to do with maths and French since then because of him.
There are more stories but too many to put here. The other children were pretty great and I have really close friends from there still. One older girl was lovely to me in my first couple of terms and tried to look after me though she was young herself. She knows who she is and I am forever grateful. There was one boy I won’t forgive for bullying me, he knows who he is.
Chetham’s made me fiercely independent to start with and gave me a huge contempt for authority. It also made me hate any sort of injustice.
I gave up playing finally a few years ago after a pretty successful orchestral career but complete burn out in the end. I had been playing professionally since the age of 15. When I gave up I heaved a huge sigh of relief, I realised that I’d always done it for someone else. I still teach amongst other things. I’ve found my voice since freeing myself. I left in 74.
In my first piano lesson as a homesick twelve-year-old the teacher asked me to play a piece. When I had finished he leaned his head back in a supercilious fashion and said ‘Oh dear, what a poor admission’. He then paced around the room repeating it several times. I’m not sure that my self-esteem/confidence as a musician ever completely recovered from that moment and occasionally, I still dream about it 45 years later. It was not, however, the only instance when I was made to feel like a second rate musician who really shouldn’t have been at Chet’s. It took some time after I left to realise that my worth as a person was not inextricably linked to my merit as a musician.
I was a boarder at the school between 1982-1987. I’ll cover three areas – how much I knew in the 80’s about the abuse and the culture in general, Mr. Vallins, and [houseparent from group A].
In my first term, I was warned by older girls never to accept a ‘babysitting’ invitation from Michael Brewer for extra pocket money. When students went to his house, ostensibly to watch his kids, he didn’t go out, instead made sexual advances once the children were asleep with promises of helping their careers.
He had a camper van permanently parked on the middle of the playground and no-one on the staff questioned it. It was an open secret that he had affairs with female students.
[Cello teacher X] repeatedly asked my room-mate (aged 13) to practice naked and masturbate and to tell him how she felt. She never did and as a result he lost interest in her as a student, she begged to be a first study singer. She reported him, Brewer did nothing. [X] was an alcoholic who drank vodka in lessons then sipped men’s cologne to hide it – you could smell where [X] had been, the Palatine corridors reeked of alcohol and cheap cologne.
Two of my other life-long friends were molested by Bakst from the age of 11. One unnecessary hand under an arm to ‘assist’ fingering so he could rub a breast, on the floor to ‘help’ pedalling, hand up skirt – shall I go on? Not isolated events, but continuous. They spoke openly of it at the time. They felt they couldn’t ask for another teacher – in a culture where ‘best’ was all, he was at the top of the pedagogic tree in the piano department and Brewer couldn’t care less about harm.
Even a relatively green teenager from [redacted] who didn’t study the violin realised Chris Ling was ‘wrong’, so the claim by Vallins that academic and music staff were separate, therefore didn’t know anything about him, is ridiculous. Ling announced his arrival at school with an almighty horn tune emanating from his naff white Mazda as he passed under the Gatehouse, in front of the staff room (door always open, staff watching). His chest hair and medallions were never out of view. If that spelled wrong to a teenager, how come it didn’t to adults who were supposed to be protecting minors?
Pip Clarke, his widow, was in my class. She was showing off her engagement ring (to Ling) when she was 16. She wasn’t exactly a retiring violet, very garrulous. No teacher spotted that, heard anything?
My piano teachers were [Y] (for 2 years) and [Z] (for 3 years). [Z] was immaculate in every respect as a teacher. [Y] – in thrall to Bakst – was a horror. I learned my place at Chethams from Brewer. [Y]’s tantrums were simply proof of her exceptional ability as a teacher, she was emotional and would bring out the emotion in me.
Having bruises on an arm where you’ve been hit repeatedly with a volume of Bach’s 48, screamed at for one wrong note, my music case (bought by my father, he didn’t have much money) thrown around the room, Beethoven sonatas thrown at you, then ‘I didn’t mean it, lets go to Chloe and you can help me choose my dress for my concert comeback’ was standard fare with [Y].
John Vallins tutored me on a one-to-one basis before my Oxford Entrance exams and was my teacher for A level English. He was a misogynist of the first order and never missed an opportunity to belittle women with a plethora of Shakespearean quotes to back his argument during lessons. A girl wearing eyeshadow was a ‘concubine’, and once our texts were Anthony and Cleopatra and Lear, he was in vituperative heaven – the women were to blame for everything, the men led astray. He would examine our fingernails for signs of paint/degeneracy as he wafted through the room with halitosis, then unleash his skewed interpretations, never at fault, never to be questioned.
Aged 17, I knew him to be morally stupid, but very aware. So fixated by sex would have made him doubly aware of anyone else enjoying it on his territory. By the Upper Sixth Form, [houseparents B] requested I be Head of House and Head Girl. When [houseparents A] arrived they behaved as if royalty from the first day, [redacted information]. They took one look at me, it was a case of mutual detestation. I think they knew I saw through them instantly.
Within a week, my having a period so bad I was bent double, according to them meant I was unfit to lead. I was stripped of head girl, prefect and head of house titles. My parents phoned – Vallins ‘it’s not up to me.’ The [houseparents A] never accepted phone calls from my parents and never responded. I had never broken a school rule.
Twice weekly, [houseparent A] would find me to humiliate me, always when no-one else was present, sitting on the end of my bed. That it was such a pity I had no class, that my clothes were so poor, and that was why I’d never understand that Oxford was beyond me.
When it came to my Oxford entrance exam, on a Monday, given permission by Vallins to go home early the previous Friday, I found my suitcase had disappeared from my room when I was about to go home. There was no note. I thought it had been stolen, all my notes in it, I ran up to the [houseparents A]’ flat to report it. I was asked to step inside with a smile.
The [houseparents A] had removed it. Because I’d been given permission to go home early by Vallins, they didn’t approve of. it They kept me there for two hours, instructed me in humility, Mr [houseparent A]’s low-brow effort was:
‘Do you know what an anarchist is?’
‘Yes – ‘
‘You’re a failed one as long as we are here.’
In the interim, my father, 66, waiting for 4 hours at the unmanned [redacted] Station, which not seeing me arrive from a train, began to panic. No mobile phones. Mother beginning to panic. My father had had two cardiac arrests. I arrived home, having left Manchester at 7pm instead of 3pm, around midnight. For no reason other than cruelty and schadenfreude.
Why didn’t my parents complain? For the same reason no-one else did – Vallins could be threatening by doing nothing.
[Houseparent A] continued to bully me on my academic achievement, music, my appearance, my parents’ class throughout my final year. Mainly by using her daughter as a comparison.
‘You know why [daughter] will always be a success?’
‘No. I’m not sure.’
‘[Daughter] is special. You have to be special to go to Oxford. You are not – the sooner you accept this, the sooner you will be happy. [Daughter] has a something you’ll never understand.’
This happened every week during my last year. On the edge of my bed with an insincere smile wishing me ill.
How I dealt with that was to leave Chethams every weekend. The [houseparents A] were thick, they refused to accept that the people they bullied were far brighter than they were.I spent every Saturday in London – an early train, The Tate, The British Museum, a Simon Gray matinee – or Yorkshire, in Top Withens, that walk from Emily Bronte’s Parsonnage. Anyone notice I was gone? No. So how did the [houseparents A] notice who was harmed?
My mother is a retired secondary school literature teacher, now 83, who had a mini stroke a few weeks ago and is still far from well. She sacrificed much to make up the difference in the fees not covered by my government grant. Listening to the evidence given about [houseparent A] made her BP shoot through the roof (I have to check it several times a day). She felt it was necessary to listen to it as she had entrusted me to her care and knew how cruelly I’d been treated by her.
Thirty-two years on, [houseparent A]’s odious neglect of student welfare is still causing harm and distress. She and her husband were utterly unfit to be house parents. I understand [daughter of houseparent A] is no longer Deputy Head. That is a source of some comfort; I cannot believe the apple fell so far from its poisoned branch given the culture of entitlement that existed in that family while at the school.
I am only one of hundreds of students seriously hurt by staff at Chethams.
I was in year 5 at Chetham’s in 1962, which is the year the bullying and abuse became unbearable, and I walked out. The bullying began on my first day, before registration, when I was singled out by Arthur George for negative comments, including being called Phyllis. The bullying became worse, escalating to sexual abuse, and Operation Kiso, (to whom many thanks) recorded two crimes as having been committed against me, by Arthur George and Donald Clarke. No further action could be taken, as both are deceased. One of my peers in year 5 has remained in continuous contact with the school, until recently being involved with the governance of the school. For the school to deny that abuse has happened, continuously, since the 1950’s is deceitful and hugely personally distressing.
I was a scholarship student at Chet’s between 1996 and 2000. I wasn’t sexually abused, but am still dealing with the effects of the emotional and physical abuse, mostly at the hands of the houseparents and my piano teacher (a female). When I complained that my piano teacher had slapped me hard across the face (when she caught me doing my maths homework in practise time), and would often dig her nails into my arms in lessons, the houseparent told me to stop bothering people with “my chavvy drama” otherwise my scholarship would be in danger.
This houseparent and her husband (a French teacher there at the time) regularly mocked, humiliated and belittled me, to the point where I became a pariah to the other girls who were scared of it happening to them too, and who started to join in the bullying to curry favour with them. When we had pizza or icecream treats, there were always reasons why I “didn’t deserve them” and was made to sit alone at the back of the room whilst the others enjoyed a treat; they would inform me that letters had arrived for me by post, then would withhold them for weeks. On my 16th birthday, my gifts, cards and flowers were kept from me for so long, the flowers were given to me dead and wilted. I was constantly told that I was worthless, and mocked for being stupid (my GCSE results said otherwise), untalented (my future career said otherwise), fat (have issues with eating to this day) and “ridiculous” (they mocked my high voice and accent and often imitated me even when just answering the register). The wife pushed me into walls, grabbed my hair and stopped my from using the phone to call home if I was crying or she thought I would tell and would sit by the phone to control what I said to my parents. Once on a Saturday outing, I had an icecream cone in my hand, and the husband hit my hand so that my icecream hit my in the face, to make the other students laugh. They constantly threatened me with my scholarship and place at the school and how much it would embarrass my family and end my career in music.
One time, I woke up to find my long hair cut partially in chunks while I was sleeping. It was Alton Towers day, so she gave me a cap, told me to tuck my hair up and sort it out myself the next day. No effort was ever made to find out who did it, or to comfort me and take me to sort my hair out. At one point, she had me sent to live in the sick bay for half a term under some excuse, completely excluding me from the other kids.
My piano teacher also told me how untalented I was, how a scholarship was wasted on me, hitting me on the hands with rulers, pushed me off a piano stool, and would often come into my practise room and slap me – quite often, I would spend practise time sobbing at the piano, and if she saw that I was in for it. It totally affected my love of playing and I soon lost interest and did anything I could to get out of performing, for fear of the repercussions behind closed doors, or the mockery.
Now that I’m an adult and a teacher myself, I can’t believe how they justified any of this, and how they got away with it. It still affects me to this day in terms of self-confidence, feelings of being undeserving, and I’m still working through the trauma. The school on my CV does wonders for me, but I would have preferred to stay in my little rural hometown with a piano teacher who didn’t hit me around and better adults for role models. The headteacher, head of piano, other house-staff and teachers all told me either that I was mistaken, exaggerating, or to not make trouble for myself by speaking out. That was the culture at Chet’s.
I only recently tried reading other people’s accounts of abuse, I’ve stayed away from it all because I couldn’t cope with the memories. I hope that anyone else abused there, sexually, physically, emotionally, or other, have found happiness in their lives now. Much love.
In a recent social media post, cellist, composer and musicologist Franklin Cox wrote something I found inspiring and rather beautiful, and wanted to make public (with permission). The idea of musicians and scholars as ‘custodians’ of a tradition is deeply unfashionable, especially in academia, as historical or other study not concerned with maximum commercial utility are increasingly marginalised. There is plenty of work for those dealing with commercial pop music or ludomusicology (the study of music for video games) but dwindling numbers of positions for historical or analytical musicologists other than in the most elite institutions. The ‘contemporary’ is viewed as synonymous with ‘relevance’, and the mindset of former Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast Patrick Johnston, who told the Belfast Telegraph that ‘Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old that’s a sixth century historian’, appears to be relatively commonplace amongst many educators, educationalists, and politicians dealing with education.
But I do believe very strongly in the responsibility of scholars for maintaining, extending and supplementing knowledge of thousands of years of music, culture, language. To be such custodians need not preclude a rigorous and critical attitude towards such a tradition, or critical engagement with its more questionable associated or embedded ideologies or practices. On the contrary, such approaches, when undertaken constructively and intelligently rather than simply in a spirit of off-hand dismissal, are essential in order to keep such a tradition a living concern. But to stand by and do nothing as study of this tradition (or of languages, or any art form) is allowed to wither is an act of profound irresponsibility on the part of any musician or scholar. When one has a situation as related to me recently in one leading music department, when not one third year undergraduate was able to hum the opening theme of the Eroica (though plenty of those will have heard about how canonical works such as this represent hegemony, white supremacy, and so on), there is something very seriously wrong.
The depth and potential of any given present is dependent on its knowledge of the past. By default, the animal needs will define any present–food, reproduction, entertainment, war, and so forth.
It is only owing to the depth of the historical heritage of English literature that Joyce’s work reached the level it did. He was acutely conscious of the high standards of the literary tradition he was working in. There was great literature in this tradition ages ago, and the tradition has been nourished continuously. If you are immersed in this heritage, you have some notion of what is required to contribute to it; second-rate work is bound to appear shoddy. But if people surrender the effort of learning this heritage, it’s probable that second-rate work will become the norm. Unfortunately, this process is sweeping through the American educational system.
There’s a similar heritage in art music. You have access to all of the historical music you were referring to owing to the immense efforts of earlier musicians. I feel a duty to learn about, cherish, and pass this tradition on to the next generation. It’s increasingly difficult to do this as higher education is converted into a fast food education industry.
These traditions won’t be passed on automatically; by default, the cheapest and easiest solution will be found. Each generation will have to find a new way to defend these traditions.
Nick Gibb is right about many things to do with music education, but good intentions need to be paid forPosted: January 13, 2019
The Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, published an article on Friday, in the Times (‘Forget Spotify: I want every child to leave primary school able to read music’, The Times, 11 January 2019). This is behind a paywall, but Gibb has also posted the article on his blog so all can read it.
He describes being introduced to classical music at primary school, through various pieces designed in part for children by Britten, Saint-Saëns and Prokofiev, then singing works of Handel, Parry and Allegri in choir, but realises rightly that fewer children are benefiting from similar experiences, and with that in mind worked with various institutions to devise a recommended playlist. Gibb also absolutely notes that classical music is certainly not the only tradition or the only one to teach, also drawing attention to jazz and folk, music from Senegalian and Indian traditions, and the power of mass choral singing. He goes on to say:
I want every child to leave primary school able to read music, understanding sharps and flats, to have an understanding of the history of music, as well as having had the opportunity to sing and to play a musical instrument.
Noting that little was affected in terms of music education by 2012 reforms to the national curriculum, he expresses the following worry:
I am concerned that too few pupils are benefiting from a sufficiently rigorous approach to it. Like so many things, music requires, patience, dedication and application. No one ever woke up one morning playing the guitar like Eric Clapton.
I could not agree more with all the above sentiments, and deplore the fact that focused and rigorous musical education, or exposure to music over and above what might be encountered on an everyday basis (which Gibb frames in terms of ‘Spotify playlists’), are increasingly unavailable to all except a few, mostly those who are privately educated. And of course, as those who followed the 2017 public debates on musical notation, absolutely agree with him that every child should be able to leave primary school being able to read music (except of course those who have special learning needs or difficulties, but the same could be said about any type of reading). For more on this, see the response to the 2017 article by Charlotte C. Gill on music notation, and my follow-up article in The Conversation (‘The insidious class divide in music teaching’, 17 May 2017).
Gibb continues by noting a new panel of musicians and educationalists who he has tasked to draw up a new musical curriculum for primary schools. Details of this panel can be found here, an impressive list of individuals. He also notes a £1.33 million funding boost to music education hubs.
All of this is good and springs from the best intentions. But there is more to it than that. There are wider issues of cuts to music in secondary schools, not least because of pressure on pupils to take subjects in the EBacc. Nonetheless, however important this subject is, Gibb is speaking here about primary schools, so I will stick to those. A facile tweet from children’s author Michael Rosen asked ‘has he [Gibb] consulted with music teachers on this matter? Is Gibb an expert on music education? Can he read music? What has it done for him?’ No Schools Minister will ever be an expert on all areas of education, and Gibb has made clear that he is consulting a wide range of individuals involved in music education. Whether he himself can or cannot read music I do not know (I would suspect so on the basis of some of the choral repertoire he mentions having sung), but that is irrelevant as to whether he wants others to be able to learn it.
A group of musicians published a letter in the Observer in May 2018 expressing huge concern about the decline in instrumental music teaching in primary schools. In response the Department of Education noted that they were investing almost £500m in music and arts education programmes between 2016 and 2020. £300m of this was for music education hubs, and £120m for the Music and Dance Scheme, which enables some to attend specialist music schools. This amounted in 2018/19 to £75 million of ring-fenced funding to the hubs. But as detailed in an important survey from the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), wider cuts to their budgets greatly limit schools’ ability to buy in services or replace and repair instruments, while excessive pressure for accountability in other subjects, especially maths and English, lead to music’s being marginalised within the curriculum. Many respondents noted the decline in the number of staff in school music departments, or how music teaching is allocated to other types of teachers, or conversely music teachers are having to teach outside their subject area. Others commented on how the hubs remain short of cash, and instrumental tuition is often offered just for one year, in the context of schools in which little else goes on musically. Whole Class Ensemble Teaching (WCET), has been found increasingly to be available for less than one term, while there are few routes to progress beyond this to further musical education after WCET has ended. Access to singing teaching was also found to have declined.
Gibb’s intentions are good, but clearly more is needed. If he is serious about his wishes, money needs to be found and ring-fenced for dedicated music teachers within primary schools, over and above what is provided by the hubs. Furthermore, there should be proper tests to ensure such teachers have the fundamental music skills, including notational and aural skills, which alas are no longer necessarily guaranteed even by possession of a music degree. Teachers who cannot themselves read music are obviously unable to teach children to do so. I hope very much the committee will take account of the concerns of organisations such as the ISM and others who have been looking at these issues for some time, and in light of their recommendations Gibb or any successor will match their intentions with the appropriate resources and provision of time within the curriculum.
The pianist Peter Donohoe recently posted an interesting piece of text on social media, in response to a question posed on Quora: ‘Is classical music truly “superior” to the popular music of any era? And, if so, why is it?’. There has been many a debate within musicological circles on this issue, not least as relate to the shaping of curricula for music education. In Anglophone musicology, it is very rare to find many scholars who would argue for any primary importance for classical music, with the result often being that it is becoming increasingly marginalised in a good deal of institutions. Those who have read this blog will know this is not a situation I favour, and have posted various things relating to the subject: see for example this set of responses to a radio talk given by Simon Zagorski-Thomas on a related subject, also another set of responses to an article by Stella Duffy on the arts, elitism and community (and this follow-up), not to mention the debate on teaching musical notation in schools following an article by Charlotte C. Gill. I have also posted some related articles on musical canons, and this on deskilling in musical education.
The dominant ideologies within academia are by no means necessarily shared more widely in the musical world – indeed can be quite antagonistic. I believe it is very important to encourage a wider discourse, involving many who care about music, on these subjects, and so with permission I am posting Donohoe’s text here, and also part of a response of my own drawing on a paper I gave on a few occasions in 2018 in musicological populism.
I welcome further responses from any angle (but would request that people refrain from any personalised insults or abuse towards others, and just address the arguments).
The following is Donohoe’s response:
This is a reply to recent tweet asking me my opinion of this: The tweeter in question asks: ‘Could it just be an era thing?’
It is only related to the era in that the determination with which the mediocre seeks to defeat the excellent is gaining ground.
However good pop music is – I include all the other brackets such as rock, country, blues, etc – by the side of the best classical music, it is always primarily commercialised, it is always primarily aimed at a majority audience, it is always the product of less skill on the part of both performer and listener, and it is always short-lived – even 40 years, as in the lasting effect of The Beatles is nothing compared to the greatest classical music. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles were all fantastic in their field, but not in the same field as the best classical music.
By what authority or standard of measurement is Jimi Hendrix the equal of Franz Liszt? The question also applies all the other absurd claims made in this piece. Dylan’s lyrics are more complex and deeper than the libretto of Mozart’s operas? The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as complex as a Haydn string quartet? The Beatles were every bit as ground-breaking as Beethoven. Give me a break – this is utter twaddle and has no basis in analysis. And who said greatness equates to complexity?
Pop music does not need to be taught as it is at its best a reactive protest against the status quo – in which case if it becomes part of the status quo it has no function – and at its worst it has considerably less content than most nursery rhymes, no harmonic grammar, no sense of shape, form and no skill. That it can be better than that is undoubtedly true, and I have a deep affection for certain pieces of pop music from across the years of my life, but to suggest that it equates to the best classical music is ridiculous, pretentious, and to my mind makes a mockery of popular culture, and its position in society.
The following is part of my response:
The arguments above about popular music being commercialised (with which I agree) would certainly make a significant body of musicologists unhappy, and they try to deny, that there is any real alternative. For example:
‘Although we live in a commercially dominated culture, the music industry, despite its many faults, more closely approaches a meritocracy and offers opportunities to a wider spectrum of artists than any other form of support – certainly more than the patronage systems of old. Music by women can continue to flourish in the public sphere, but only so long as it manages to sell tickets and recordings: the unexpected success of the Lilth Fair concerts, featuring exclusively female artists, confirmed not only the artistry of the participating musicians but also the willingness of a mass audience to support their efforts.’
Susan McClary, ‘Women and Music on the Verge of the New Millenium’, Signs, vol. 25, no. 4 (Summer 2000), pp. 1285-6.
‘…the condemnation of fusion for its commercial success drastically underestimates the vitality, subtlety, and expressiveness of the pop traditions that influenced David. It is nothing more than an antipopulist chauvinism that turns from the unacceptable view that “what sells is good” to the opposite and likewise unacceptable view that “what sells must be bad.”
And finally the contrast of commercial fusion with noncommercial earlier jazz amounts to elitism pure and simple, to a snobbish distortion of history by jazz purists attempting to insulate their cherished classics from the messy marketplace in which culture has always been negotiated. Those who advocate such a view should reread Ralph Ellison’s review of Blues People, where he reminded Baraka that even Bird and the other early boppers, the ne plus ultra for many critics of esoteric jazz intellectualism, “were seeking . . . a fresh form of entertainment which would allow them their fair share of the entertainment market” (1978:59). Or, in a different connection, they should read recent nonhagiographical music histories that have Beethoven hawking the same opus to three different publishers, or Mozart conniving, with a sad lack of savvy, at one music-business killing or another. Music created with an eye to eternal genius and blind to the marketplace is a myth of European Romanticism sustained by its chief offspring, modernism.’
Gary Tomlinson, ‘Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian signifies’, in Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (eds.), Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 82-3.
‘I’ve noticed that, when I go to conferences or similar events in continental Europe, people make the assumption that, because I’m interested in music, I must have an interest in and commitment to new music; that’s not an expectation about me in particular, but a taken-for-granted assumption about what it means to be seriously engaged in music. (In the UK or the USA, people make no such assumption.) [….] In my book, I referred briefly to critical theory in general and Adorno in particular, as a way of introducing one of the main intellectual strands of the ‘New’ musicology of the 1990s, but I made no direct link between Adorno’s critique and new music. In her commentary, Anne Boissière (2001, p. 32) picked this up, asking why I didn’t discuss ‘the problem of contemporary music which resists consumption’: instead, she complained, I made music sound as if it was just another commodity, and in this way passed up the opportunity to offer ‘a critical analysis of consumer society’. In which case, she asked, ‘what point is there in making reference to Adorno?’: if one’s critique isn’t motivated by moral or political commitment, as Adorno’s was, then what is there to it but nihilism?
Actually, the argument Boissière is putting forward here, and which other contributors also reflected, has a long and rather peculiar history. It originates in the conservative critique of the modern world—the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of ‘blood and soil’; Adorno’s critical theory might accordingly be seen as appropriating a conservative tradition in order to attack the right-wing ideology of his own day.’
Nicholas Cook, ‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), p. 257.
‘My contention is that petty capitalism – a term I take to encompass myriad small-scale form of entrepreneurial, commercial activity in culture – has been one of the key means by which progressive leftist, anti-racist, and resistant forms of culture, music, and art have been made possible: have been produced, circulated, and lived. It’s a despised category of economic activity and analysis, generally seen as collusive with capital, as politically irredeemable, an insignificant and ineffective in any meta-historical analysis. But with regard specifically to cultural activity it sits somewhere crucial between full-blown corporate capitalism and the quite different but just as marked forms of cultural, ideological, and aesthetic closure and policing that tend to characterize statist and other kinds of subsidized cultural institutions, whether in music, broadcasting or academia. I’ve researched statist cultural institutions rather deeply, as those who know my writings on IRCAM and the BBC will be aware. So my argument today is that while there is no necessary connection between progressive or politicized culture and these small-scale, entrepreneurial petty capitalist interventions – and in that sense there is no deterministic relation – there are, nonetheless, opportunities; they might be conceived as affordances or, better, in William Connolly’s fruitful phrase, indebted to complexity theory as pluri-potentialities. In terms of the possibility of new experimental, and alternative forms of production and circulation, informed by a politic of cultural production, we should be more aware of this category of activity and what it can achieve.’
Georgina Born, ‘On Music and Politics: Henry Cow, Avant-Gardism and its Discontents’, in Robert Adlington (ed.), Red Strains: Music and Communism Outside the Communist Bloc (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 64.
Like many others, I was deeply disappointed to read Jeremy Corbyn’s interview with Der Spiegel published two days ago (Jörg Schindler, ‘Interview with Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn: “We Can’t Stop Brexit”‘, Spiegel Online, 9 November 2018). This was published right after the news of transport minister Jo Johnson’s resignation and calls for a second referendum on Brexit, since which he has said it would be a ‘democratic travesty’ not to have another Brexit vote. Corbyn’s statement seemed to make this impossible, as a new referendum bill or amendment to that effect of an existing bill could not happen without Labour support.
The 2017 General Election produced 317 Tory MPs, 262 Labour, 35 SNP, 12 Liberal Democrats, 10 DUP, 7 Sinn Fein, 4 Plaid Cymru, 1 Green, 1 Independent and the Speaker. There is no likelihood at all of the Sinn Fein MPs ever taking up their seats, whilst the Speaker remains nominally neutral. Neither he (John Bercow (Conservative)) nor his three deputies (Lindsay Hoyle (Labour), Eleanor Laing (Conservative) and Rosie Winterton (Labour)) vote, by convention. The meaningful total is therefore 639 rather than 650, and so the government needs 30 seats for a majority. Following the Confidence and Supply agreement with the DUP, the government can count on their support in motions of confidence and various aspects of their legislative agenda, thus producing effectively 326 (316 Tories, without their Deputy Speaker, plus 10 DUP) MPs, as against 311 in the Opposition. Since the General Election, 2 Tories and 5 Labour MPs have either been suspended from their party or have resigned the whip, so there are a total 8 Independent MPs, whose loyalties in confidence or crucial Brexit motions may be unknown.
But assuming the suspended/resigned MPs continue to vote according to type, the government has a working majority of 13 votes. This means that if seven Tory or DUP MPs vote against them, they could lose a vote if there is also 100% opposition from the other parties.
It is now looking possible, even perhaps likely, that Theresa May will fail to get any deal through Parliament, with a range of Brexiteer Tories and the DUP warning they will vote against, while the deal is also opposed by some Remainer supporters of a second referendum such as Justine Greening. Representatives of the government have been allegedly attempting to woo some Labour MPs to support them on a deal. The Mirror suggested as many as 30 may be prepared to do this, but this may be too few, though the consequences of last-minute pressure from whips in both parties should not be underestimated.
But if the government fails to get a deal through Parliament, it is highly unlikely that they themselves would introduce a second referendum bill, having repeatedly ruled it out (though, as has been noted, Theresa May as repeatedly ruled out an early general election, then called one). However, there are various means by which such a thing could be triggered, either through primary legislation or amendments to existing bills; a UCL paper details five possible scenarios (Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell, ‘The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit’ (London: The Constitutional Unit, UCL, 2018), pp. 23-28).
The major question is whether a parliamentary majority could be found for this option. As the DUP are firm supporters of Brexit, there is little chance of their supporting any second referendum motion. At present, The Sun counts eight Tory MPs supporting a second referendum: Johnson, Philip Lee, Justine Greening, Anna Soubry, Guto Bebb, Amber Rudd, Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston. They do not list Dominic Grieve oddly, but he has made clear his support for this for some time. There are plenty of suggestions that a variety of other Tory MPs would support this if it came to it, despite not having yet said so publicly. The Liberal Democrats and SNP are likely to vote solidly for such a measure. As for Labour, in June The Independent counted 42 MPs backing a second referendum, to which there are probably a few other names to be added. But almost none of the Corbynistas, nor many of the Brownites/(Ed) Milibandites are on this list. Then there are the pro-Brexit Labour MPs, including Grahame Stringer, John Mann, Kate Hoey, Dennis Skinner and (formerly holding the Labour whip) Frank Field, while others such as Caroline Flint and Stephen Kinnock appear opposed to a second referendum. The 2018 Labour Conference saw a motion passed keeping a second referendum option open if MPs are deadlocked, but this does not firmly commit to anything. That said, Corbyn’s statement to Der Spiegel would appear to be in direct contravention of conference policy.
A second referendum will only get through with relatively solid Labour support, and a significant number of Tory MPs voting for it. My guess is that between 10 and 20 Labour MPs will definitely oppose even if the party institutes a three-line whip, so this requires 20 to 30 Tory MPs to vote for it and against their own government, a tall order. However, if the country looks to be heading for no deal (and Theresa May has set a date of this week, as Parliament returns from recess, for the government will begin to set into motion many emergency measures to deal with this), all sorts of new options are possible.
So, in light of Corbyn’s statement, a second referendum may seem impossible. Or is it? Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show this morning (42’27”-56’22”). After Marr brought up Corbyn’s statement, apparently ruling out a second referendum, Thornberry began by saying that ‘the results of the referendum need to ought to be abided by’, but then immediately afterwards said ‘We do need an injection of democracy in between the results of the referendum and us going any further’. She then said that Labour wanted a ‘meaningful vote’, which was not what Theresa May was giving them in offering the choice between her deal or no deal, ‘the devil and the deep blue sea’. Thornberry said that instead, there should be a general election, but if that did not happen, then ‘yes, of course, all the options remain on the table and we would, you know, campaign for there to be a People’s Vote, but there are several stages before we get there’. Pushed further on Corbyn’s statement, Thornberry attempted to diffuse this by claiming context, need to be democrats, etc., and went onto discuss staying in the Customs Union, trying to produce ‘a Brexit which is good for the country’ (with no details of what this might be) and so on. When brought back to what is Labour’s procedure, Thornberry said ‘First stage is we demand a general election and that is what the proper thing should be. If we don’t get a general election then what we have said is all options remain on the table, and we will…’ then Marr interrupted to point out that Parliament has passed statute and so there are no options for overturning that. Thornberry then said ‘The difficulty is, our system is such that we are in opposition. You know, there are many ways in which we would want to have proceeded over this period of time, and we have a government…’, when Marr interrupted again to point out that they had a general election last year. Thornberry continued to say ‘But we have been doing our best to try to keep this government honest, try to keep this government focused on what’s good for the country, and we have been entirely consistent about that. She knows what it is that…. and like everyone else, vacillating backwards and forwards. We have said: six tests, we will vote for it, bring back a deal we will agree to. If she’s sensible, what she’ll do, is she’ll negotiate properly and bring back a deal which means that we’re in a Customs Union, and that we’re in a free market agreement with the European Union, based on free market rules, and if she brings back something like that, then it may well be that she’ll get sufficient support, but she won’t [attempt from Marr to interrupt again], hang on hang on, let me just, because this is really important, she won’t do that, because she’s more interested in saving her own skin and the Tory Party, because what she will rely on is Labour votes and some Tory votes, and she doesn’t dare do that. She ought to, because she’s the leader of the country. That is not leadership.’ Marr then noted that Kier Starmer had said that the six tests would be in the next Labour election manifesto and asked Thornberry to confirm this, to which she asked when the election would be, pointing out that an election manifesto in the next few weeks would be very different to one in a year’s time. She then said ‘In the next few months, what we would have in our manifesto is we would say: we have a vision for this country, we have a vision for Brexit. We know that the best way to proceed on this is to try to get a deal which is, as I’ve said several times, the model that I’ve put forward [Marr: ‘Six tests’] and with the six tests, and which is the six tests, and that’s what we would be working towards. And we would go in as pragmatists, and we would say to the European Union: the grown-ups have arrived and we’re no longer shouting at you, we’re going to sit down pragmatically and sort out something which is good for our economy and your economy.’ Marr pushed Thornberry further on one of the six tests , that which requires the ‘exact same benefits’ as membership of the Customs Union and Single Market, asking if there was a shred of evidence that the EU would contemplate that. Thornberry avoided this question, just saying that they had had meetings with the EU, who knew their position, but couldn’t negotiate with them as they were not the government. Marr pushed further, quoting Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Junker on how third countries can never have the same rights and benefits as full members. Thornberry again had no real answer other than to say that these were negotiating positions, and that May had put down unrealisable red lines and ‘ridiculous tests’, unlike Labour. She continued to reiterate the same stuff, then Marr claimed Labour had a ‘fantasy prospectus’ and there was no way of getting anything like what they wanted. After more vacillation from Thornberry, the interview turned to Trump and some domestic issues.
But I think this interview may be significant in many ways, notwithstanding the waffle and false claims about being able to obtain a deal (in reality, Labour would end up in a very similar situation to Theresa May, save for accepting the Custom’s Union). Thornberry is probably the sharpest politician on the Labour front bench, and clearly knows exactly what the brief is and what needs to be said. The fact that she mentioned a People’s Vote early in the interview is vital, even though she was careful not to return to the issue. The official Labour line is to want a general election. The chances of this are very slim (though not impossible if the government truly alienate the DUP over a border in the Irish Sea, to the point where the DUP would no longer support them in a confidence motion). But Labour have to stick to this line, which would be easily dismissed if they were vocal about supporting a second referendum. But Thornberry said that failing to get an election, they would campaign for a People’s Vote.
So I believe that Labour are talking down a second referendum in order to maintain their line, but do have plans to support it when it becomes inevitable. This could be soon – if a confidence motion is put and the government wins it, thus precluding an election. Of course it is also possible that Thornberry, Starmer and Corbyn are all putting out different lines publicly. I just hope this may have been co-ordinated.
There are many practical complications in bringing about a second referendum, which are explained in the UCL paper, but as this makes clear, it is possible, regardless of what Corbyn says. Labour could be acting more shrewdly than some imagine.
Readers of this blog will recall #notationgate in Spring of 2017, a public debate about the role of Western (and other) musical notations in education and music-making in general, provoked by a polemical article by Charlotte C. Gill, in which she claimed that musical notation was ‘a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education’. This led to a major letter to The Guardian in response, which I and several others co-ordinated, with signatories from a range of leading musicians and musicologists (see here for the full list, and a range of links to other responses). I also wrote a follow-up article for The Conversation (‘The insidious class divide in music teaching’, 17 May 2017). It should be registered, though, that there was another group of mainly musicologists and some music educationalists who drafted another letter in response to ours, but which was never published, arguing that the first response was inflammatory, and insistence on musical notation discriminated against some with various learning and other difficulties. This was however never published.
In August of this year, Jon Henschen published an article for Intellectual Takeout (‘The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)’, 16 August 2018), with statistics showing just 11% of people (presumably in the US) could read music well, and linked this to wider declines in the quality of a good deal of popular music, citing a study (Joan Serra, Álvaro Corral, Marián Boguñá, Martín Haro and Josep Ll. Arcos, ‘Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music’, Scientific Reports 2, article 521 (2012)) which demonstrated increasing homogeneity of content in terms of pitch, timbre and other parameters. Henschen also alluded to the domination of songwriting by Lukasz Gottwald of the United States and Max Martin from Sweden, suggesting that a lack of wider notational skills provided the opportunity for just a few individuals to dominate, with all that implies in terms of homogeneity.
Anyhow, Andrew Mellor has published another short piece for Classical Music magazine (‘Academics who dismiss musical literacy have confused recreation with study’, 10 October 2018), engaging more deeply with the major academic divides on the subject which did flare up a little during the original #notationgate and continued in responses to Henschen’s article. I have a lot of sympathy with his criticisms of the substitution of music sociology for the study of music (which is not to say that music sociology is not also an important discipline), and the dire consequences of reducing notational requirements in education. Here is a section from the article:
…one university academic went for the jugular: stave notation is relevant only to ‘the minority music of the elites’, he said, claiming notated music accounts for just ‘3.5% of all concerts and recordings’. Some Facebookers retorted: isn’t ‘the minority music of the elites’ a little incendiary and over-simplified? The academic responded calmly: studies repeatedly tell us that mostly wealthy people enjoy classical music and opera. […]The academic clarified his position: sure, students at university can learn western notation if they want to, but they might find it more useful to learn how to use music production software.
[…] The real reason some universities no longer require music students to be able to read music – and yes, you did read that correctly – is that it widens their potential market. It means lecturers don’t have to consider how best to maintain musical literacy skills in their students, nor take the time and effort required to test them. In some cases, it tells of a faction who wish to see ‘the minority music of the elites’ ousted from university music departments altogether.
Anyone who believes this intellectual debasement will flood higher education with new perspectives and alternative narratives is dreaming. Ditching notation is not about opening music education up, but about closing huge swathes of it off. There is hardly a western musical form in existence that cannot be analysed and contextualised using notation. More importantly, there are questions surrounding instrumental competence, not least for those graduates who proceed to teach practical music-making in schools.
Marketplace education has a lot to answer for, not least the redefinition of what it means to study a subject rigorously. Some universities will go to any length to pander to the whims and parameters of their student ‘customers’. We learned recently that a British university is to launch a joint degree in journalism and PR. If that doesn’t feel like a marketing department defining the content of a degree course, I don’t know what does.
The results of all this will be further inequality and division. The classical music scene in this country is arguably thriving like never before, but if musical notation becomes the preserve of private schools and Oxbridge, five centuries of music really will become the plaything of the minority. What’s worrying is that there are plenty who are willing that to happen, knowing it will lead to all-out extinction. And that’s when Jon Henschen’s nightmarish vision will come to fruition.
For my 50th birthday this year, I was absolutely delighted to receive on the day a volume containing seventeen short piano pieces written for the occasion, and subsequently four other pieces for piano and one for electronics. I am performing all of these, together with a new piece of my own and three lesser-known early twentieth-century works, on Friday 20 April (tomorrow) at the Performance Space, College Building, City, University of London, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB. The concert will be live-streamed complete, and can be viewed from the FB page for City University Concerts from 18:30. The concert is free, but to reserve a place, please see this page.
I was incredibly touched by the collection, assembled by US composer Evan Johnson, who wrote that this collection was ‘in recognition of a career built around the persistent championing of young or unduly ignored composers, and of difficult or otherwise unreasonable music: the sort often thankless effort that can indelibly shape a nascent compositional career, build decades-long collaborations, and begin to change the face of a repertoire’.
The full programme is as follows, and below are a selection of excerpts from the scores (and in a few cases, complete piece). Earlier versions of the programme also included Roger Sessions First Piano Sonata, but for reasons of programme length I have decided to postpone this work to a later date. Further information about my own piece auseinandergerissene Hälften, from which I will post a snippet later, are given at the bottom of this page.
Arthur Lourié, Deux poèmes op. 8 (1912)
Stefan Wolpe, Sonata for piano. Op. 1 (1925)
Frederic Mompou, Charmes (1920-21)
Christopher Fox, Fifty Points of Light (2017) (WP)
James Dillon, amethyst (2018) (WP)
Roddy Hawkins, Down-Time for Ian (2007, rev. 2017) (WP)
Lauren Redhead, nothing really changes (2017) (WP)
Mic Spencer, A Maze I(a)n (S)pace (Space [G]race) (2017) (WP)
Michael Finnissy, Were we born yesterday? (2017) (WP)
Sadie Harrison, gentle (2017) (WP)
Ben Smith, burnt (2017-18) (WP)
Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, Desperatio (piano piece no. 5) (2017-18) (WP)
Alwynne Pritchard, 50 is a magic number (2018) (WP)
Paul Obermayer, Fra (electronic music) (2018) (WP)
William A.P.M., Fragment aus einem gebrochenen Geist „kaum intakt“ (2018) (WP)
Walter Zimmermann, Stars for Ian (2017) (WP)
Ian Pace, auseinandergerissene Hälften (2018) (WP)
Jesse Ronneau, AGHB (2017) (WP)
Eleri Angharad Pound, pbh (2017-18) (WP)
Morgan Hayes, Comparison (2018) (WP of revised version)
Marc Yeats, exordium (2017) (WP)
Alannah Marie Halay, Progress always comes late (2017) (WP)
Nigel McBride, wide stare stared itself (2017-18) (WP)
Alistair Zaldua, Sylph Figures for Ian Pace (2017) (WP)
Wieland Hoban, Whiptail (2017) (WP)
Evan Johnson (2017) qu’en joye on vous demaine (2017) (WP)
Christopher Fox, Fifty Points of Light (2017)
Roddy Hawkins, Down-Time for Ian (2007, rev. 2017)
Lauren Redhead, nothing really changes (2017)
Mic Spencer, A Maze I(a)n (S)pace (Space [G]race) (2017)
Michael Finnissy, Were we born yesterday? (2017)
Sadie Harrison, gentle (2017)
Ben Smith, burnt (2017-18)
Alwynne Pritchard, 50 is a magic number (2018)
Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, Desperatio (Piano Piece No. 5) (2017-18)
Alwynne Pritchard, 50 is a magic number (2018)
William A.P.M., Fragment aus einem gebrochenen Geist „kaum intakt“ (2018)
Walter Zimmermann, Stars for Ian (2017)
Ian Pace, from auseinandergerissene Hälften (2018)
Eleri Angharad Pound, pbh (2017-18)
Morgan Hayes, Comparison (2018)
Marc Yeats, exordium (2017)
Alannah Marie Halay, Progress always comes late (2017)
Nigel McBride, wide stare stared itself (2017-18)
Alistair Zaldua, Sylph-Figures for Ian Pace (2017)
Wieland Hoban, Whiptail (2017)
Evan Johnson, qu’en joye on vous demaine (2017)
My own auseinandergerissene Hälften is a short work which nonetheless could be considered ‘mixed media’, to use the fashionable term, as it will consist playing as well as spoken and written text, and a small amount of theatre. The title comes from the notorious letter written by Theodor Adorno to Walter Benjamin on 18 March 1936, in the context of discussion of the latter’s ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’, first written the previous year. Adorno wrote to Benjamin on the subject of the dialectics of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture:
‘Beide tragen die Wundmale des Kapitalismus, beide enthalten Elemente der Veränderung (freilich nie und nimmer das Mittlere zwischen Schönberg und dem amerikanischen Film); beide sind die auseinandergerissenen Hälften der ganzen Freiheit, die doch aus ihnen nicht sich zusammenaddieren läßt’ (‘Both bear the stigmata of capitalism, both contain elements of change (but never, of course, simply as a middle-term between Schönberg and the American film). Both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up’).
My starting point for this piece is both this conception of the ‘torn halves’ of cultural freedom, but also my own ‘torn halves’, as both a pianist and a musicologist intensely engaged with the conflicting demands of both things – how one maintains scholarly distance and independence whilst still operating in an external musical world with its own pressures to conform, flatter, etc., how the criteria for deeming creative practice valuable ‘research’ might be quite different from other criteria of value, how my own interests as a performer are not synonymous with priorities as a historical musicologist – and indeed the music I choose to teach does not necessarily simply reflect my personal preferences. In the latter context, I return to the high/low culture question as it has informed my teaching of a former core module in music history, perhaps the most important teaching I have done. This attempted to navigate fairly between this ‘torn halves’ and their continuous co-presence, sometimes interacting, sometimes antagonistic, in Western musical history since 1848.
For this piece I have drawn upon the materials I used there to create a series of interconnected musical vignettes, each of which draw upon different species of music from a series of dates (including 1936, the date of Adorno’s letter to Benjamin). All of these are heavily modified, viewed from a contemporary perspective, but I attempt, inevitably unsuccessfully, to make them ‘add up’. The music is accompanied by slides with disembodied fragments of actual lecture slides, together with passages from radical modernist texts from the periods in question, material placed here on social media (a low culture of today in contrast to the supposedly elevated world of the lecture).
I am writing this piece during what looks like the final phase of the USS strike involving academics from pre-1992 UK universities. A good deal of solidarity has been generated through the course of the dispute, with many academics manning picket lines together discoverying common purpose and shared issues, and often noting how the structures and even physical spaces of modern higher education discourage such interactions when working. Furthermore, many of us have interacted regularly using Twitter, enabling the sharing of experiences, perspectives, vital data (not least concerning the assumptions and calculations employed for the USS future pensions model), and much else about modern academic life. As noted by George Letsas in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), Becky Gardiner in The Guardian, Nicole Kobie in Wired, and various others, the strike and other associated industrial action have embodied a wider range of frustrations amongst UK-based academics over and above the issue of pensions: to do with casualisation and marketisation in academia, the growth of bloated layers of management and dehumanising treatment of academics, the precarious conditions facing early career researchers (ECRs), widespread bullying, and systemic discrimination against female academics, those from minority groups, and so on. Not least amongst the frustrations are those about various metrics employed to judge ‘performance’ relating to the government Research Excellence Framework (REF, formerly the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)), and new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).
In this blog post, I will outline a short history of the RAE/REF with relevant links, and collect together recent comments about it and suggestions for alternatives. For most of this (except a few places), I will attempt to outline the arguments of others (including my own expressed online) on either side, rather than try to unpack and critique them – this blog is undoubtedly a ‘survey text’ in the sense often dismissed by REF assessors, though hopefully should serve some useful purpose nonetheless! In an academic spirit, I would welcome all comments, however critical (so long as focused on the issues and not personalised towards any people mentioned), and will happily correct anything found to be erroneous, add extra links, and so on. Anyone wishing to make suggestions in these respects should either post in the comments section below, or e-mail me at the addy given at the top of this page.
One of the most important pieces of sustained writing on the RAE and REF is Derek Sayer, Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF (London: Sage, 2014), a highly critical book which carefully presents a large amount of information on its history. I draw extensively upon this for this blog, as well as the articles by Bence and Oppenheim, and Jump on the Evolution of the REF, listed below. A range of primary documents can be found online, provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and its counterparts in the rest of the UK, on RAE 1992, RAE 1996, RAE 2001, RAE 2008, and REF 2014. These are essential resources for all scholars investigating the subject, though obviously represent the perspectives of those administering the system. Equally important are Lord Nicholas Stern’s 2016 review of the REF, and the 2017 key policy decisions on REF 2021, made following consultation.
There are many other journalistic and scholarly articles on the REF and its predecessors. Amongst the most important of these would be the following:
Michael Shattock, UGC and the Management of British Universities (Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press, 1994).
Valerie Bence and Charles Oppenheim, ‘The Evolution of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise: Publications, Performance and Perceptions‘, Journal of Educational Administration and History 37/2 (2005), pp. 137-55.
Donald Gillies, ‘How Should Research be Organised? An Alternative to the UK Research Assessment Exercise’, in Leemon McHenry, Science and the Pursuit of Wisdom: Studies in the Thought of Nicholas Maxwell (Heusenstamm: Ontos Verlag, 2009), pp. 147-68.
Zoë Corbyn, ‘It’s evolution, not revolution for REF’, THES, 24 September 2009.
John F. Allen, ‘Opinion: Research and how to promote it in a university’, Future Medicinal Chemistry 2/1 (2009).
Jonathan Adams and Karen Gurney, ‘Funding selectivity, concentration and excellence – how good is the UK’s research?’, Higher Education Policy Institute, 25 March 2010.
Ben R. Martin, ‘The Research Excellence Framework and the ‘impact agenda’: are we creating a Frankenstein monster?’, Research Evaluation 20/3 (1 September 2011), pp. 247-54.
Dorothy Bishop, ‘An Alternative to REF 2014?’, Bishopblog, 26 January 2013.
University and College Union, ‘The Research Excellence Framework (REF): UCU Survey Report’, October 2013.
Paul Jump, ‘Evolution of the REF’, Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), 17 October 2013.
Peter Scott, ‘Why research assessment is out of control‘, The Guardian, 4 November 2013.
John F. Allen, ‘Research Assessment and REF’ (2014).
Teresa Penfield, Matthew J. Baker, Rosa Scoble, Michael C. Wykes, ‘Assessment, evaluations, and definitions of research impact: A review’, Research Evaluation 23/1 (January 2014), pp. 21-32.
Derek Sayer, ‘Problems with Peer Review for the REF‘, Council for the Defence of British Universities, 21 November 2014.
‘Telling stories’, Nature 518/7538 (11 February 2015).
Paul Jump, ‘Can the research excellence framework run on metrics?’, THES, 18 June 2015.
HEFCE (chaired James Wilsdon), ‘The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management’, 8 July 2015.
James Wilsdon, ‘The metric tide: an agenda for responsible indicators in research’, The Guardian, 9 July 2015.
Paul Jump, ‘Is the REF worth a quarter of a billion pounds?’, THES, 14 July 2015.
J.R. Shackleton and Philip Booth, ‘Abolishing the Research Excellence Framework’, Institute of Economic Affairs, 23 July 2015.
James Wilsdon, ‘In defence of the Research Excellence Framework’, The Guardian, 27 July 2015.
Alex Jones and Andrew Kemp, ‘Why is so much research dodgy? Blame the Research Excellence Framework’, The Guardian, 17 October 2016.
James C. Conroy and Richard Smith, ‘The Ethics of Research Excellence’, Journal of Philosophy of Education 51/4 (2017), pp. 693-708.
A Short History of the RAE and REF to 2014
There were six rounds of the RAE, in 1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008, with the gaps between each becoming progressively larger. The REF has run just once to date, in 2014, with the next round scheduled for 2021.
The first ‘research selectivity exercise’ in 1986 was administered by the University Grants Committee (UGC), an organisation created after the end of World War One. As noted by Bence and Oppenheim, there was a longer history of the development of Performance Indicators (PIs) in higher education through various metrics, but definitions were unclear, so this exercise was viewed as an attempt to convert other indicators into a clear PI, which it was thought would add efficiency and accountability to university funding through a competitive process, in line with other aspects of the Thatcher government’s policies.
The 1986 exercise involved just the traditional universities, and only influenced a small proportion of funding. It consisted of a four-part questionnaire on research income, expenditure, planning priorities and output. Assessment was divided between roughly 70 subject categories known as Units of Assessment (UoAs). There were wider criticisms of the 1986 exercise, to do with differing standards between subjects, unclear assessment criteria, and lack of transparency of assessors and an appeals mechanism. As such it was much criticised by academics, and reformed for 1989, in which ‘informed peer review’ was introduced for assessment, following wide consultation. This year, a grading system from 1 to 5 was also introduced based upon national and international criteria, 152 UoAs were used, sub-committees were expanded, and details of two publications per member of staff submitted were required, as well as information on research students, external income and plans. It was used to allocate a greater proportion of funding. There were still many criticism, to do with the system favouring large departments, a lack of clear verification of accuracy of submissions, and late planning causing difficulties for institutions preparing their submission strategies.
Other important changes affecting higher education took place during this early period of the RAE, including the abolition of tenure by the Thatcher government in 1988, then the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act , which abolished the university/polytechnic distinction, so that the latter institutions could apply for university status, and then be included in the RAE. The Act also established four funding councils for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to replace the UGC, and made research funding allocated entirely on a selective basis, replacing previous systems of funding based upon student numbers. There had been no formula funding for research in polytechnics, so the new system radically altered the balance, allowing them to compete openly with the more traditional institutions for such funding.
RAE 1992 then brought major new changes, with institutions able to select which ‘research active’ staff to put forward, a longer timescale allowed for research in the arts and humanities, improved auditing processes, and reduced assessment down to 72 UoAs. 192 institutions participated, covering over 43,000 full-time equivalent researchers. Practically all university research funding from this point was determined by the exercise, based upon a quality rating, the number of research-active staff, amount of research income and some consideration of future planned activity. Departments which were given an assessment of 1 or 2 would not receive any funding. The result was that the older universities received 91% of the available funding, new (post-1992) universities 7% and colleges 2%. 67% of departments were ranked 1, 2 or 3. This led to objections that the system was biased in favour of the older and larger universities, which had supplied many of the panelists for certain UoAs. Some results were challenged in court, and a judge noted a need for greater transparency.
Changes for RAE 1996 involved the submission of four publications for selected research-active staff, and stiffer requirements on a cut-off date for outputs being placed in the public domain. Rating 3 was divided into 3a and 3b, and an extra 5* rating introduced, while each panel was required to make clear their criteria for assessment. 60 subject panels, with chairs appointed by the funding councils on the basis of recommendations of previous chairs, and other panel members selected on the basis of nominations from various learned societies or subject associations. These considered 69 UoAs on the basis of peer review. This was also the first RAE which allowed performance submissions for musicians (see below), which was encompassed in the following definition of ‘research’ provided by the funding councils:
‘Research’ for the purpose of the RAE is to be understood as original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce and industry, as well as to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship*; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances and artefacts including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental development to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction. It excludes routine testing and analysis of materials, components and processes, eg for the maintenance of national standards, as distinct from the development of new analytical techniques.
* Scholarship embraces a spectrum of activities including the development of teaching material; the latter is excluded from the RAE.
One of the major problems encountered had to do with academics moving to other institutions just before the final date, so those institutions could submit their outputs, as well as early concerns about the power invested in managers to declare members of staff ‘research-inactive’ and not submit them. Furthermore, it was found that outcomes were biased towards departments with members on assessment panels. Once again, no funding was granted to departments graded 1 or 2. This time, however, 43% of departments were ranked 4, 5 or 5*, a rise of 10% since 1992.
The changes to RAE 2001 involved panels consulting a number of non-UK-based experts in their field to review work which had already been assigned top grades. Sub-panels were created, but there were also five large ‘Umbrella Groups’ created, in Medical and Biological Sciences; Physical Sciences and Engineering; Social Sciences; Area Studies and Languages; and Humanities and Arts. Some new measures also acknowledged early career researchers, some on career breaks, and other circumstances, and a new category was created for staff who had transferred, who could be submitted by both institutions, though only the later one would receive the resulting research funding. Expanded feedback was provided, and electronic publications permitted, though different UoAs employed different criteria in terms of the significance of place of publication and peer-review. 65% of departments were now ranked 4, 5 or 5*. 55% of staff in 5 and 5* departments were submitted, compared to 23% in 1992 and 31% in 1996.
The Roberts review of 2002 expressed concern about how the whole exercise could be undermined by ‘game-playing’, as institutions were learning to do. Furthermore, there were concerns about the administration costs of the system. A process was set in place, announced by Gordon Brown, to replace the existing RAE (after the 2008 exercise) with a simpler metrics-based system. As detailed at length in Sayer, despite major consultations involving many important parts of the UK academic establishment, an initial report and proposals of this type were quickly changed to a two-track model of metrics and peer review, then the whole plan was almost completely abandoned.
RAE 2008 itself had fewer major changes. Amongst these were a renewed set of assessment criteria, especially as affected applied, practice-based and interdisciplinary research, a two-tiered panel structure, with sub-panels undertaking the detailed assessment and making recommendations to main panels, who made broader decisions and produced a ‘quality profile’ for a department, in place of the older seven-point system. Individual outputs were now given one of five possible rankings:
4*: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour
3*: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which nonetheless falls short of the highest standards of excellence
2*: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
1*: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour
Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment
By 2008-9 (before the results of RAE 2008 took effect) about 90% of funding went to just 38 universities, but from 2009 48 institutions shared this amount (after 15. As Adams and Gurney have noted, the weighting of the 2008 exercise meant that the difference between obtaining 2* and 3* was greater than that between 3* and 4*, or between the previously 4 to 5 or 5 to 5* rankings. 54% of 2008 submissions were ranked either 3* or 4*, 87% 2*, 3* or 4*.
The plans for post-2008 exercises were finally published in September 2009 by HEFCE, indicating a new name, the REF, but otherwise the system was much less different to those which preceded it than had been assumed. Now the ranking was to be based upon three components: ”output quality’ at 60%, ‘impact’ at 25%, and ‘environment’ at 15% (later revised to 65%, 20% and 15% respectively). Outputs were to be assessed as before, though for sciences, citation data would informed various panels. ‘Environment’ was assessed on the basis of research income, number of postgraduate research students, and completion rates. But the most significant new measure was ‘impact’, reflecting the desires of the then Business Secretary Lord Mandelson for universities to become more responsive to students, viewed as customers, and industry, defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Each department was to submit a general statement on ‘impact’ as a whole, and could submit between 2 and 7 impact ‘case studies’, depending upon the number of research-active staff submitted to the REF. This was a huge shift, and restricted to impact which could be observed during the cycle between exercises, and derived from research produced when the academic in question was already at the submitting institution.
Other changes including a major shift in the number of UoAs and sub-panels to 30, and just four main assessment panels. One single sub-panel would assess outputs, environment and impact. However, the same number of experts were involved as before.
Since REF 2014, the Stern Report has informed significant changes to the system, in part intended to avoid the potential for gaming. Following further consultations, it has been announced that a minimum of one output and a maximum of seven from each member of a department will be submitted. Further measures have been introduced to ensure that most short form text-based submissions must be ‘Open Access’, available freely to all, which generates its own set of issues. Further plans for REF 2028 indicate that this will also apply to long form submissions such as monographs; the situation for creative practice outputs currently appears not to have changed, but this situation may be modified. HEFCE was abolished at the end of March 2018, and replaced in England by the new Office for Students (OfS) and Research England, the actions of which remain to be seen.
The RAE and REF have caused huge amounts of resentment and anger amongst academics, and produced sweeping changes to the nature of academic work as a whole. Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, architect of the first RAE (interviewed in Jump, ‘Evolution of the REF’) argued against many of the subsequent developments, and with every reform to the system, institutions would put greater pressure on individuals, especially those in junior positions, leading to some of the awful cases of chronic stress, mental illness and bullying which have been detailed recently on social media.. Many report that REF submissions constitute the only research valued by their institutions. A Head of Department (HoD) or other REF supervisor who achieved a high REF scoring could expect to win favour and further promotion from their management; in practice, this often meant cajoling and bullying of already-overworked staff with threats and intimidation about whether they would maintain their job, and and little favour or support shown to those who might not produce the right number of 3* or 4* outputs. Those dealing with mental health issues, trying to balance impossible teaching and administrative workloads (all fuelled by the Mandelsonian idea of the student-as-consumer) and research demands with major care commitments for children or the elderly, were often driven to breakdowns or to quit academia; some cases of this are documented below. Academics ceased, in the eyes of many managements, to be human beings towards whom they had a duty of care as their employers, but merely as potential cash cows, to be dispensed with if there was any pause in this function.
Gaming of the system continued in many forms from RAE 1992 onwards. Many institutions would award 0.2 FTE or short-term contracts in the run-up to the RAE/REF, so that institutions could profit from particular individuals’ outputs (not least ECRs who might have a monograph and were desperate for any employment record on their CVs). All of this could mean that rankings were unrepresentative of the research carried on by the majority of a department’s full-time, permanent staff. Research projects taking more than 6-7 years were greatly disadvantaged, or at least those embarked on them would still have to produce four other world-leading outputs in during a RAE/REF cycle, in many institutions, sometimes in order to retain a position at all. Callous HoDs or other REF managers could dismiss some work which had occupied academics for years (whilst maintaining hefty teaching and administration workloads) as merely 2*, on the grounds of its being ‘journalistic’ (often it was relatively readable), a ‘survey text’ (if it drew upon a wide range of existing scholarly literature), or the like, often with crushing impacts on the academics concerned.
The period of the RAE’s history saw other sweeping changes to Higher Education in the UK. Between 1963 and 1970, numbers of young people attending university had doubled following the Robbins Report, but then remained essentially static until the late 1980s, when over a decade numbers rose from 17% in 1987 to 33% in 1997 (see Ann-Marie Bathmaker, ‘The Expansion of Higher Education: Consideration of Control, Funding and Quality’, in Steve Bartlett and Diana Burton, Education Studies: Essential Issues (London: Sage, 2003), pp. 169-89). Since then numbers participating have continually risen, to a peak of 49% in 2011. This was an unrepresentative year, the last before the introduction of trebled tuition fees, which were a disincentive for students to take a gap year, followed by a concomitant dip of 6% (to 43%) in 2012, then a further rise to 49% in 2015, exceeding the pre-2011 peak of 46%, thus confounding (at least to date) those who predicted that increased fees would lead to decreased participation.
Sayer points out that there are few equivalents for the REF elsewhere in the world and none in North American or Europe. Furthermore, few have sought to emulate this system. Some of those cited below argue that most of the known alternatives (including those which preceded the introduction of the RAE) may be worse, others (including myself) cannot accept that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. I would further maintain that the human cost of the REF should not only be unacceptable, but illegal, and that only a zero tolerance policy, with criminal charges if necessary (even for the most senior members of management) could stop this. Dignity at work is as important in this context as any other, and little of that is currently on display in UK academia.
Creative Practice and Non-Text-Based Outputs
An issue of especial relevance to those engaged in performing-arts-based academic disciplines such as music, theatre, or dance (and in many cases also creative or other forms of writing, the visual arts, and so on) is that of outputs submitted to the REF in the form of creative practice. By this I mean specifically outputs in the form of practice (i.e. practice-as-research), as opposed to those simply documenting or critically analysing one’s own or others’ practice. I have previously blogged extensively on this subject, following the publication of a widely read article by John Croft (‘Composition is not Research’, TEMPO 69/272 (April 2015), pp. 6-11) and replies from me (‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’, TEMPO 70/275 (January 2016), pp. 60-70 ) and from Camden Reeves (‘Composition, Research and Pseudo-Science: A Response to John Croft’, Tempo70/275 (January 2016), pp. 50-59), and a subsequent public debate on the subject. Amongst the issues raised, some of them familiar from wider debates on practice-as-research which are referenced in my own article, were whether creative practice on its own can stand as research without requiring additional written documentation (not least the now-familiar 300-word statements which can be regarded as deemed essential by the REF, as I argue in response to a claim made by Miguel Mera in that debate), whether creative work which most resembles ‘science’ is regarded as more ‘research-like’, an implicit claim unpacked by Reeves (as one colleague put it to me, ‘if it has wires going into it, it’s more like research’), with all this implies in terms of (gendered) views of STEM versus the humanities, or whether certain types of output are privileged for being more ‘text-like’ than others (scores versus recordings, for example) and thus some practitioners are at an advantage compared to others (here I give some figures on the relative proportions of composers and performers in different types of music departments). Attitudes to the latter vary hugely between institutions: at least one Russell Group department was happy to award a chair to a performer whose research output consists almost exclusively of performances and recordings, mostly as part of groups, while at others, especially those without strong representation of the performing arts amongst managements, such outputs are hardly valued at all and are unlikely to be submitted to the REF, nor win promotion for those who produce them.
Another issue is that of parity between creative practice outputs and other types. Many creative practitioners will never have had to submit their work to anything like peer review in the manner known for articles and monographs, and questions arise as to, for example, what number or type of compositions or recordings, visual art works or dance performances should be viewed as equivalent to the production of a monograph, when assessing promotion and the like? Music departments in which half or more of the faculty is made up of practitioners (usually composers) may have limited experience of peer review, or for that matter of wider academic debates and discourses, and some might argue that they are able to get ahead in their professions with considerably less time and effort than their equivalents who produce more traditional outputs. This is, I believe, a very real problem, which then maps onto questions of the significantly different requirements for producing different types of creative practice outputs, and needs serious consideration if there is to be any semblance of fairness within such academic departments.
Sayer also notes how many works in the humanities gain impact over an extended period of time, giving works of Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault and Benedict Anderson as examples, and also notes how many can remain intensely relevant and widely cited long after publication, in distinction to a science-based model of cumulative and rapidly-advancing knowledge, whereby a certain passage of time leads to some outputs being viewed as outdated.
Over the last few days, various academics have been commenting on the REF, mostly on Twitter. I attempt to collect the most important of these here.
One of the first important threads came from geographer Julia Cupples (@juliecupples79). In this thread, she called the fundamental status of REF classifications ‘ludicrous’, argued how problematic it would be to direct research exclusively for REF and elite British academics, called the demands of ‘originality’ for a single publication ‘masculinist and colonial’, argued that female authors and those from ethnic minorities are at a disadvantage, not least because of less likelihood of citation. The ranking of junior colleagues by senior ones was labelled ‘one of the most toxic mechanisms in place in the neoliberal academy’, making a mockery of most other means of achieving equality, and so that the REF works against attempts to ‘dismantle discrimination, build collegiality, prevent academic bullying, and decolonize our campuses’. This thread was widely tweeted and praised, inducing others to share similar stories, with Cupples responding that the REF is ‘a means to discipline, humiliate and produce anxiety’. Not all agreed, with Germanist Michael Gratzke (@prof_gratzke) arguing that the peer review element for arts and humanities was a good thing, and that as the scheme would not disappear, one needed to deal with it reasonably. More respondents were sympathetic, however. Urban Studies Professor Hendrik Wagenaar (@spiritofwilson) cited the REF as a cause of ‘the demeaning command-and-control management style that has infected UK universities, and the creation of the soulless apparatchiks that rise up through the ranks to take every ounce of pleasure out of research and writing’, and how it prevents ‘a climate of psychological safety, trust, mutual respect, and togetherness; a place where it is safe to take risks’. Molly Dragiewicz (@MollyDragiewicz) asked whether metrification fetishises ‘engagement’, though a different view was taken by Spanish musicologist and novelist Eva Moreda Rodriguez (@TheDrRodriguez), in response to some queries of my own to Cupples. Cupples had said that it would be ‘deeply problematic if we started writing for REF and a panel of elite British academics rather than for our research communities’, to which I asked about the definition of a ‘research community’ and why they should be exempt from external scrutiny and issues of parity with other (sub-)disciplines, also pointing out that both the Chicago School of Economics or some groups of racial theorists would have fitted this category. Cupples maintained that such communities were not groups of academics, but Moreda asked in return how ‘we avoid academic work being judged on the basis of whether it reinforces& confirms the basic tenets & prejudices of said research community?’, as well as whether such community engagement was already covered through impact assessment?
Around the same time, drama lecturer Kate Beswick (@ElfinKate) blogged on ‘REF: We need to push back against a system that has lost its way’. Whilst accepting the need for assessment of academic research, she noted how layers of bureaucracy were created to game the system, the growth of internal practice REFs, the pressure to produce outputs simply to satisfy the REF rather than for any other value, and the new pressures which will follow implementation of open access policies. This, argued Beswick, would force scholars to find ‘REF compliant’ publishers, which would compromise academic objectivity, rigour, reach and international credibility. However, she did not suggest any alternative system.
However, the first major thread in defence of the REF came from historian David Andress (@ProfDaveAndress). Andress argued that the RAE/REF enabled quality research funding to go to post-1992 institutions, that every alternative had worse biases, and that the distributive mechanism was so wide that it could almost be called ‘a relic of socialism’, concluding with the confident claim that ‘If you get rid of it, you will definitely get something worse’. This was sure to produce many responses. Clinical psychologist Richard Bentall (@RichardBentall), who was a panelist in 2008 and 2014, argued that the process was ‘conducted with absolute fairness and integrity’, but the problem was with the interpretation of it by universities (a point which many others would also evoke in other threads). Bentall noted how his own former institution gave an edict telling no researcher to publish 2* papers, which constitute 80% of world science, so that the REF ‘has become an end in itself’. I myself responded that many places have concluded that research is of no value unless beneficial to the REF, also raising the question (about which I am most definitely in two minds) as to whether we need to accept that some institutions need to be focused on teaching rather than research, rather than all scrambling over a sum of government money which is unlikely to increase. Some subsequent interactions have however made me rethink this. I also noted how some assessors have little knowledge of anything beyond their own narrow and underdeveloped fields, but which nonetheless are felt necessary to be represented on panels, noted (as would many others) how a similar process is not used in many other countries, and was sceptical about any ‘better than any conceivable alternative’ argument. Andress responded that he was not saying that, but that better alternatives which can be conceived cannot be easily put into effect, and also that, in light of the expansion of the sector, ‘RAE/REF is on the positive side of the ledger’, and shouldn’t simply be dismissed. In a series of tweets, I also expressed some questions about whether all aspects of the expansion had been positive, without corresponding increases in the level of secondary education, which can have a net levelling effect when the Oxbridge/Russell Group model is applied to institutions with very different types of student bodies, from this arguing that REF was a part of a process which pretended there were not major differences between institutions, and causes huge pressures for academics at institutions where the teaching demands are higher for students with less inclination towards independent study. These are highly contentious arguments, I realise, which I want to throw out for consideration rather than defend to the last.
Moreda also responded to Andress, taking a medium view. In a thread, she acknowledged the potential of the REF for management to use to bully academics and the inordinate use of resources, but noted that it had enabled her to gain an academic position in the UK, which would otherwise have been very difficult without an Oxbridge pedigree, also on account of having a foreign accent, with little teaching experience at that point, and so on. However, she did also temper this by noting that the ability to produce REFable publications relied upon her being ‘able-bodied and without caring duties’, and that a continued discourse was required in order to consider how to accommodate others.
I asked REF defenders whether REF panellists ever read more than a few pages of a monograph, because of the time available, or listened carefully to audible outputs (rather than reading the 300-word statements which can act as spin)? Moreda responded by framing the issues as whether the REF or equivalent can ever be free of corruption, and whether such a system needs to exist at all. She was ambivalent about both questions, but also disliked the implied view of some REF-opponents that ‘research shouldn’t be subjected to scrutiny or accountability’. Whilst agreeing on this latter point, I argued that REF does not really account for parity between disciplines and sub-disciplines, some with vast differences of time and effort (especially where archival or fieldwork are involved) required for producing an equivalent output. I proposed that no output should receive 3* or 4* where authors ignore relevant literature in other languages, and that the standards of some journals should be scrutinised more. Moreda essentially agreed with the need for wider factors to be taken into account, whilst (in somewhat rantish tone!) I continued that examiners needed a wide range of expertise across multiple sub-disciplines, and asked how in historical work like hers and mine (I work on music in Nazi and post-war Germany, she works on music in Franco’s Spain and amongst Spanish exiles) how many would know if we were making up or distorting the content of the sources? Knowing of a time when there was a leading REF assessor who could not read music, I asked how they could judge many music-related outputs, and both Moreda and I agreed there could be merit in using non-UK examiners, while I also suggested that a department should be removed from the REF when one of their own faculty members is on a panel, because of the potential for corruption.
Theatre and Performance/Early Modern scholar Andy Kesson (@andykesson) posted a harrowing thread relating to his early career experiences at the 2014 REF, for which his outputs were a monograph and an edited collection. In the lead-up, he was informed that these were ‘”slim pickings” for an ECR submission’, and pushed to get them out early and develop other publications. This came at a time when Kesson’s father died and he was forced to witness his mother in the late stages of a long-term fatal illness. Whilst deeply upset by these experiences, Kesson tried to explain that he would struggle to fulfil these additional publication demands, and was told this work was non-negotiable. After the death of his mother, her own father also became extremely ill, and Kesson was forced to do his work sitting next to his hospital bed. When offered a new job, his previous institution threatened legal action over his ‘slim’ REF submission, leading to a dispute lasting two years. Many were upset to read about the callousness of Kesson’s former institution. Social identity scholar Heather Froehlich (@heatherfro) responded that ‘academics are the most resilient people on earth, who are willing to endure so much yet still believe in their absolute singular importance – only to be told “no, you are wrong” in every aspect of their professional lives’. However, one dissenting voice here and elsewhere was that of Exeter Dean and English Professor Andrew McRae (@McRaeAndrew), who cited Wilsdon’s defence of the REF mentioned earlier, and argued that no QR money would ever be given without state oversight, asking whether a better model than the REF existed? Engineering Professor Tanvir Hussain (@tanvir_h) argued that the problem was with Kesson’s institution’s interpretation of REF rules rather than the rules themselves, a theme which others have taken up, on how the ambiguities of the REF are used as a weapon for favouritism, bullying and the like.
Geographer Tom Slater (@tomslater42), having read many of the worst stories about people’s experiences with the REF, called out those who serve on panels, making the following claims:
A) you are not being collegial
B) you are appallingly arrogant if you think you can offer an evaluation of the work of an entire sub-discipline *that has already been through peer review*
C) you are not doing it because somebody has to
D) you are not showing “leadership”
E) you are contributing to a gargantuan exercise in bringing UK academia into international disrepute
F) you are making academia an even more crappy for women, minorities, critical thinkers, and great teachers
G) if you all stood down, HEFCE would have massive problem
Various people agreed, including in the context of internal pre-REF assessments. Another geographer, Emma Fraser (@Statiscape) suggested simply giving any REF submission a 4*, a suggestion Slater and sociologist Mel Bartley (@melb4886) endorsed, and was made elsewhere by novelist and creative writing lecturer Jenn Ashworth (@jennashworth). Linguistics scholar Liz Morrish (@lizmorrish) was another to focus on the behaviour of individual institutions, maintaining that ‘the
#REF was NEVER intended to be an individual ranking of research. It was intended to give a national picture and be granular only as far as UoA. What you are being asked to do is just HR horning in on another occasion for punishment’. Slater himself also added that ubiquitous terms such as ‘REFable’ or ‘REF returnable’ should be abandoned.
Paul Noordhof (@paulnoordhof) asked in this context ‘Suppose there were no REF, or equivalent, linked to research performance. What would stop the University sector achieving efficiency savings by allowing staff numbers to reduce over time and doubling teaching loads? Especially for some subjects’, but Slater responded that collective action from academics (as opposed to the more common action supporting and promoting the REF) would stop this. Slater also responded directly to McRae’s earlier post, including the statement ‘Careful what you wish for’, by arguing that ‘most would wish for a well funded sector where we don’t have to justify our existence via an imposed, reductive, compromised, artificial assessment system that destroys morale. Careful what you lie down for’.
Italian social scientist Giulia Piccolino (@Juliet_p83), responding to my retweeting of Slater’s original thread, called herself ‘the last defender of the REF’, which she felt to be ‘a bad system but the least bad system I can imagine’, a similar position to that of Andress. In response, I suggested that a better system might involve the submission of no more than two outputs from any department, allowing much more time to be spent on peer review. Piccolino noted that in other countries where she had worked, appointments depended simply on one’s PhD supervisor (a point she also made in response to Cupples), that scholars stop researching after receiving a permanent job (but still try and control junior figures) (something I have observed in some UK institutions), and so argued that while the REF could could be improved and humanised, it seemed a break on arbitrary power as encountered elsewhere. Piccolino’s returned elsewhere to her theme of how the transparency and accountability of the REF were an improvement on more corruptible systems, with which many UK academics were unfamiliar.
The debates with McRae continued, after his response to Cupples, in which he called the REF ‘an easy target’ and suggested that its demise would leave academics reliant on grants (a view endorsed wholeheartedly by Piccolino), claimed that many would prefer to replace peer-review with metrics, and that impact produced some important activity. Legal academic Catherine Jenkins (@CathyJenkins101) asked if things were so bad before the introduction of the RAE in 1986, to which McRae responded that he did not work in the UK then, but saw the problems of an Australian system in which publications in ‘a low-achievement environment’ in which many had not published for years, did not help a younger academic get a job. Modern Languages scholar Claire Launchbury (@launchburycla) argued that the modern Australian system (despite, not because of, its own ‘Excellence in Research for Australia’ (ERA) system for research evaluation) was practically unrecognisable in these terms. In response to a query from Marketing lecturer Alexander Gunz (@AlexanderGunz) relating to the lack of a REF equivalent in North America, McRae responded that that system was radically different, lacking much central funding, but where ‘state institutions are vulnerable to the whims of their respective govts, so in that respect greater visibility/measurability of performance might help’. Cupples herself responded to McRae that ‘The vast majority of universities in the world have no REF (and neither did British universities not so long ago) and yet research gets done and good work gets published’. Historical sociologist Eric R. Lybeck (@EricRoyalLybeck), a specialist in universities, echoed the view of Swinnerton-Dyer in hearkening back to the ‘light touch’ of the first RAE, which ‘would be an improvement’, and also argued against open access, saying this ‘distorts and changes academic practices’.
Film lecturer Becca Harrison (@BeccaEHarrison) posted her first REF thread, detailing her disillusion with UK academia as a result of the system, noting that she was told when interviewing for her first post-PhD job that her research ‘had to be world leading’ (4*) in order to get an entry-level job, and feeling that even this might amount to nothing because ‘there are 100 ECRs with 4* work who need my job’. This led her to support calls to boycott preparations for the REF as part of continuing industrial action. Another thread detailed common objections to the REF, then in a third thread, Harrison detailed her experiences with depression and anxiety attacks during her PhD, leading to hair loss and stress-induced finger blisters making it impossible to type, as well as early experiences with a poorly-paid teaching fellowship together with a non-HE job to pay bills, working 18 hour days in order to produce a monograph and endlessly apply for jobs. In her first full-time job, Harrison encountered bullying, misogyny from students, a massive workload and obsessiveness about production of 4* outputs. This did not lead to a permanent contract, but a new job offer came with huge requirements just for grade 6/7. She rightly said ‘please, people implementing REF, people on hiring committees, please know that this is what you’re doing to us – and that when we’ve done all this and the system calls us ‘junior’ and treats us like we don’t know what we’re doing we will get annoyed’.
Some further questions were raised by several on the new rules on open access, for example from Politics scholar Sherrill Stroschein (@sstroschein2), who argued that this would ‘just make book writers produce best work outside of REF’. But this important debate was somewhat separate from the wider question of the value of the REF, and what system might best replace it, which I decided to raise more directly in a new thread. There were a range of responses: musicologist Mark Berry (@boulezian) argued for a move away from a model based upon the natural sciences, and claimed that ‘Huge, collaborative grants encourage institutional corruption: “full economic costing”‘, while Moreda alluded to an article from 2017 about the possibility of a ‘basic research income’ model, whereby everyone had a certain amount allocated each year for research, so long as they could prove a reasonable plan for spending it (David Matthews, ‘Is “universal basic income” a better option than research grants?’, THES, 10 October 2017, though engineer David Birch responded that this would ultimately lead to another system similar to the REF). She saw how this would be insufficient for most STEM research and some in the humanities, but this could then be supplemented by competitive funding, as is already the case. Berry made a similar point to Moreda, also noting how much money would be saved on administration, whilst Cupples also agreed, as did sociologist Sarah Burton (@DrFloraPoste). Sums of up to around £10K per year were suggested; Burton also added that larger competitive grants should be assigned on a rotating basis, so that those who have had one should be prevented from holding another for some years, to create openings for post-graduate researchers (PGRs) and ECRs. I responded that this might exacerbate a problem already prevalent, whereby time-heavy species of research (involving archives, languages, old manuscripts, etc.) would be deterred because of the time and costs involved; Burton agreed that ‘slow scholarship’ is penalised, especially ethnographic work (this type of point was also made by archaeologist Rachel Pope (@preshitorian), comparing time-intensive archaeological work with ‘opinion pieces’ judged as of similar merit), while Moreda suggested that some ‘sliding scale’ might be applied depending on whether research involves archives and the like, though acknowledged this could result in ‘perverse incentives’.
I also noted that one consequence of Burton’s model would be a decline in the number of research-only academics, but that it would be no bad thing for all to have to do some UG core teaching (with which Cupples agreed). Burton’s response was ambivalent, as some are simply ‘not cut out for teaching in a classroom’, though I suggested similar problems can afflict those required to disseminate research through conferences and papers, to which Burton suggested we also need to value and codify teaching-only tracks for some. Moreda was unsure about the proposal to restrict consecutive grants, especially for collaborative projects, though also suggested that such a model might free up more money for competitive grants. Noting earlier allegations of careerism, etc., Berry argued that one should not second-guess motivations, but there should be space for those who are not careerists, and that it would be helpful for funds to assist with language or analytical skills or other important things.
I asked who might have figures for (i) no. of FTE positions in UK academia at present (to which question I have since found the figure of 138,405 on full-time academic contracts, and 68,465 on part-time academic ones, in 2016-17); (ii) current government spending on research distributed via REF (the figure for 2015-16 was £1.6 billion), and (iii) the administrative costs of REF (for which a HEFCE report gives a figure of £246 million for REF 2014). This latter figure is estimated to represent roughly 2.4% of a total £10.2 billion expenditure on research by UK funding bodies until REF 2021, and is almost four times that spent on RAE 2008. Nonetheless, its removal would not make a significant difference to available research funds. If one considers the ‘basic research income’ model (in the crudest possible form) relative to these figures, an annual expenditure of £1.6 billion would provide £10K per year for 160,000 full-time academics, which would be a very large percentage. if the part-time academics are assumed to average 0.5 contracts.
An arts and humanities scholar who goes by the name of ‘The Underground Academic’ (@Itisallacademic) (hereafter TUA) felt the basic income model would prevent a need to apply for unnecessary large grants, and also expressed personal dislike for collaborative projects, a view which runs contrary to orthodox wisdom, but was backed by Moreda and Berry. I agreed and also questioned the ‘fetishisation of interdisciplinary work’ as well. TUA responded with a pointer to Jerry A. Jacobs, In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), which is a sustained scholarly critique of interdisciplinarity, so often assumed to be an unquestionable virtue. Burton also asked that employers and funders value book-based research more, and expressed frustration that her own work on social theory is deemed ‘easy’, to which I added an allusion to a common situation by which reading-intensive work, often involving carefully critical investigation of hundreds of books, can be dismissed as entailing a ‘survey text’.
There were a range of other more diverse responses. Cupples also argued that the New Zealand system, the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), whilst imperfect, was ‘a thousand times better than the REF’; Cupples and Eric Pawson authored ‘Giving an account of oneself: The PBRF and the neoliberal university‘, New Zealand Geographer 68/1 (April 2012), pp. 14-23. Amongst the key differences Cupples outlined were individual submissions, crafting of one’s own narrative, own choice of most suitable panel, own choice of nominated outputs, information on how one did oneself (not available to others), and greater support from departments.
Piccolino returned to her earlier questions about the potential for corruption in non-REF-based academic cultures, and asked ‘which system guarantees that people are hired for being committed, dedicated researchers vs being friends, friends of friends, products of elite institutions etc?’. Following Cupples mention of the PBRF, Piccolino also mentioned the Italian abilitazione nazionale, providing criteria for associate and full professors, but she suggested it was of little effect compared to patronage and the need for compliant researchers. This system was, according to Piccolino, closer to the REF than the German Habilitation. She also drew attention to a scathing article on corruption in Italian academia (Filippomaria Pontani, ‘Come funziona il reclutamento nelle università’, Il post, 11 October 2016).
Social scientist Gurminder K. Bhambra (@GKBhambra) pointed out the intensification of each iteration of the REF, with the current post-Stern version more individualised and pernicious than before. Medievalist James T. Palmer (@j_t_palmer) argued that REF is not the primary means of distributing research funding, because the majority is distributed through competition, though the REF may determine university funding in general (a profound observation whose implications need wider exploration).
Medieval and early modern historian Jo Edge (@DrJoEdge) asked why, in a REF context, peer-reviewed book chapters are seen as inferior to journal articles, to which Andress replied that (a) some believe book peer-review is less rigorous, as chapters are pre-selected and reviewed collectively; (b) the chapters will have less impact since less easy to find through the usual search engines (a point which Burton said she had also heard); (c) old-style elitist prejudice.
A sardonic exchange proceeded between three musicians or musicologists : composer Christopher Fox (@fantasticdrfox, himself a REF 2014 panelist), Berry, and me. Fox felt that ‘the current UK research model is counterproductive in the arts’ and that ‘Competition is a useless principle around which to organise our work’. I asked what it would mean to rank the work of leading late-twentieth-century composers such as Pierre Boulez and Jean Barraqué, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono, Brian Ferneyhough and Robin Holloway, or the playing of pianists Aloys Kontarsky and David Tudor, or clarinettists Harry Sparnaay and Armand Angster, as 3* or 4*, especially if non-musicians were involved in the process? Fox also referenced US composers Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, and as how one can fix criteria which account for the disparities in their aesthetic intentions, while Berry pointed out that Anton von Webern (almost all of whose works are short in duration) would ‘never have been able to “sustain his invention over a longer time-span”‘, alluding to a common criteria for composition. Conversely, I asked if Erik Satie’s Vexations (which consists of two lines of music repeated 840 times), or the music of La Monte Young (much of it very extended in duration) should ‘have been regarded as streets ahead of most others, if submitted to REF?’, in response to which musicologist (French music expert) Caroline Potter (@carolinefrmus), author of several books on Satie, alluded to an upcoming ‘REF-related satire’ which ‘seems like the only sane way to deal with the business’. I asked about whether all of this contributed to a ‘a renewed, and far from necessarily positive, concept of the “university composer” (or “university performer”)’ (terms which have often been viewed negatively, especially in the United States), when academia is one of the few sources of income. Fox felt that this culture encouraged ‘the production of compositions that only have significance within academia’. I also raised the question of whether academics looked down on books which could be read by a wider audience, which Berry argued stemmed from envy on the part of those with poor writing skills.
Independently, cultural historian Catherine Oakley (@cat_oakley) echoed the views of Kesson and Harrison, as regards the impact of REF upon ECRs, who need ‘monograph + peer-reviewed articles’ to get a permanent job, yet start out after their PhDs in ‘precarious teaching posts with little or no paid research time’.
Elsewhere, industrial relations expert Jo Grady (@DrJoGrady) advocated boycott of preparations for the REF and TEF. In a series of responses, some asked how this could be done, especially when individuals are asked to submit their own outputs for internal evaluation. Further questions ensued as to whether this might lead to some of the worst (non-striking) academics undertaking the assessment.
Sayer himself (@coastsofbohemia) also contributed to these Twitter exchanges. In a first thread, he alluded to a passage from his book: ‘In a dim and distant past that is not entirely imaginary (and still survives for the shrinking minority of faculty members in N America) research was something that academics undertook as a regular part of their job, like teaching … Universities … expected their staff to publish … and academics expected universities to give them sufficient time to pursue their research … There was no *specific* funding for time for research but … the salary was meant to support and remunerate a staff member’s research as well as his or her teaching … [whereas today] Because the only govt support for universities’ “research infrastructure … and pathbreaking research …” comes through QR funding and QR funding is tied to RAE/REF rankings, any research that scores below a 3* necessarily appears as unfunded. The accomplishment of the RAE/REF … is to have made research *accountable* in the literal sense of turning it into a possible object of monetary calculation. This makes the REF a disciplinary technology in Foucault’s sense … which works above all through the self-policing that is produced by the knowledge that one’s activities are the subject of constant oversight. Both inputs (including, crucially, academics’ time) and outputs (as evaluated by REF panels and monetized by the QR funding formula) can now be *costed.* The corollary is that activities that do not generate revenues, whether in the form of research grants or QR income, may not count in the university’s eyes as research at all.’ In response to a question from me about his feelings on the argument that RAE/REF had helped post-1992 institutions, Sayer argued that there were other alternatives to no funding or REF-based funding, alluding to some of the suggestions in his article on peer review listed earlier. In a further thread, he summarised these arguments: the relative merits of peer review vs. metrics was ‘not the issue’. Sayer asserted that ‘Peer review measures conformity to disciplinary expectations and bibliometrics measure how much a given output has registered on other academics’ horizons’, and that neither of these are a reliable basis for 65% of REF ranking. Instead, he suggested that more weight should be allocated to research environment and resources, research income, conference participation, journal or series editing, professional associations, numbers of research students, public seminars and lectures, all of which are measurable.
Literature and aesthetics scholar Josh Robinson (@JshRbnsn) joined the discussions towards the end of this flurry of activity. Coming into one thread, he noted that internal mock-REF assessments meant ‘that the judgements of powerful colleagues with respect to the relative merits of their own & others scholarship can never be held to account’, since individual scores are not returned to departments, also arguing that this would be exacerbated in REF 2021. In response to McRae, Robinson added his name to those advocating a basic research income, which McRea said would technically be possible, but in practice ‘would redistribute tens of millions per year from RG to post-92 unis. Try that on your VC!’. Robinson’s response was to quote McRae’s tweet and say ‘the manager at a Russell Group insitution shows what he’s actually afraid of.’ But in response to a further statement in which Robinson thought that what his VC ‘would be afraid of would be a generally good thing’, McRae suggested that this might simply lead VCs to make redundancies. Robinson pointed out that an allocation by FTE researcher would provide an incentive to hire more people with time for research. Robinson has indicated that he might be able to make available a recent paper he gave on the REF, which I would gladly post on here.
But Morrish, responding that McRae’s claim that the REF is ‘the price we pay, as a mechanism of accountability’, retorted that ‘the price we pay’ is ‘a) Evidence of mounting stress, sickness and disenchantment among academics REF-audit related; b) Ridiculous and career-limiting expectations of ECRs’.
A few other relevant writings have appeared recently. Socio-Technical Innovation Professor Mark Reed (@profmarkreed) and social scientist Jenn Chubb (@JennChubb) blogged on 22 March calling on academics to ‘Interrogate your reasons for engaging in impact, and whatever they are, let them be YOUR reasons’, referencing a paper published the previous week, ‘The politics of research impact: academic perceptions of the implications for research funding, motivation and quality’, British Politics (2018), pp. 1-17. Key problems identified included choosing research questions in the belief they would generate impact, increased conflicts of interest with beneficiaries who co-fund or support research, the necessity of broadening focus, leading to ‘shallow research’, and more widely the phenomenon of ‘motivational crowding’, by which extrinsic motivations intimidate researchers from other forms, and a sense that impact constitutes further marketisation of HE. Chubb and Richard Watermeyer published an article around this time on ‘Evaluating ‘impact’, in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF): liminality, looseness and new modalities of scholarly distinction’, Studies in Higher Education (2018), though I have not yet had chance to read this. Historian Tim Hitchcock (@TimHitchcock) also detailed his experiences of the RAE/REF from the late 1980s onwards, first at North London Polytechnic. Hitchcock argues that:
I have always believed that the RAE was introduced under Thatcher as a way of disciplining the ‘old’ universities, and that the 1992 inclusion of the ‘new’ universities, was a part of the same strategy. It worked. Everyone substantially raised their game in the 1990s – or at least became more focussed on research and publication.
Hitchcock goes on to detail his experiences following a move to the University of Hertfordshire after RAE 1996. He notes how hierarchies of position (between Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor) became more important than ever, and recruitment was increasingly guided by potential RAE submissions. However, Hitchcock became more disillusioned when he took a position at the University of Sussex after REF 2014, and saw how the system felt ‘more a threat than a promise’ in such places, in which REF strategy was centrally planned. He notes how ‘The bureaucracy, the games playing and the constantly changing requirements of each new RAE/REF, served a series of British governments as a means of manipulating the university system’, the system was increasingly rigged in favour of ‘old’ universities, and made life increasingly difficult for ECRs, who had to navigate ever-bigger hurdles in order simply to secure a permanent position. Hitchcock concludes that:
Higher education feels ever more akin to a factory for the reproduction of class and ethnic privilege – the pathways from exclusion to success ever more narrowly policed. Ironically it is not the ‘neo-liberal’ university that is the problem; but the ‘neo-liberal’ university dedicated to reproducing an inherited hierarchy of privileged access that uses managerialism and rigged competition to reproduce inequality.
He does not write off the potential of the REF to change this, and appears to see the particular ways it is administered and used (and viewed by some in ‘old’ universities) as the problem.
There is more to say about the Thatcherite roots of the RAE, her disdain for the ‘old’ universities, especially after her alma mater, Oxford University, refused in 1985 to award her an honorary doctorate, and what the 1992 act meant in terms of a new vocational emphasis for higher education in general, to which I may return in a subsequent blog post.
It is very clear that the majority of Academic Twitter are deeply critical or bitterly resentful of the RAE/REF, and most believe reform to be necessary. Editorial director of the THES, Phil Baty (@Phil_Baty) offered up a poll asking whether people thought the REF and RAE had been positive or negative; the results were 22% and 78% respectively (and further comments, mostly making similar points to the above, followed). The arguments pro and contra, as have emerged over the weekend can be summarised as follows:
Pro: provides some transparent external scrutiny and accountability; enables funding for post-1992 institutions; enables some to find work who would find it impossible in other systems dominated by patronage; is a better model than any other which has been discovered; employs peer-review rather than metrics.
Contra: invests too much power in managers; creates bullying and intimidatory atmosphere at work through REF preparation mechanisms; makes job market even more forbidding for ECRs; highly bureaucratic; very costly; dominates all research; time-consuming; discriminatory; sexist; colonialist; makes few allowances for those with mental health, care, family, or other external commitments; uncollegiate; employs assessors working outside their area of expertise; uses too many UK academics as assessors; marginalises 2* work and book chapters; fetishises collaborative or interdisciplinary work; falsely erases distinctions between institutions; relies on subjective views of assessors; artificially bolsters certain types of creative practice; is not employed in almost any other developed country; employs mechanisms more appropriate that STEM subjects than arts, humanities and social sciences; has increased pressure on academics with every iteration; causes huge stress and sickness amongst academics.
Stern has not been enough, and there is no reason to believe that those making the final decisions have much interest in the welfare of lecturers, or for that matter the creation of the best type of research culture. Major reform, or perhaps a wholly new system, are needed, and both government and the OfS and Research England should listen to the views expressed above. And new employment laws are urgently needed to stop the destruction of academics’ lives which is happening, regularly as a result of the REF.