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Mary Wakefield

Are schoolgirls still fair game for teachers?

I can feel sorry for those who are pursued as I pursued poor Mr W. But I can't accept their self-justifications

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

Mr Malcolm Layfield, the former violin teacher at Chetham’s music school, will have been celebrating this week after being found not guilty of raping a former pupil. Malcolm admitted to getting young (though over-age) girls drunk and to having sex with them in the back of his car. But he and his lawyer, Ben Myers QC, were keen to stress that the girls were all up for it. The one who cried rape even wore fishnet tights in his presence, for heaven’s sake.

So no harm done, eh, Malcolm? All’s well that ends well. Raise a glass of that cheap Scotch you kept in the glove compartment for the kids. Perhaps it’ll help you sleep. But if it doesn’t, there’s something I’d like you to think about, in the small hours perhaps. It’s something I’d like all the Malcolms to consider; all those music-teaching men in girls’ schools who’ve found themselves in bed or in their Fiat Pandas with the pupils in their care: you may not have sex with schoolgirls, however provocative you find their tights. You’re in loco parentis. It’s not OK. This idea you all seem to have that the classroom’s incidental; that under other circumstances you might have met and seduced these girls in the real world, in the classical section of HMV: it’s nonsense. Utter tripe. Think back to your adolescence, Malcolms. Were you such a hit with the chicks back then? And if not, just what do you think has changed? Did mid-life confer some special sexiness on your unpromising frame? Is it the bald spot, do you think, that makes you suddenly so hot? The fact is that you’d have made no headway at all had you not known, and had authority over, these girls as children.

I went to two British boarding schools, and in both there were music teachers in the Malcolm mould. At my first school there was Mr W (let’s call him that). Mr W had the complexion of a supermarket mushroom and teeth missing. ‘That slimy little man?’ said my mother, with as much surprise as disgust when she found my schoolbooks defaced by declarations of my passionate love for him.

But I was 11, as are most girls when they begin to board, as are the girls at Chetham’s. And 11 is an odd time for a girl. The sun of childhood is low, shadows fall across once-familiar things and in this strange light any old creep can seem a god.

Poor Mr W. I stalked him. When his yellow Ford Sierra was absent from the school car park I saw no point in living. When it was there, I tracked him down and drifted palely in his wake, both desperate for him to notice me and desperate for him not to.

An 11-year-old away from home knows nothing about ‘normal’. Normal is whatever happens every day. So it seemed perfectly normal for Mr W to be involved with a sixth-former — let’s call her Katie. Katie would emerge from the special music room blushing and smiling and pulling her scarf tight about her neck. Love bites, I told my friends, without knowing what one was. It never occurred to us that anything was wrong or untoward about Mr W, or indeed about any of the other teaching men who soon followed suit and took up with various girls. To an 11-year-old, Katie seemed quite grown-up. I thought her unimaginably lucky and longed more than anything to take her place.

I was lucky, now I look back on it, that I hadn’t the slightest clue about how to flirt. I tried climbing trees, right to their impressive tops, and smoking and looking deep. At 15, on a music trip, I ran into the frozen North Sea fully clothed in a desperate bid to show Mr W how attractively spontaneous I was. Later that night, drying my sodden cigarettes on a two-bar electric fire, I felt I’d played my best shot and missed.

As it happens, just after I left that school Mr W chose again from the pick’n’mix and took up with a girl in the year below me. Like me, she’d fallen for him young, but unlike me, she’d been selected for the music-room treatment. I heard from other girls that she even kept at it after school and shacked up with Mr W for a time in town. Living the dream. As I also heard it, she came to her senses soon afterwards and tried to haul her life back on to normal tracks. I’m not sure how successful that proved.

In my experience, the girls who fall hardest for teachers are often the most fragile; the neediest ones. What the Malcolms don’t understand — or what they do, I’m sure, deep down — is that for girls this isn’t about sex, no matter how provocative they seem. The longing of a schoolgirl for a teacher is bound up with the need for protection. It’s a psychic disturbance, a projection. They, we, attach in the way a patient might to his therapist. As the Chetham’s schoolgirls found out later in life, it isn’t wise to break the taboo. There are consequences later on.

In a way, I do feel sorry for the Malcolms. It must be so difficult to resist. Every year there’ll be new girls who loiter — for whom, in this strange bubble-world, you’re the very pinnacle of manhood. Where other teachers are restrained by watching eyes, you have that music room — unsupervised one-on-one tuition. And the mind is a self-justifying machine. It’s hard enough to give up sweets without thinking of 100 reasons not to. How much stronger than a desire for chocolate must be the longings of a one-time music nerd for the sort of teenagers who spurned him back when he was at school?

It’s usual to suggest, when discussing the scandals at Chetham’s or at the Royal Northern College of Music, nearby in Manchester, that teacher-pupil relationships were a 1980s thing; that we’re all wiser and more into safeguarding now. I suspect that’s a dangerously complacent view of things. Mr W was at it in the 1990s and Operation Kiso, the investigation by Greater Manchester Police into allegations of historic sexual abuse in music schools, is looking at cases from 2006.

In his closing statement in defence of Malcolm Layfield, Mr Myers QC suggested that the girls used Mr Layfield for sex, just as much as he did them. I imagined Malcolms nationwide reading the report, nodding happily over their morning papers, thinking schoolgirls are still fair game.

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