Publish date: 19 Jun 2024

Lady Smith, Chair of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, has today (Wednesday 19 June) published her findings relating to the provision of residential care for children at Gordonstoun, Moray and its associated junior school, Aberlour.

Abuse flourished unchecked for decades at Gordonstoun

Gordonstoun was one of the schools investigated in the boarding schools case study and explored in evidence in the course of public hearings.

She concludes that children who boarded at both establishments were exposed to risks of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and for many, those risks materialised.

Factors including failures to prioritise child protection; a lack of effective child protection systems; staff without appropriate skills and training; poor recruitment policies; insufficient oversight of pupils and teachers; and failures in governance are all found to have contributed.

Lady Smith said: “I have no difficulty in finding that children were abused at Gordonstoun and Aberlour in a variety of ways over a long period of time.

“It was assumed the declaration of good intentions by founder Kurt Hahn was enough to ensure the school could be entrusted to provided appropriate residential care.

“At Gordonstoun, the assumption proved to be ill-founded, largely due to poor leadership.

“It was only after 1990 and the appointment of a headmaster who understood the importance of pastoral care that abuse eventually began to be addressed and a measure of trust was restored.

“A dreadfully abusive and, in some houses, extremely violent culture was allowed to take root. Abuse was also perpetrated by staff. The evidence of abuse was clear from the accounts of many applicants.

“Similarly, at Aberlour, the 1960s to 1990s were marked by a similar culture of assumption and naivety, exacerbated by the long and unchallenged leadership.”

“There was a significant failure of governance with no interest in child protection or pastoral care until the 1990s.”

The scope and purpose of this part of the boarding schools case study was to consider evidence about:

  • The nature and extent of any relevant abuse at Gordonstoun. That included consideration of any reported abuse at Aberlour – Wester Elchies (1937–64) and Aberlour House (1947–99) – which operated essentially as, and were widely understood to be, Gordonstoun’s prep schools, notwithstanding having distinct legal entity between 1947 and 1999, after which Aberlour became a subsidiary of Gordonstoun Schools Ltd.
  • Any of Gordonstoun’s relevant systems, policies, and procedures, their application, and their effectiveness
  • Any related matters.

Evidence explored during case study hearings which took place between 26 March 2021 and 11 November 2021 included oral evidence and evidence from signed statements which were read in.

Since hearings concluded, evidence in the form of further signed statements has been provided and some of it is referred to in the findings.  Otherwise, such evidence has been taken into account in assessing the overall picture and will continue to be carefully considered by SCAI as part of a continuing process.

In summary, in relation to Gordonstoun Lady Smith also found:

  • Poor leadership resulted in a dreadfully abusive and, in some houses, extremely violent culture was allowed to take root
  • A code of silence amongst the pupils was normalised
  • Andrew Keir, a physics teacher, was a predatory paedophile. Under the guise of being friendly and caring, he groomed boys with a view to satisfying his sexual desires
  • His behaviour was known about by the boys. The school was also aware but failed to act
  • Had Gordonstoun acted when it should have done, children would not have been abused Keir him in 1990 or 1991.
  • Six other teachers sexually abused children between the 1960s and 1990s. The abuse comprised the repeated rape of a boy by an exchange teacher; the indecent assault of boys by two teachers; indecent assaults on girls by a male teacher (who was subsequently jailed in England for similar abuse); indecent touching of girls by the school chaplain; and voyeuristic practices by a housemaster involving a number of male pupils. That voyeurism was reported, but the school’s response went no further than removing the housemaster from his house. Repeated complaints from a parent finally resulted in his resignation but he was not dismissed
  • Racism was widespread
  • Sexual abuse engaged in by pupils seems to have been frequent. Whilst, after co-education was introduced in 1972, it was not unusual for girls to form relationships – including sexual relationships – with older boys, they would often do so to protect themselves from others. This was, in fact, a form of grooming

In relation to Aberlour Lady Smith found:

  • Weak recruitment practices and poor judgment by the headmaster meant that unsuitable teachers were repeatedly appointed
  • A high proportion of staff sexually abused children at Aberlour
  • John Conroy, an English teacher at Aberlour in the 1970s, abused at least four boys
  • The response to the discovery of his abuse was woeful. Conroy was dismissed, but the school did not report matters to the police and nor were other staff made aware of how Conroy had been behaving
  • That approach to the discovery of abuse was repeated. Three other members of staff left Aberlour after inappropriate behaviour

Gordonstoun offered a genuine apology for the abuse experienced by children entrusted into its care and acknowledged its moral responsibility for those at Aberlour prior to 1999.

Lady Smith said: “There have been periods in Gordonstoun’s history where abuse was allowed to be normalised for decades. It seems clear, however, that for the last 30 years or so, some good leaders have sought to recover the position.

“The risk of children being abused will, however, always be present. I recognise that Gordonstoun has now made real efforts to be aware of the risk of abuse, to protect against it, and, if abuse occurs, to respond appropriately, but the school must never become complacent.

“I am very grateful to all who engaged with the Inquiry, whether former pupils, former and current staff, or others. Their willingness to cooperate, assist, and contribute accounts of their experiences at Gordonstoun was welcome and invaluable in enabling me to make these findings.”

Lady Smith has now published twelve sets of findings, most recently in relation to Morrison’s Academy. Further case study findings in relation to other boarding schools will follow.

Lady Smith discusses her findings