My grammar school didn't directly encourage the anti-Semitic abuse I received while there, but its culture of one-upmanship did

My time at Reading School taught me how dangerous a highly competitive environment can be, and how important a zero tolerance approach to bullying is

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In an overheated classroom one winter morning, a black student at my school was struggling to hear what someone was saying to him. I was 14, it was 2005, and my classmates and I were making the most of a 15-minute morning break. Some were sitting at their desks eating their sandwiches early, checking their pockets for change for the visit to the tuck shop that they would need to make later. Others milled around among the rows of chairs and tables, chatting. Cheap metal chair legs scraped against the wooden floor.

At the back of the room, in a clearing by a row of lockers, a circle of boys was starting to bristle with mischievous energy. “What did you say?” the black student asked the person speaking to him. “Maybe you’ll understand this,” that someone said, jumping up and down, making monkey sounds, and scratching his armpits. The circle expanded as everyone took a step back. Some boys were shocked and winced. Others screeched with laughter.

I was reminded of this incident when reading a recent article, “Grammar School Made Me a Bigot”, in the Oxford Tab by Matthew Broomfield, in which he catalogued cases of racism, sexism and homophobia that he said had occurred during his time at Adams’ Grammar in Newport.

One included his classmates asking if his girlfriend’s “vagina smelt like shit” because she was black. “They made monkey noises,” he wrote. “This happened in England in the 21st century.” The response by Adams’ Grammar also struck a nerve with me. It was, it said, “saddened” by the article, which “attacked the school, its ethos and values”, and disagreed “wholeheartedly with the view that Adams’ supports racism, sexism and homophobia, and that such opinions are institutionalised within its walls”.

I didn’t go to Adams’ but I had a very similar experience during the five years I was at Reading School, a selective school for boys aged 11 to 18. I witnessed instances just as bad, sometimes worse.

For as long as grammar schools exist, their validity will be debated. There are those who say that they’re elitist, and a barrier to social mobility across society as a whole, sucking in the best teachers and students. And there are those on the side of Boris Johnson, who last week described the ban on their creation as “a real tragedy”. In his opinion, which is widely shared, grammar schools are “an important part of the educational mix... a great mobiliser and liberator for many people”. His comments came after the home secretary, Theresa May, earlier in the week backed the possibility of the first new grammar school in 50 years, in her Maidenhead constituency in Berkshire, despite laws that ban the creation of selective schools.

Both sides have convincing arguments. But they also completely ignore the most important question: what is the effect of grammar schools on those who attend them? This week is anti-bullying week, and in schools across the country teachers will be handing out advice on what victims of bullying should do, while warning others not to bully. But what about the system they work in? Is it able to prevent it?

I faced so much anti-Semitism at Reading School that I eventually felt I had no option but to leave. I was only 15 or 16 at the time, and being the insecure teen that everyone is at that age, it was completely crushing. It was also quite confusing, because, to my best knowledge, I’m not actually Jewish. Although, of course, if I tried pointing that out I was accused of anti-Semitism. As well as constantly being called “Shylock” and “Jew” by various members of my year (there were around a dozen who took part, in varying degrees), I had money thrown at me as I made my way from one class to another. Once this even happened while I was walking through Reading town centre.

I was also told repeatedly not to eat bacon – or smoky bacon crisps. In a history lesson, someone shouted out that the biggest mistake Hitler made was that he didn’t kill all the Jews, because if he had I wouldn’t be sitting there with everyone.

After a while, so many people were joining in that I lost most of my friends. Although, I wasn’t the only person who faced such abuse. Aside from those who were also bullied, students used the n-word liberally and competed to tell the most racist jokes.

When I found a crude drawing on the ground of a Jewish man (with a crooked back and hook nose), labelled with my name, I had the evidence I needed. Members of staff were alerted, and the students responsible were disciplined. For a while, the abuse stopped, but then it began again. A Facebook group called “Max Benwell is a Jew” was made, before being shut down. And a Myspace profile pretending to be me (you can see a screenshot of it here) was also created. In the interests section, it listed “lending money with interest”, “going to synagogue” and “finding change on the floor”.

My parents had a meeting with the headmaster, who assigned a member of staff to mentor me. Those responsible were disciplined. My parents also wrote a letter to Ofsted, receiving no reply. But in the end I still didn’t feel safe, so I transferred to my local comprehensive for sixth form, where weirdly I wasn’t called “Shylock” or hit on the head with pennies. After I left the grammar school, my parents also wrote to the chair of governors, who replied with a brief phone call.

My move came after a well-meaning member of staff suggested that the abuse would probably stop because “people grow up when they reach Year 12”. I didn’t believe that they would. And I was right. After leaving, I was subjected to it all again by someone from Reading School – one of these now “mature” sixth-formers. This time, they repeatedly shouted “Jew” at me from a car window as I walked home.

Aside from almost daily abuse, the most depressing part was that the perpetrators weren’t punished appropriately in my view for what was essentially hate-speech. Instead of being suspended or expelled, many stayed on for sixth form, while I left.

When asked to comment on my experiences at the school, the current headmaster and chair of governors at Reading School said: “We do not tolerate any form of bullying. We want all our pupils to treat others with sensitivity, compassion and consideration. We take very seriously our responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010. Any discriminatory incidents are dealt with in accordance with current policy and practice and reported termly as required to the Local Authority.”

When I asked Ofsted why they didn’t reply to the letter my parents sent them, they said: “We consider complaints from parents about schools very carefully and these may lead to an inspection being brought forward. When we inspect schools we consider the effectiveness of the school’s work to prevent and tackle all forms of bullying and harassment. Ofsted responds to parents who make complaints about schools. At the time the contracted inspection service provider would have received this letter. We do not have access to this evidence base.”

After I left Reading School, a news story also appeared in the local newspaper about another offensive Facebook group. “A ‘joke’ internet group proudly proclaiming itself to be racist, sexist, and homophobic was set up by some of Reading’s brightest pupils,” it reported. At the time, the then headmaster said: “I deeply regret the involvement of a small minority of students in the Facebook website in this way and any offence this may have caused. Having spoken to the students, I am convinced that it was a prank that has gone seriously wrong. We are continuing to investigate, but have already taken action as appropriate.”

Of course, racism, homophobia and sexism take place in many schools; I’m not suggesting that this problem is unique to grammar schools. What I am saying is that this particular brand of abuse, and what motivates it (aside from the usual ignorance and hatred), seems to be unique to selective schools. I’ve spoken to people from different state schools about my time at Reading, and they have all said the same: there were incidents, but never like the ones that I describe.

Part of the problem is reputation. It may be much harder to stamp out abuse when you’re supposed to be one of the best schools in the country. (For this reason, I have a theory that escalating abuse of this kind might also be more likely to happen at any highly competitive schools, whether they be private or state.) In my opinion, inaction could favour high-performing grammar schools. If abusive students are kept in the system, suspensions and expulsions are kept to a minimum, which makes for better Ofsted reports. Of course, a less cynical interpretation might be that the schools are keen not to ruin their pupils’ prospects. But what about those who have been abused? It was tough, but luckily my prospects were not ruined, and I was able to do well despite moving to a less academic school. But not everyone is so lucky.

In my view, the extremity of the abuse at Reading School had a lot to do with the competitiveness ingrained in the grammar school system. Grades were often made public, and pupils with high marks mocked others who hadn’t done so well. I know that this sounds like a million miles from anti-Semitic abuse. But the escalation from name-calling to chanting, followed by coin-throwing, and then fake Myspace profiles all stemmed from a constant desire among my classmates to outdo one another.

Of course, the ethos of Reading School was, is and always will be against such abuse. But the wider system it has always championed may still help foster abusive attitudes. And worst of all, an apparent inability to prevent those responsible from continuing such abuse indirectly helps sustain it.

While lots of people had a great time at Reading, schools should act more effectively to stop the abuse of those who aren’t so fortunate. Expelling those responsible for abuse might blemish an institution’s record but to those schools that are perhaps so concerned about reputation, I would say this: if I were a parent, I would always choose the school willing to sacrifice its reputation for the sake of one student, and not the other way around.

If you' had a similar experience at your school (regardless of whether it was a comprehensive, grammar or private school), or are experiencing abuse now, we'd like to hear from you. Please get in touch at m.benwell@independent.co.uk

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