Current Affairs

EXCLUSIVE: Oxford students testify to toxic culture at Dulwich College

CW: Accounts of sexual harassment and assault, homophobia, racism, transphobia

An Oxford student and alumna of Dulwich College has accused the fee-paying school of being an institution that has enabled amongst its students a culture of “sexism … racism … homophobia, transphobia, and … abusive tendencies”.

This follows Samuel Schulenburg, a former pupil of the all-boys private school in South London and now a student at the University of Oxford, writing an open letter addressed to the Master of Dulwich College, Dr Joseph Spence, in which he accuses Dulwich College of being “an institution which has enabled … sexism … racism … homophobia and abusive tendencies” among its students, and that this is “normalised behaviour” at the School. The open letter includes almost 100 anonymous testimonials to this behaviour, running to 15 pages. Mr Schulenburg states “In them, DC [Dulwich College] boys are shown in a repugnant light, as a community of immature bigots, who enable each other”. Mr Schulenburg also states that this culture affected LGBTQ+ Students at Dulwich College. He further claimed that “This is not a question of individual merit but one of structural injustice”.

The co-editor of Mr Schulenburg’s open letter, until now anonymous, has now exclusively revealed herself to The Oxford Blue to be Eleni Thwaites. She is a student at the University of Oxford, and a former student of James Allen’s Girls School (JAGS), Dulwich College’s sister school, from which many of the complaints of sexual harassment of girls originate.

Ms Thwaites has provided an exclusive interview with The Oxford Blue about her experiences, condemning the culture of misogyny and prejudice at the school, which she says is well-known. She started by noting that she herself had not been a victim of this: “My position in relation to the atmosphere at Dulwich is that of an onlooker”. She did, though, allege that she was, “confided in” by others from the school who “were themselves victims, and I was wholly aware of the general reputation the Dulwich boys had as entitled and dangerous from the consistent warnings I received from my friends at JAGS and at Dulwich about a variety of other boys in the year”.

Ms Thwaites’ description of her second-hand experiences of Dulwich College focuses greatly on an alleged environment of homophobia at Dulwich College, suggesting that LGBTQ+ students at Dulwich “were targeted by other boys in the year because they were gay.” This included students allegedly telling her of “instances of walking into the library, where the other boys already seated would look at them and say “oh, it’s the gays” (or words to that effect)”.

Elaborating further, she commented that: “Some of these instances were centred around the LGBT society … They [students who ran the society] told me that younger boys came up to them and asked, “how many times a week they had gay sex”, or words to that effect. Other times, when I asked how the society was going, they told me that groups of boys turned up to their meetings just to heckle and shout homophobic things”.

Ms Thwaites further alleges that the school did not act to stop this homophobic bullying. She claims that one student, “upon being picked on by other boys in the year, took the issue to the teachers, who then named him to the perpetrator. Furthermore, he was repeatedly put into classes with the perpetrator for years afterwards, against the explicit promise of the school to not do so … I was reminded of this story when reading many of the testimonies which detail victims going to the senior administration with a story of mistreatment, only to be entirely ignored.”

Ms Thwaites also claims that “I felt there was a lack of education that men and boys could be victims of sexual assault and harassment, as well as the obvious lack of education on them being perpetrators”.

Ms Thwaites also refers to an atmosphere of transphobia at Dulwich College, stating a Dulwich college student alleged to her that: “there was a trans girl in Dulwich who came out anonymously online and … loads of boys went around trying to hunt [her] down”. She further alleges: “The kind of pack hunting behaviour described here is consistent with many of the testimonies, which describe boys ganging up on girls on the coach or at parties, often with malicious intent”.

Dr Spence, Master of Dulwich College, responded to the allegations from the open letter to which Ms Thwaites’ descriptions bear witness, with an email sent to parents of Dulwich College students, which has also been shared with The Oxford Blue. Dr Spence stated that the behaviour described in the open letter “is distressing and entirely unacceptable; we condemn it unreservedly and would assist the authorities with their investigations into allegations of criminal activity”. He also pledged that “Dulwich College as a united community of pupils, staff and parents will play its part in addressing the societal problem of the objectification of women” including by sharing “best practice in terms of how we deliver Wellbeing or PHSE lessons in relation to gender equality, consent, pornography, healthy relationships and all forms of casual and overt sexism”.

In this email, Dr Spence also mentioned that “the great majority of Dulwich College pupils are considerate and respectful towards others… it only needs a small minority of students in any given Year Group of 220 to get things wrong at some time during their adolescent years to generate the volume of testimonies that have been delivered to me this weekend”.

However, in our conversation, Mrs Thwaites also objected to parts of this email by Dr Spence. She told The Oxford Blue: “Dr Spence’s initial response was wholly inadequate and betrayed many underlying issues with the handling of the situation up until this point. I stress ‘initial response’, as there are currently talks happening at JAGS and Dulwich, during which effective change may well be made”.

She went on to tell us: “Firstly, the email Dr Spence sent went only to the parents of current students, whereas JAGS emailed the alumnae network as well.” To her, this suggested an “evasiveness” on the school’s part.

Elaborating further, she claimed that “the email betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding on Dr Spence’s part of the full scope of the issue. He rightly acknowledged the sexual offences against girls (and I stress girls not women, because these were children at the time), but entirely ignored the rampant problem of similar offences against other boys at the College, who could not simply avoid the perpetrators who were in their lessons every day, and the intersectional nature of the issue in terms of racism and homophobia”.

She went on to say: “Dr Spence furthermore attempted to shift the blame off Dulwich… by addressing ‘the societal problem of the objectification of women’ instead. In a further attempt to let Dulwich boys and himself off the hook, he states that their ‘female colleagues will have an important role to play’ in solving the problems.”. Ms Thwaites said that this suggests Dr Spence “seems to think that the responsibility for solving misogyny falls on women.”

She further told The Oxford Blue: “The extent to which this is not a ‘small minority’ of students is clear to me… [that] Dr Spence’s ‘faith, confidence, and pride’ in his student population is ‘undimmed’, makes it abundantly clear that he does not understand the severity of the situation. He should not be proud of his boys, or the culture” of the school.

However, Ms Thwaites clarified to The Oxford Blue: “I should clarify here that I do not think this is malicious on Dr Spence’s part. I think he genuinely believes he is not at fault”.

Ms Thwaites expressed an additional concern that this toxic culture was being transferred to universities, including Oxford, noting that alumni “have made a concerted effort to distance themselves from Dulwich after escaping. One ended up on a staircase with two other former Dulwich boys, whom he spent the year avoiding. Two have told me that they deliberately hide the fact they went to Dulwich from their university friends, because they know the reputation and don’t want to be associated with the College”.

These revelations come at a time when multiple students at elite private schools have alleged similar abuses including over 50 accounts of rape, and the sexual abuse of girls as young as 11 years old.

In further news that has broken in the last twenty-four hours, The Times reported that Dulwich College had reported students to the police in cases where victims had come forward and named their abusers.

The Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, Mr Robert Halfon MP, warned that allegations facing Dulwich and other schools could be ‘a national scandal in the offing’ and suggested “it is getting to the stage where we need a formal inquiry”.

It also follows a national conversation about misogyny sparked by the murder of Sarah Everard and a recent call for an intersectional conversation about violence against women in The Oxford Blue.

When contacted for comment, a Dulwich College spokesman shared a media statement on Equality and Respect. This reiterated the response to the open letter from Dr Spence which the College said was sent to parents and alumni.

A Dulwich College alumnus contacted The Oxford Blue to confirm that they received this email from Dr Spence.

It Happens Here, the Oxford SU Campaign to promote awareness of sexual violence, has been contacted for comment.

If you have been affected by the issues in this article, either at university or elsewhere, there are a variety of resources available. The University of Oxford’s sexual harassment and violence service can be found here. The Oxfordshire Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre can be contacted here and has a freephone number that provides a confidential listening space (0800 783 6294).

Image Credits: Camille Pissarro, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This article was updated on the 29th of March to reflect Dulwich College’s Equality and Respect statement, and a response from an alumnus of the College telling The Oxford Blue that they were sent the email from Dr Spence in which he responded to the open letter.

Update: It Happens Here responded to comment: “The stories we’ve heard recently about Dulwich College, as well as other schools and educational institutions around the country, are deeply disturbing and reflect the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and violence at institutions across the UK and elsewhere. It Happens Here applauds the work of students who are doing the difficult task of bringing these cultures and instances of abuse to light, and would emphasise that students often carry assumptions and behaviours formed at school forward to University, where they only continue to do harm if not properly challenged. IHH is also happy to be contacted for any campaigning, lobbying or publicity support we can provide, and there are further resources on sexual violence and harassment available on our pages”.