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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Alex Renton

Former pupils win £500,000 over abuse claims at Scottish boarding school

Gordonstoun school in Elgin
Two former pupils of the Gordonstoun junior school have been paid £500,000 in out-of-court settlements. Photograph: Andrew Smith/Alamy

Two ex-pupils who alleged rape, bullying and severe sexual abuse at the junior school of Gordonstoun in the 1990s have won out-of-court settlements totalling more than £500,000 from its insurers.

The stories of Kate (not her real name) and John Findlay were first told in the Observer Magazine in 2015. Kate, who was a scholarship student, alleged she was raped when 13 years old by a gap-year teacher on a school camping trip, while John was drugged, sexually assaulted and photographed in his dormitory bed at Aberlour House, considered to be a prep school for Gordonstoun, by a different teacher. The quest for justice has been hard for both victims. “I am relieved it’s over, it’s been so long,” Kate told the Observer this weekend.

The school’s insurer has settled without admission of liability in the case of Kate but admits liability in the case of John Findlay. Gordonstoun maintains that, though both pupils attended the senior school after the assaults, the junior school was until 1999 legally a separate entity for which it can’t be held responsible. Gordonstoun – the alma mater of King Charles – says it knows nothing about the cases.

After years of mental health problems, Kate first went to the police in 2012, when her daughter reached the same age as she had been when the student teacher forced her to have sex in a tent, while other girls on the trip to the Scottish Highlands listened.

In 2014, a man was due to go trial for this alleged rape and that of another 13-year-old girl at the junior school. He denied any wrongdoing. Just days before the court case was due to start, a key corroborating witness dropped out citing mental health concerns. The Observer was told by the Procurator Fiscal, Scotland’s Crown Prosecution Service, that in England the trial would have gone ahead.

With the criminal case derailed because of the vagaries of Scottish corroboration law, Kate and her lawyers, the specialist firm, Slater and Gordon, decided to sue for damages. Kate had been relentlessly bullied for years after the rape, and the senior school appeared to have known about her plight. At 16, Kate had disclosed the attack to a psychiatrist working for the school, who had been tasked with investigating her behavioural issues. Kate and her lawyers had first to obtain a ruling from the Scottish courts that a “time bar” on civil cases for damages could be lifted, because the trauma from the attack was so severe. That was successful: it has set an important precedent that has recently helped other ex-pupils of Scottish boarding schools who have made claims of assault obtain six-figure sums.

Findlay had a similarly long battle for justice. One evening in autumn 1990, the 12-year-old was in bed in his dormitory, in pain from a rugby injury and unable to sleep. The teacher, Derek Jones, gave him pills that he said were painkillers before sexually assaulting him and photographing him. Findlay told his parents shortly afterwards; they complained to the school and then to the local police.

But the family say they were persuaded not to press charges by the school bursar, even though Jones had assaulted another pupil. Gordonstoun denies it was their bursar. The bursar promised that Jones would leave the teaching profession, the family claim. But after Findlay made a complaint in 2012, Scottish police discovered that Jones moved straight to another school in England and then to teach in Kenya, where he died in a car crash.

John Findlay, who brought allegations against the school, in 2015.
John Findlay, who brought allegations against the school, in 2015. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Observer

This week, Kate looked back on the 10 long years since she made her first complaint. She says she is grateful for the money – she got £350,000, of which £70,000 will go to her costs. But she is “furious” that the arguments put up limit the amount of damages paid.

The insurers produced an expert psychological witness who maintained that since she had shown no signs of PTSD in the six months after the rape, Kate’s lifelong mental health problems were more likely to derive from trauma as a result of the sudden death of her father three years later, when she was 16.

But Kate and her own psychological expert disputed this. Kate told no one about the rape at the time. The NSPCC says that, on average, a survivor of child sexual abuse takes 18 years to disclose.

Today Kate feels abused by the process. “What’s unfair is that, though I have struggled, I have managed to get work over the years. But that means I’m worth less in compensation for loss of earnings. The irony is that Gordonstoun strives to make you resilient and I am being punished for that.” Mental health difficulties cut short Kate’s study for a degree in biochemistry at university.

Scottish courts have recently been paying large sums to survivors of historic abuse in the country’s famous boarding schools. In June, an ex-pupil of Fettes, Tony Blair’s school, got £400,000 in compensation for the assaults of a male teacher now awaiting extradition from South Africa. A 54-year-old man abused by three Catholic priests at St Ninian’s School in Fife received £1.4m in compensation in February.

Findlay welcomes his payment, but says he does not think justice has been achieved for him or other Gordonstoun survivors. “The school and the insurers have spent years adding to people’s trauma by dodging their responsibilities.”

In a statement, Gordonstoun said: “We are very sorry that any former student suffered abuse in their time at the school and we admire the courage of those who have come forward. Although Gordonstoun cannot answer formally for Aberlour House before 1999, we are providing as much information as we can to the [Scottish Child Abuse] Inquiry and have already taken the opportunity at the Inquiry of offering an apology to anyone who suffered abuse there.”

  • This article was amended on Saturday 8 October 2022 to reflect the relationship between Aberlour House and Gordonstoun.

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