How Do We Address Rape Culture at Boys' Public and Grammar Schools? - CRGS Case Study
Updated: Apr 18, 2021
Update: Click here to read over 200+ submissions about rape culture/ sexism/ homophobia/ racism at CRGS, submitted by both past and present CRGS & CCHS students.
Recently, old school friends and I have been reacquainted by Soma Sara’s ‘Everyone’s Invited’ initiative that hit the headlines a few weekends ago. Soma Sara highlighted the issue around the toxic rape culture and actual sexual assault/ rape occurring at predominately boy’s schools. An issue so many of my contemporaries feel so passionately about given we have stood in this exact situation.
You see, in 2011, after attending a state comprehensive school for my GCSEs, I moved to Colchester Royal Grammar School (CRGS) for the sixth form under the promise that it offered the best education money can’t buy. However, I, and many of the girls since, received far more than we ever bargained for – leaving genuinely traumatised by the memory of our time at the school.
CRGS Entrance Requirements & Academic Excellence
State-funded, CRGS offers single-sex boys-only education for the high school (ages 11-16). However, they allow a ‘limited number of girls’ (thirty in my year) into the sixth form (16-18). We were never made privy as to why this decision happened but, giving the school the benefit of the doubt, let us speculate that it was to allow girls in the area the same educational opportunity as the boys received.
After all, CRGS boasted that it provided a superior education to public schools Eton and Harrow as it consistently ranked number one in the national league tables for A-Level results. Further, it wasn’t a case of ‘if you were good enough’ to apply to Oxbridge, instead, teachers asked ‘when are you going to apply to Oxbridge?’ 41 out of the approximately 150 students in my year received Cambridge or Oxford offers.
However, many of us girls felt, owing to the lack of any effort to properly integrate us, and that girls were not admitted in the high school, we were there simply to help the school raise their average A-Level results score. In my year, around 400 girls applied for 30 spaces; we had two interviews to gain admittance and required superior grades than the boys to get a place at the same sixth form. A new girl had to get an A or A* at GCSE in the subject she wished to study at A-Level. Meanwhile, existing boys only needed a 3 As and 2Bs overall.
Undeniably though, having attended the school I can attest to the superior level of education that I received. Having come from a mid-tier comprehensive, I was blown away by the fact people were so keen to learn and so desperate to excel. Teachers went the extra step to teach you how to ‘beat the exams’ and focused heavily on how to give the answer the examiner is looking for. We memorised endless perfect answers and essays structures and regurgitated facts and figures daily for subjects like History.
If a school’s only purpose is to educate students to meet the national curriculum, I cannot deny that institutions such as CRGS go above and beyond expectations.
What About Their Duty of Care?
However, a school has a purpose beyond education. The Government’s Department for Education publishes statutory guidance on topics such as ‘keeping children safe in education’ and ‘working together to safeguard children’. As such, schools have a duty of care to protect their students and ensure their learning environment is a safe one, ideally providing a space for children to grow and enjoy learning. Children spend so much time at school that it plays such a pivotal role in shaping who they become. Schools need to appreciate the influence they have and the role they play in their upbringing.
CRGS state in their Sixth Form prospectus that they take their “equalities responsibilities seriously, in line with the 2010 Equality Act” and aim to “foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic [including sex/ gender identity] and persons who do not share it”. However, from my experience, this doesn't ring true at all.
For our yearbook, for example, some of the boys felt it appropriate to ask us to vote on a category “most likely to beat their wife/children”. A large argument ensued on the year group Facebook group – one male wrote “to be honest, if my wife is hot and my kids are good at sports then I won’t beat them”, later commenting “let’s be honest, domestic abuse, sexism, and racism are all just good crack really”. Another responded: “I don’t and will never condone domestic abuse but surely you can see the funny side?” I can assure you, the girls in the group did not.
When one boy in the year leapt to support the girl’s argument, commenting “I think there is a lot of ignorance, a lot of misogyny under the guide of being a “lad”’, another responded they were voting him “most likely for sex change then” – because yes, joking about being Transgender was also a yearbook category. Yet another commented, “there isn’t a ‘lad clique’ in our school’ there’s just an elite few who are genetically superior to the rest. I, and the majority of those with whom I associate, are all included within this elite few.” He proceeded to link a Yahoo answer to: “Why Can’t Women Take A Joke?”
It’s not entirely fair to blame these boys themselves as this attitude grew from the ‘boys will be boys’ culture in which they were raised. Their attitude too is part of a larger problem with how boys are socialised by their families and the inherent patriarchy present in wider society. However, it is also aggravated in the setting at CRGS. Teachers continuously reminded boys of the school’s educational achievements fostering the belief that they were superior to the rest of the population, thus leading to an unparalleled sense of superiority and entitlement.
After making the school aware of the yearbook category, the committee were told they weren’t allowed to include the category in the yearbook, and only one of the students was sanctioned for his comments. He had to apologise on the Facebook page and did so in a hugely sarcastic way, ending it “I hope you all have a pleasant evening :) xo”. One of his friends, who previously wrote domestic abuse is “all just good crack”, commented “don’t worry, I was upset but I now see you were just misunderstood” with another writing “I feel like you were heavily pressured into writing this to avoid a b*****king” – we all knew it to be true and to be honest, we were surprised we even got anything at all.
This example is only one that can be physically proven today with screenshots. Speaking to women about their memories of the school reveals far wider misogyny and abuse. From trying to throw wet tissue down girls’ shirts and filming their bottoms as we walked to class to starting what they called a ‘rape society’ to discuss whether ‘babies can be raped’ to genuine and actual physical sexual assault and rape at parties. In my year, one boy locked himself in two different girls’ car and refused to leave until he received oral sex. Another told everyone he’d slept with a girl and, when she denied it saying if he did it wasn’t consensual then changed his story - he just “nibbed her”, as if putting the tip of their penis inside didn’t count as assault. Ultimately though, an undeniable toxic and ubiquitous rape culture was prevalent throughout.
The Problem of the CRGS 'Old Boys' Society
The school also boasts an Old Colcestrian’s (OCs) society, known still colloquially as ‘the Old Boys’. This is another source of contention at the school. Back in 2019, I complained via e-mail to the President of the society that I did not feel welcome as a woman.
When attending OC events, I have frequently been subjected to everyday sexism. One day, a senior committee member asked, “who’s better half are you?” and when I replied, “actually, I attended the school”, proceeded to ignore me. Later, the same member shook every man’s hand in the circle I was standing in and wished them the best for their future; he completely skipped over me, disregarding the presence of women at the school entirely.
Responding to this, the President acted shocked, he “apologised unreservedly on behalf of the OCs” and said he was “keen to know the senior committee member” I spoke of. Stating that this behaviour “must be consigned to the history books.” However, after giving his name, I never received another response.
Today, the same man I complained about sits on the Board and publicly espouses sexist remarks. He even has a Wikipedia page with a long list of controversies, and frequently tweets statements such as “lowering SAS standards to allow women to join will cost lives… it is being done for social engineering not operational advantage”. As if the presence of women alone lowers standards. And we wonder why these boys act the same with this sort of representation to ‘look up to’?
The problem is that feeling excluded from this society has led to a reduced number of networking opportunities for women from the school. Networking helps get things done in our day-to-day jobs and helps with longer-term career progression. It helps expose us to new ideas and gain the information and support we need to bring our ideas to life. And, as someone who frequently has start-up ideas but no idea where to turn for help, these networks are fundamental.
In my year group, three male best friends all work at the same management consultancy organisation. Another got arrested for allegedly physically assaulting a woman at University and yet bragged to me about how he got a job at a world-leading investment bank by golf caddying for a man who worked there over his summer break.
In response to this, I decided to launch my own unofficial OC’s women’s network. I messaged over 100 women on LinkedIn and received an overwhelmingly positive response. All but three individuals related the same sentiment that I espoused – they did not feel welcome at the OCs, with many stating they had a terrible experience at the school generally, and all welcomed a new networking initiative. There are over 130 members to date.
I have to admit, even if the OCs reached out and asked us to integrate into their existing efforts, I wouldn’t want to associate myself with such an archaic organisation without proof of large-scale change.
So, how do we resolve this issue?
The problem though, as my friends and I have come to realise, is there doesn’t seem a lot we can do about this issue. This is so much bigger than us – it’s part and parcel of a wider issue in a society where privileged boys are made to feel girls around them owe them something.
It’s the reason why CRGS is not alone in this problem. It’s why CNN writes that ‘UK’s elite schools face a reckoning on rape culture’. It’s the reason so many came forward to speak out about Harvey Weinstein or other infamous figures in the #MeToo movement. Or that Australia's parliament is having these very same discussions right now.
These problems do not just stop when these students leave CRGS. For a lot of these students, they carry the sense of entitlement forth to the next phase of their career – and I’ve found this to be true of many individuals I’ve since had the displeasure of encountering since leaving the sixth form.
While entry requirements have since changed at the school, from what I’ve heard speaking to more recently leavers, the culture has not changed with it. Even when girls that do speak out, they never seem to get the sense of justice that they should be entitled to – but I do not feel positioned to tell their stories, they belong to them, and in time, I am sure they will come out too.
Others in my year group have suggested we write an open letter to the school, gaining signatures from those who agree. Perhaps we should make policy changes. However, as a marketing specialist myself, I have thought about it the same way I have thought about campaigns I run.
There are three main phases to every campaign I operate – firstly, there is the awareness phase. People will not buy from you, or in this case change the status quo, if they do not know there is something to be bought or changed in the first place. Secondly, there is the consideration/ conversion phase. Here, you produce engaging content and talk about calls to action, you ‘convert’ people to believe in the cause you’re fighting for. Finally, there is the conversion/ closing phase. You meet, discuss everything to date, and come up with solutions.
Right now, with this article, I am working on phase one – raising awareness. I was never overly vocal about the problem at school because, of course, I’ll admit, I wanted people to like me more than I wanted to change the culture. Frankly, there was a sense that if we opened our mouths to complain, not only would we be the ‘feminist’ ruining their fun, the one who can’t take a joke, but it would further increase the insults and abuse. For many in my year, we agree that it also felt as though nobody in a position of authority would care. We had tried speaking out on smaller issues and they were never taken seriously, there were never any real lasting repercussions – we didn’t expect anything different with any larger issue.
However, looking back, to quote my favourite poet Blythe Baird, “is silence not an act of violence too?” It's time to speak up to protect the next generation of women. Since I have been more vocal on the issues in recent years, I have had around 15 boys from the school come forth and apologise to me for their behaviour, for their role in perpetuating the rape culture present, ashamed for their contribution.
While I love to see it and I am pleased they are reflecting on their time at the school, acknowledging their flaws, it’s not enough. I ask these same men to come forward once this is published and reflect about what you feel led you to believe that behaviour was acceptable at the time. How could it have been stopped?
There is, of course, another reason people are afraid of speaking out. It is to avoid being seen as a ‘troublemaker’ by employers. I learnt this first-hand earlier this week as I resigned from my job because I was unwilling to allow my company to pre-approve posts about ‘political issues’ on personal LinkedIn.
As a self-confessed liberal millennial, I of course responded that I don’t see campaigning against rape and sexual assault of young women as a political issue but a human rights one. I hope we could all agree that nobody is saying these girls should expect it by merely having the audacity to be educated. However, I am fortunate enough not to need that employment, I know I can run a perfectly successful freelance business myself and so felt able to leave and voice my opinions as I desire.
Perhaps all this lengthy article highlights is the need for all-boys schools to be scrapped altogether. Traditionalists will argue that all-boys schools are necessary – does the educational attainment of all-boys institutions like CRGS, Harrow, and Eton not show us that boys thrive better in an environment without girls ‘as a distraction’?
However, I would argue that I do not care for their educational attainment if they cannot stamp out rape culture. It is a problem that 16-year-old sons getting A*s is prioritised over 16-year-old daughters getting sexually assaulted by these same boys at a party. Frankly, if these boys’ schools cannot stamp out rape culture and learn to show they are socialised around their women counterparts, then I do not care for their educational attainment or national rankings.
Honestly, I can’t cover half the issues I want to in this piece. As it is, I’m running over 3,000 words and I haven’t even touched on homophobia, the issues of drug use, self-harm at the school, or teacher’s involvement in the problem. Know this though – I’m only speaking out because I want to improve things for an upcoming generation of students. I just want the future to be better for girls and women like myself.
Undoubtedly, when this article makes it onto the desk of the headmaster, there will probably be an apology that dozens of other schools have issued since – “we’re horrified to hear about this, and it has no place at our school”. Perhaps, they’ll remind us that they take a zero-tolerance policy, that they’re doing everything they can. However, actions speak louder than words. Now is not the time for apologies, it’s the time for action.
I urge the school to speak with women and listen to what they have to say about what needs to be changed. We may not have all the answers, but I’ve heard from several myself who make poignant arguments/ suggestions, e.g.:
Ensuring ‘banter’ is not left unchallenged in classrooms – not only because it can be harmful in and of itself but because it fosters a culture where people fear speaking out as it feels like the school as a whole is complicit in the sexist, racist, or homophobic jokes that have been cast aside under the guise of ‘banter’.
External safeguarding lead – feels safer going to someone going outside of the school as it’ll feel it’ll be taken more seriously. Someone to advocate on behalf of those who don’t feel they can.
To monitor change - Having ex-CRGS women help support the transition, an annual dinner after the new girls’ first term to hear their issues/ pass on resources and advice to them, or regular talks like ‘how to approach sexism in the school/ workplace’, ‘how to recognise a toxic culture’, ‘transitioning from a comprehensive school to CRGS’, ‘how to get a career in x’ etc. Can feedback to the school because it’s awkward to speak up as a student/ you face social repercussions of doing so. Etc etc.
These are just some of the few dozen ideas I’ve heard to date. You can read MORE IDEAS HERE.
But with all that said, it’s about time for a conversation don’t you think?
ACTIONS: How can you help?
If you attended CRGS or CCHSG, please leave an anonymous comment if you experienced any sexism/ misogyny/ rape culture/ actual assault while attending the school. Help show the scale of the problem that needs to be addressed: https://forms.gle/EbMGiG17GNy59H39A
Read & share these harrowing anonymous comments to spread word of the problem! https://crgs-comments.blogspot.com/p/crgs-anonymous-comments.html
Please subscribe with your e-mail to receive future updates about any action the school has taken - this will help to increase pressure on the school to create lasting change if they know people (former students, parents, prospective parents, etc) are aware of their inaction/ action: https://forms.gle/AJD8oghusRJWfP5c9/
Share this article far and wide, tell your friends who work in the media, post it on Twitter, share it on Facebook etc. All support helps!
Send an e-mail to Headmaster Mr J Russell at JRussell@crgs.co.uk & Dirk Reid, President of the Old Colchestrians firstname.lastname@example.org to let them know we need more than words on the topic. We need concrete action.
If you have been affected by any issues raised in this article, you may find the following links useful:
The Ferns, Suffolk - Allows survivors of sexual assault/ rape to give anonymous intelligence to the police if they do not want to take the case forward to court but may be interested in providing help if somebody else comes forward to report.
About the Author
Scarlett Mansfield, the author, is a former student from CRGS. She has spoken to around 80 women about their experiences at the school – while she does not claim to represent the views of all those women who have attended the school (no doubt many had positive experiences), in this article she is giving her perspective on what she understands to be the key issues, accounting for what others have shared with her about their time at the school.
Scarlett personally volunteered with Sexpression UK to teach sex education and consent to local high schools while studying in the Oxford area for her master's. After University, she spent some time working for Suffolk Mind as their Research & Evaluation Co-ordinator looking at how we could improve services available for residents of Suffolk. Sex education, consent, women’s rights/ equality, and mental wellbeing are all topics she cares passionately about. Today, she works freelance as a Writer, Researcher, and Digital Marketer.
Watch: 'Pocket-sized Feminism' by Blythe Baird