Last October, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) held public hearings on sexual abuse at UK specialist music schools. The inquiry primarily covers what are often called ‘historic’ incidents, from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Allegations of sexual abuse at Chetham’s School of Music, in Manchester, first hit the news in 2013, when Michael Brewer, a choirmaster and former director of music at the school, was jailed for six years for indecently assaulting a pupil. She committed suicide days after testifying against him. Over the following months, a picture emerged of widespread abuse at UK music schools in the 1970s and 1980s. At one point, Greater Manchester Police’s Operation Kiso was investigating 39 current and former teachers at Chets and the Royal Northern College of Music (there is a significant overlap in faculty between the two institutions).

I had just turned ten when I started boarding full-time at Chets in 2009. At first I studied the violin with Maciej Rakowski. He had previously taught Nicola Benedetti, and was one of the most sought-after teachers at the school. In an attempt to rebuild my technique from scratch, Rakowski at first allowed me to play only open strings, and later scales and studies. I don’t remember him ever praising me, only criticising, though he would praise his older students to me in order to draw an unfavourable comparison between my progress or work ethic and theirs. Some pupils may have thrived on such methods, but I wept through most of my lessons. Rakowski generally made no comment on this, though he once sent me out to wash my face in case the tears damaged the varnish on my violin.

At Chets, an emotionally gruelling teacher-pupil relationship seemed to be considered not only normal but necessary for attaining musical excellence. One teacher, known for violent outbursts, had broken a pupil’s toe. The pianist and musicologist Ian Pace, a former pupil, commented in his IICSA testimony that instrumental teachers often ‘like to mould pupils in their own image … which leaves them very vulnerable. The boundaries between when one is dealing with the musical self and the rest of the self for the child are often very blurred.’

By the time I came home for the summer at the end of my first year, my confidence and sense of musical identity were shattered. My mother asked for a meeting with Rakowski, but the school refused. ‘There’s no problem,’ the head of strings said. ‘Laura’s made great progress this year. Don’t you want her to enter Young Musician in a year or two?’ I carried on with a different violin teacher, but the instrument had come to feel utterly alien and hostile in my hands. The following year I had a breakdown. I haven’t played the violin since.

Perhaps the time when I was at Chets now also qualifies as ‘historic’. The label has been useful for the school and other institutions like it. When Brewer’s trial began, the school at first took the line that he was an anomalous bad apple. As this position became untenable in the face of the sheer volume of allegations, the strategy shifted. There might have been failures of child protection, the argument went, but they reflected the norms of the time, to which the school today bore no relation. I don’t know how Chetham’s has operated since I left; the school has appointed a new head and a new director of music. I imagine that many pupils currently at the school would disagree vehemently with the portrait I am painting here, as no doubt would many of my contemporaries.

Reading the transcripts of the IICSA hearings on Chets, however, I was struck not by the differences between the 1970s and my later experiences at the school, but by the continuities. A number of the staff who were interviewed as witnesses, or whose conduct was discussed, were still at the school when I was there. Stories about sexual relationships between staff and pupils, and about cruelty and bullying by teachers, were still relatively commonplace. I witnessed the routine dismissal and neglect of pupils who were suffering. Competition was encouraged in most aspects of musical life: which teacher you had, which repertoire you were allowed to tackle in which school year, the marks you got in assessments, how you placed in competitions, who sat where in orchestras and ensembles, who was chosen for high-profile concerts. As one IICSA witness put it: ‘There was a very distinct sort of system where the best pupils, as it were, were given a lot of opportunities, and then there was a sort of sliding down to what might be called the scrap heap at the bottom.’ Talented students who complained about their teachers or challenged the school might also be blacklisted.

John Vallins, the headmaster from 1974 to 1992, said in his testimony that Chetham’s held in loco parentis responsibilities only during term-time and on school premises, not for private lessons held during the holidays by Chets teachers. But even during term-time the school tended to leave pupils and instrumental teachers to their own devices. If anyone noticed that a 13-year-old was compulsively practising the violin for eight hours a day alongside their regular school timetable, as one IICSA witness described, it elicited praise rather than concern. Most often, though, staff seemed wilfully unobservant. Pastoral support was patchy, despite the efforts of a small number of kind and perceptive staff. One of my dorm-mates in my first year suffered from incontinence, and, unnoticed by the teachers, would hide her soiled underwear in a shared wardrobe. By the time I reached my teens, a significant proportion of my female peers self-harmed and/or had eating disorders, which the school seemed both unable and unwilling to address.

Music schools disproportionately attract odd, disturbed and vulnerable children who struggle in mainstream education. Many students and staff accordingly thought of Chetham’s as a refuge from the outside world; a common mantra was that the school was like ‘one big family’. Any negative coverage of the school – in particular, the regular articles on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog – attracted a chorus of zealous defenders. One commenter on Slipped Disc implied that she had been abused at Chets; a pupil responded on Facebook that she needed ‘slapping across the face with a cock’. There was a general feeling that any internal criticism of the school was traitorous.

Senior figures have insisted they were unaware of sexual abuse at Chets. During Vallins’s IICSA testimony, someone in the public gallery shouted out: ‘You did know! You were told. It’s as clear as that. You’re lying … You did nothing. You have not apologised. I hope you can live with yourself.’ Vallins said that this was ‘absolutely untrue’. Ian Pace told the inquiry that he believed Vallins’s priorities ‘were primarily for the reputation of the school’. Subsequent heads have also been concerned about the school’s reputation. In 1994, under Vallins’s successor, Peter Hullah, the school concealed the reason for Michael Brewer’s departure. When the Independent Schools Inspectorate released its 2013 report on Chetham’s in response to the abuse scandal, Hullah’s successor, Claire Moreland, argued (unsuccessfully) for the wording of its conclusion to be adjusted from ‘a number of weaknesses’ to ‘a small number of weaknesses’, citing potential ‘reputational damage’ to the school.

The problems at Chetham’s were not unique. As the IICSA hearings make plain, they were replicated at Britain’s other residential music schools, as well as at conservatoires and other specialist institutions (for dance, or sport). In some ways, a specialist music school is an inherently abnormal place, but it felt utterly ordinary to me when I was there, as any environment does when you are immersed in it. I made important friends, and several individual teachers were caring and supportive.

In many ways, sexual abuse is a symptom rather than the root cause of the problematic culture of elite music education. During the IICSA hearings, a wider picture emerged of pastoral failings and what Ian Pace called an ‘insidious, bullying atmosphere’. I was not sexually assaulted at Chets, and my violin teacher’s actions weren’t criminal in any other way, either. I don’t believe that sexual abuse is being ignored at the school today as it was thirty or forty years ago. But that is a low bar.

Perhaps a new era is dawning. Paul Bambrough has been head of the Purcell School since 2018. ‘My first priority,’ he said in his IICSA testimony, ‘my overriding priority, is to ensure that all students in the school are safe, happy and healthy. I have always been slightly uncomfortable with the term “specialist music school” … because it gives the implication that you do the music really well and you leave everything else to look after itself.’