The head that rolled

If a headmaster of a major school is suspended on the very eve of the new academic year, he must have got something very wrong. Or somebody else must.

It is just before 4pm at the gates of Dulwich College - picking up time. The roads in this green, desirable southeast London village are jammed with parents' cars, just one of the many stresses of sending sons to this leading independent school. There are others: the fees start at more than pounds 6,000 a year, more if you board. There's the sports kit to buy, and homework to help with, and Army cadet parades to attend, if your son is into such things, which many of them are.

As a parent you may expect certain rewards in return. You may hope that your child receives better than average exam results, an all-round education and early lessons in the trials of life; you expect him to emerge at 18 with a sense of who he is, and an appreciation of his privileged place in the world. And it is fair to expect that the school will be efficiently managed by headmaster, staff and governors to see that nothing detracts from the high esteem in which Dulwich is held.

Certainly you would expect that a little local difficulty between the headmaster and one of his administrative staff would be resolved with minimum incident. But you would be disappointed.

At the beginning of this year, the headmaster's personal assistant told friends at the school that a rift had arisen in their working relationship. She said he was taking advantage of her, behaving in an unprofessional manner. No problem, her friends said: it will sort itself out. But it didn't. Instead, the complaint developed into a scandal and a national story, which in turn led to a small trail of blighted lives. And if such a saga can happen at Dulwich College, we can reasonably suppose it may occur at any school in the country.

Nine years ago, when the college governors had advertised for a new Master, Anthony Verity, then 47, appeared to be the ideal candidate. Some of them may even have remembered his name from when he first arrived in the village in the Sixties, up from Cambridge with a double-first, landing his first significant job as a classics teacher at the college. He then taught at Manchester and Bristol, and became headmaster of Leeds Grammar School in 1976. In turn, he became an influential figure in the Headmasters' Conference, the trade union that sets the agenda for Britain's leading independent schools.

The governors were impressed with his kindly patrician air and his unmistakable love for the college. His wife, Patricia, taught French, and was subsequently also offered a part-time job at the school. Dulwich College thrived under him. Exam results remained high but unexceptional - the school is respectably placed in the most recent annual performance league tables but well behind St Paul's, Westminster and KCS Wimbledon - other leading independent schools in London. Yet academic performance is only one indicator of a successful institution, and Dulwich parents take pride in the school's sporting and musical achievements, as well as its flourishing extra-curricular activities such as drama, information technology and community service. Parents go so far as to call the headmaster "visionary", and give him the credit for the intelligent and civil atmosphere that pervades the school.

"From the very beginning he was approachable," says one long-term teacher at the college. "It was clear that several women also found him very attractive. But he commanded great respect, from the staff as well as the boys. No one on the staff called him Tony. It was always the Master."

Walking through the College today one is struck by a great sense of history. The main building, the work of Charles Barry Junior, the son of the architect of the Houses of Parliament, was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1870. But the school goes back further still, to 1619, when Edward Alleyn, the Elizabethan theatre manager, bought a huge estate and established a college for "one Master, one Warden, four Fellows, six poor Brethren, six poor Sisters, and 12 poor Scholars". Among its old boys the school lists Ernest Shackleton, PG Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler, CS Forester, Eddie George, Peter Lilley and Bob Monkhouse. In the main building you will find one of Shackleton's small boats. In the library a partition contains Wodehouse's typewriter and other effects.

Many of the 1,400 boys at the school come from overseas, and Verity has done much work to maintain this flow. In his last annual report, he noted that the college had attracted pupils from Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as boarders from Brunei, Kenya, Malaysia and Nigeria. "There is a firm sense", he wrote in his Master's Report, "that we are enjoying an increasing reputation both in Europe and elsewhere in the world."

The school does not have a marketing department as such, but until recently much of this work was undertaken by Anne Ridley, the woman who became a music department secretary at the school in 1989 and was promoted to Master's Secretary in 1991, at the age of 34.

Most staff at the school regarded their relationship as cordial and productive. She sat at her own large desk in an office adjoining his study, and was privy to all but the most confidential conversations. With hindsight, one teacher remembers how, during a meeting with the Master at which no secretarial support was required, Ridley hung about anyway, "finding it hard to pull herself away. She seemed to feel she was crucial to everything he did." Another source remembers a fund-raising ball at which Ridley monopolised Verity in conversation and on the dancefloor, much to the embarrassment of the Master's wife.

But these recollections only came later. Certainly no one can remember even raised eyebrows in the common room when the Master and Mrs Ridley set off together to Thailand in November 1994. This was a working expedition, with an aim to secure the launch of a successful sister college in Phuket. This school had been planned for several years, and was seen as another example of the Master's forward thinking.

Even today it is unclear what happened between them in Thailand, but inevitably there are numerous theories. None of these include the possibility of a sexual relationship. The versions depend very much on whom you talk to: Verity's supporters suggest Ridley may have become infatuated with him, and have wished for what one friend called "the big time" on a romantic trip away from his wife (Ridley is also married, with two children who attend, at greatly reduced prices, Dulwich schools affiliated with the college). Her supporters have it that he may have made advances to her, and that this assignment was the first opportunity he had to express his true feelings.

In January, two months after their return, Ridley told a colleague that a problem had arisen in their working relationship, but gave few details. In March she made this complaint informally to Christopher Field, the Deputy Master. Her unhappiness was now a little more focused. She spoke of Verity's domineering approach to her, and of how she found the atmosphere between them unduly claustrophobic. As this was unquestionably a gender issue, it automatically became a complaint of sexual harassment.

Field mentioned the matter to two senior colleagues, and one school governor, Roy Amlot, a former pupil at the college and now a highly-regarded prosecuting and defence QC who had played a dominant prosecuting role in several IRA cases. Amlot was also the editor of one of the leading manuals on criminal evidence.

Amlot informed several other governors, including the chairman, Sir Colin Cole, another Dulwich old boy who, before retirement, had become the government's chief herald and a world expert in coats of arms. It was decided to approach the matter discreetly and on an informal basis.

Verity and Ridley were both consulted, and it was agreed that their difficulties should find a swift remedy: they were sensible adults, after all. Verity believed he had no case to answer, but agreed to regard his relationship with his secretary with the utmost caution. Ridley, too, hoped this would be an end to the matter.

Two months later, in May, Anne Ridley felt unable to work with Verity any longer, and began a lengthy period of sick leave. Verity wrote and posted the note of her departure himself. He hoped it would be a temporary absence, but she never returned. Within two weeks she had made a formal complaint to the board of governors alleging continued sexual harassment and demanding a full investigation.

Towards the end of June, the governors set up a three-man team to look into the allegations. Ridley's accusations were serious but still vague. Her complaint mentioned bullying, and claimed that the Master was taking unfair advantage of her, but went into little detail. She recalled an incident at which his hand brushed across hers in her office. Reviewing Ridley's allegations, one of the solicitors in the case said, "it is trivial detail of this kind that gives sexual harassment legislation a bad name".

Verity carried on with his duties through what remained of the summer term. He had little formal contact with the governors, and increasingly began to fear that they were taking an adversarial role. But he was reassured by the brief contact he did have with Sir Colin Cole, including one conversation at a cricket match.

One of the matters brought to the governors' attention during this period was an incident earlier in Verity's career. He was alleged to have had an over-friendly relationship with a mother of a boy at his school and was called to account by Bishop Graham Foley, then chairman of the board of governors at Leeds Grammar. "He was given a severe reprimand," Bishop Foley told the Yorkshire Post. "If it was just a rumour, I'd have kept well apart, but it was reported from several sources as common knowledge that he had an association with the parent of one of the boys, and that it was wholly improper that he be seen spending time with her."

Bishop Foley remembers him as "a charming man. Quite brilliant. There was just this one hiccup, which is something I had thought would be a very useful experience to him, putting him on his guard for the future." The governors finally accepted Verity's explanation that there had been nothing inappropriate in their relationship. The Dulwich governors clearly also accepted this assurance, for they later wrote stating that the incident would not form part of their judgment.

Apart from three senior management staff at the college, the rest of the school remained unaware of the accusations against their Master until the end of August. Verity was optimistic that the matter could be resolved without anyone else knowing, and initially the board of governors retained the same hopes. Verity and Ridley were both interviewed by the governors' team in August, Ridley on more than one occasion. Verity now had his solicitor present, and again asserted that he had no case to answer. But on 23 August, the three governors reported back to the full board at the East India Club, and decided that Verity had, after all, acted inappropriately. The following day they talked to him about a financial pay-off in return for "going quietly".

Outraged, Verity refused. He believed a serious mistake had been made, and resolved to clear his name. But four days later, on the Saturday before the new school year was due to begin, he was informed by letter that he had been suspended.

Verity's home lies opposite the college playing fields, a large Georgian house provided as one of the perks of the job. Here he shut himself away with his family (he has two grown-up children), and tried to answer two questions. He wondered whether he would ever return to work: he had never been in such an adversarial position with the board before. He wondered why, even if they believed he was guilty of inappropriate behaviour, they would choose to suspend him.

The governors' letter to parents on 29 August, the day before the start of the new term, was brief. "The Governors of Dulwich College have temporarily suspended the Master from his duties pending further investigation of certain matters." Parents wondered exactly what this meant. Had he been embezzling? Had he been sexually abusing his pupils? Then there was a leak to the press, and it became known that the charge was sexual harassment. "There are numbers of rumours around and rumour feeds on itself," said Robert Alexander, the clerk to the governors, two days after the letter was sent out. "But the only comfort that parents can take is that the police are not involved and it is unlikely to be that sort of thing."

There was a clue that the investigation was already well under way. Mr Alexander said that "it is very difficult to see a happy outcome. It is tragic for Mr Verity and has badly damaged his career." He said that as a school, the college had to be seen setting moral standards. Privately, the governors regretted having to suspend the Master in such a public way, and with such damaging consequences. But they reassured themselves that this was the only course of action open to them: they were advised that suspension was the normal thing in these sorts of cases.

Verity made a brief statement to the press, fighting hard to control his anger. "No one person is greater than Dulwich College, and I must abide by the governors' decision. Naturally this is a strain on my family, but hopefully my reputation will remain untarnished and I will hopefully be the same person when I return to school." These were the last public comments he made for eight weeks, a period in which he received many letters and telephone calls of support, and a period in which all optimism drained away.

The decision to suspend Verity so close to the start of term, when the matter had been raised six months earlier, enraged many parents. Two of them, Sue Macdiarmid and Deborah Roslund, both of whom had sons at the school, wrote to other parents in indignant tone, requesting they write to the governors demanding an explanation. They feared that "mismanagement of the matter by the governing body ... may create a climate forcing a resolution based not on fairness but on expediency and preserving a public image."

It is believed that the clerk to the governors received more than 100 letters of complaint or enquiry about the way this matter was being handled. Some raised simple questions which they claim received no reply: why was a business psychologist not called in? Why was Mrs Ridley simply not moved to work at another part of the school? Why had the matter taken so long to reach this stage, a stage at which everything was still unresolved and left the school without a head?

The governors' statement to parents contained one further detail, that the Deputy Master, Christopher Field, had been appointed acting Master. Field and two other members of staff played an increasingly important role in the investigation that followed. They were the link between governors and staff at the school. But they were also pivotal in providing evidence to the hearing. On 7 September, a new charge was introduced against Verity, one not mentioned in Ridley's allegations. He learned that he was now charged with "prejudicing the efficient management of the college", which in effect meant that his ability to perform his job was in doubt. Much of the case against him now sprung from senior teachers at the college.

Little mention was made of these new charges at the first two meetings to discuss Verity's fate, at the Charing Cross Hotel on 22 September, and at the Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria ten days later. At these meetings, attended by all but one of the governors and their solicitor, witnesses were called to give evidence about sexual harassment. Verity was interviewed again, and then sat in as three senior staff and one parent, Deborah Roslund, were called in turn. Neither Ridley nor her solicitor attended any of the hearings.

The questions of bullying and exploitation were discussed, and a new matter was raised - the existence of letters written between Ridley and Verity over a period of several months. Neither party will disclose the contents of this correspondence, but it is believed they discussed the problematic nature of their close relationship - a private attempt to sort things out between them.

Christopher Field gave evidence with his colleagues, John Charnley, the director of studies, and Ian Brinton, head of the Upper School. Brinton had been a close friend of Verity's since they had worked together at Manchester and Leeds grammar schools, and spoke up in his defence, supporting his many achievements as Master and finding little fault with his performance.

But at the third meeting, at the New Cavendish Club, near Oxford Circus, on 13 October, the case presented to the board took a new direction. His colleagues claimed that since Mrs Ridley had made her allegations, Verity began to look tired and drawn. It was claimed that his handwriting on the note announcing Ridley's sick leave was "shaky" and should have been composed on a word processor. It was mentioned that he had cancelled an important staff meeting at short notice. And he was accused of dragging his feet on a decision to demote a teacher who evidently was not performing adequately as head of a department.

At the end of this third meeting, one observer remarked that Verity "looked truly shattered". His wife, who had supported him throughout and had not returned to teach at the school after the summer holidays, was also known to be devastated by the course of events.

On 13 October, Verity was told by letter that he had been cleared of sexual harassment. The governors had, however, found him guilty of "failing in the efficient management of the school". No detailed findings were given. The letter went on to say that the governors had decided to terminate his contract, and that the terms would be settled after the two-week warning period specified in his conditions of employment.

The final meeting was set for 2 November. Before then, Verity had two meetings with Sir Colin Cole to discuss the parameters of a financial package. It is understood that Sir Colin told him he would do all he could to ensure that matters would be sorted out to his satisfaction, and that he would be able to say goodbye properly to staff and parents.

Verity also had a meeting with Sir Jeremy Morse, the chairman of the Governing Bodies Association, at which he asked for help. Sir Jeremy offered his conciliatory services during a telephone conversation with Sir Colin Cole, but concluded that the governors had already almost reached a conclusion without the GBA's involvement. He did offer one solid piece of advice: the financial settlement should be sufficient to reflect Verity's outstanding service to the school, and to compensate for the four years he believed he would have remained at the school.

On 27 October, a journalist on the Sunday Times received a call from a woman who claimed to be the wife of a Dulwich governor. She told the reporter that Verity had been cleared of sexual harassment, and a story appeared the following Sunday. Verity expressed delight at this finding, but concealed his true emotions when he said: "I would hope to be reinstated straight away and to get back to normal life. I just want to get on with my life and work as a master again and for the college to get back to normal." But by now he already knew his job was over.

In another press statement, Sir Colin Cole said the vote that cleared the Master had been unanimous. "Mr Verity is undoubtedly a headmaster of high repute. The only thing I can say about his future is that it is free of these allegations."

The following day, two parents had a meeting with Sir Colin, during which they say they were told that the Master's ability to perform his duties was not in question.

The final meeting between Verity and the board took place at the New Cavendish Club on 2 November. It lasted seven hours, but it was clear to Verity from the start that things were not going his way. He was told he had no possibility of retaining his job, and decided to quit rather than fight an action through an industrial tribunal; the health of his wife was a significant factor in this decision.

During the rest of the meeting he fought the two remaining battles: the wording of the letter that the governors would send to parents informing them of his resignation, and his pay-off. The latter had already been the subject of much speculation in the press, where figures as high as pounds 1million were mentioned. In fact, Verity received just two term's money - about pounds 40,000 of an annual salary of a little over pounds 60,000. His annual pension was the subject of further negotiation, but he was able to keep his car.

At the close of the meeting, all parties agreed to a confidentiality clause that prohibited them from discussing these matters with the media or any other party. The same applied to Anne Ridley, whose own financial settlement is thought to be small but is likely to include the continuation of the subsidised education of her children.

Verity emerged from the meeting to tell television cameras that he had nothing to say. But in a letter to parents, Sir Colin Cole explained that Verity had been cleared of harassment, and that the relationship between Verity and Ridley was not, at any stage, a sexual one. "Nevertheless," he wrote, "the Governors came to the unanimous view that Mr Verity permitted an inappropriate relationship to develop and that this affected the performance of his duties. Mr Verity strongly disputes this view."

Sir Colin's letter thanked Verity for the very considerable contribution he had made during the last nine years, and stressed that the governors had dealt with the matter as quickly as they could.

Others saw it differently. Sue Macdiarmid believed she spoke for many parents when she publicly expressed the view that "the more we hear of this, the more it seems like a catalogue of disastrous decisions made by the board from March onwards, each compounding the previous mistake. It reveals their inability to deal with what was originally a small and manageable problem." She then called for the resignation of the board.

At a staff meeting at the school on 7 November, the first at which teachers had been addressed concerning this affair, Acting Master Christopher Field and Professor Jeremy Cowan, one of the college governors, reiterated that this incident was now behind them and that staff loyalty was essential: the college came first; no one was to "tell tales out of school". At the end of the meeting, one teacher told a colleague what he thought this meant. "Basically," he said, "we're not allowed to have an opinion."

The following week, Field and Cowan sat in the Master's Study at Dulwich and tried to provide The Independent with a further explanation of what had happened. It was not a happy story. Three valuable staff had lost their jobs at the school (Patricia Verity has decided to take early retirement; Anne Ridley tells friends she is keen to return to work at another institution in the New Year). Dulwich College had received perhaps the most damaging publicity in its history, and the governors believe it will take at least until September 1996 to appoint a new Master. Many parents lost faith in these governors over the way the matter was handled.

For more than an hour they said they could not possibly tell me what really went on, much as they would like to. Their solicitor was present at the meeting, stringently upholding guarantees of confidentiality. She stressed that the settlement was still at a delicate stage, that all the fine details had not yet been implemented.

Jeremy Cowan, clubby and affable, a retired deputy vice-chancellor of the University of London, regretted that the true victims of this story were probably the governors. He said the Veritys and Anne Ridley had been treated fairly throughout what he called "this distasteful affair", while he and his colleagues had been subject to misinformation and the restraints of confidentiality. Trial by the media had to be avoided at all costs. Angry parents could not possibly understand what they had gone through, he said.

Mr Field said he had drafted another letter to parents, and believed he might send it out soon. Its main purpose was to reassure them that the financial settlements would not in any way effect the availability of pupil bursaries. He also wanted to inform everyone that things at the college were running smoothly again, and that all aspects of the management of the school were currently under review, pending an inspection by the Headmasters' Conference next year.

"Everybody in the college is anxious for a line to be drawn under this whole sorry episode," he said, "and for the college to go forward in good heart, and provide an excellent education for the boys. It's the boys' wellbeing that is fundamental."

In the meantime, Anthony and Patricia Verity are making plans to move out of their large house, from where they can still see the boys play rugby. The former Master has recently returned from a trip to the Persian Gulf, where he acted as an educational consultant to a royal family who were interested in building a large new school, a school which one day might attain the reputation and high moral stature of Dulwich College.

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