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Abuse and Safeguarding: What’s Going Wrong at Eton?

With its fourth former staff member charged with the sexual abuse of children in recent years, Byline Times delves into the dark past of Britain’s most famous – and troubled – private school

Eton College students. Photo: Jeff Gilbert/Alamy

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With alumni including the future king, two recent prime ministers, the Head of the Church of England, the former Editor of the Daily Mail, three serving or recent Supreme Court judges, and the last head of the British Army, Eton College is – many would say – the most influential school in the country, if not the world.

It might also bear a much more sinister distinction. It could be the school with the highest number of recent incidents involving staff members found to be child abusers in the UK.

With a former Eton master facing jail for allegations of child sexual abuse, Byline Times has identified three other recent staff members there, along with other historic cases, who have been found – in the past 10 years – guilty of the sexual abuse of minors.

Interestingly, online searches for one of these individuals shows no public evidence of their conviction or their dismissal from the prestigious school.

In 2017, Thomas Dickson Recknell was found guilty of a sexual offence dating back to 2008, two years before his employment at Eton College in 2010. Recknell, who also studied at Eton, was appointed to be ‘Composer in Residence’ at the now £50,000-a-year school.

The abuse involved a 13-year-old and, on Recknell’s arrest in September 2015, he was immediately suspended from Eton. He was to be sentenced to two years in prison. At the time, the judge said: “I can only give you very limited credit for any degree of remorse really at this stage.”

Despite sources close to the school saying that the incident was reported widely at the time, Byline Times has found an absence of articles detailing Recknell’s abuse or his dismissal from Eton appearing in online searches.

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It is understood that the school denies any allegations that it was involved in the potential removal of such articles. However, it appears that a web page from the ‘Eton College News and Diary’, which previously mentioned Recknell, has also been removed from Eton’s school website.

An Internet Wayback search reveals that the page once described a piece of devised dance theatre with “a driving pop score by Tom Recknell”.

There is also no mention of Recknell (or any other former masters of the school being convicted of abuse) on the Wikipedia page entitled ‘Eton College controversies’. Nor is any child abuse at Eton detailed in the recent Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

But Recknell is not the only former Eton staff member to be accused of, or convicted of, the sexual abuse of children.


Eton’s Abuse Cases

In November 2023, it was reported that former Eton master Jacob Leland has been charged with the sexual assault of a teenage boy. The 35-year-old is facing a total of 14 sexual offences, reportedly occurring more than a decade ago.

The charges include five counts of non-penetrative sexual activity and four counts of penetrative sexual activity with a boy under 16, alongside three counts of incitement to sexual activity and two counts of sexual assault on a male. Leland denies all charges.

In 2020, former Eton master Matthew Mowbray was sentenced to five years in prison for sexually offences against pupils and creating indecent images of children. He was found guilty of eight counts of sexual activity with a child. Mowbray also admitted to making thousands of indecent images, some of which involved superimposing the faces of his students onto the bodies of naked children. The abuse took place under the guise of night-time visits to discuss schoolwork.

Mowbray taught at Eton when Recknell was a pupil and they were on the staff at the same time from 2010. Simon Henderson, Eton’s Headmaster said at the time when Mowbray was arrested, that the teacher “was believed to be a caring and professional house master but we now know that he was a skilful and deceitful manipulator of both young people and adults… we shall all be redoubling our efforts to ensure that Eton remains an ever more open and supportive environment for all of our pupils”.

In 2018, a former teacher and house master at Eton College was also reported to the police over alleged child abuse. The late Raef Payne was accused of swapping pictures of naked children with other men at parties. The school reported its former staff member to Thames Valley police. Raef Payne, who taught at Eton for 35 years, died in 2001.

Also in 2018, Ajaz Karim, a former Eton College squash coach, was jailed for 10 years for the sexual abuse of minors. He was found guilty in April that year of indecently assaulting six female students while he worked at Christ’s Hospital School, in Horsham, West Sussex, between 1985 and 1993.

In 2011, David Rachel, an Eton College rowing coach, was also found guilty of sexually abusing a girl during his teenage years in Solihull in the 1980s. He faced two charges of rape and five of indecent assault, of which he was convicted for four indecent assaults while acquitted of rape and one indecent assault charge.

Following the verdict, Rachel, who had a history of a conditional discharge for assault in 1990 and for causing alarm or distress in 1998, was ordered to register as a sex offender. The victim, alarmed by Rachel’s role at Eton and his access to children, had initiated the case by contacting the school, leading to the police being informed.

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Safeguarding Prioritised

Despite this catalogue of abuse only coming to light in recent years, the school appears to consider much of this to be in the past.

In 2015, its Headmaster, Tony Little, speaking at the Boarding Schools Association annual conference in London – of which he is president – said that Eton was “in part to blame” for the image of boarding schools portrayed in the 1960s as “shadowy, strange institutions”. Mr Little said schools like Eton once had “a remarkable lack of accountability” – implying that this was true no longer.

The past, however, has caught up with the school.

In 2019, an anonymous lawyer known as ‘J’ successfully won a civil compensation claim against Eton for historic abuse. Anthony Chenevix-Trench, a Headmaster of Eton College in the 1960s, assaulted ‘J’ during one-on-one training for his ‘O’ Levels, administering corporal punishment for incorrect responses. Chenevix-Trench’s actions turned into sexual abuse. ‘J’ eventually complained, leading to the termination of private tutoring. This experience left ‘J’ with post-traumatic stress, but feelings of shame meant that he was hesitant to take legal action. However, inspired by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, ‘J’ successfully pursued and settled a case against Eton for a significant sum. Chenevix-Trench died in 1979.

Today, Eton College stresses the welfare of its pupils as its top priority, detailing significant improvements made in safeguarding practices over the past 10 years. This includes the appointment of a new director of safeguarding in 2020. The school’s most recent Independent Schools Inspectorate report has also shown there to be improvement in this area.

Asked about Thomas Recknell, Eton told Byline Times: “At the time, we reported Mr Recknell’s departure from Eton’s employment to the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and to the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL).

“We take the safeguarding of our pupils extremely seriously, most particularly ensuring that all our staff pass the rigorous pre-employment checks to which they are subject, and ensuring that when safeguarding issues arise they are dealt with in accordance with our established policies.”


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