Respected public image far cry from terrible truth

George Robson was seen as a pillar of the community who rubbed shoulders with royalty and former prime minister Tony Blair. But behind this façade was a man who used a “climate of fear” to control vulnerable youngsters, going far beyond what would have been considered acceptable even in the strict disciplinarian era in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

George Robson was seen as a pillar of the community who rubbed shoulders with royalty and former prime minister Tony Blair.

But behind this façade was a man who used a “climate of fear” to control vulnerable youngsters, going far beyond what would have been considered acceptable even in the strict disciplinarian era in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The married father-of-three was widely respected and valued for his contribution to education.

In 1992, he was pictured showing Princess Anne around Banham Marshalls College, where she opened a new teaching wing.

And in March 2003, a month after he was suspended from his post, he was invited to Downing Street to a reception hosted by Tony Blair to celebrate the work of those in education who provide “outstanding teaching and support for pupils with special educational needs”.

But in reality this public image was a far cry from the truth.

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Robson was described in court as an “autocratic” figure who ruled the school with an “iron will”. As a result, there was tight discipline that was promoted by him and taken up by others.

Robson admitted that “slipperings” would take place in front of other pupils at the college, and that children would be allowed to fight to sort out differences.

Police said the school was run in a “climate of fear” with “control” of the children being of paramount importance.

But Robson's catalogue of abuse came to an end when a major child protection investigation begun.

The National Care Standards Commission (NCSC) visited Banham Marshalls College, near Attleborough, in January 2003, but did not even complete the inspection because of its concerns.

At the time, it was unclear what the nature of these were, but it emerged they were to do with the training of teachers and methods used to restrain pupils.

News of the inquiry launched by social services and the police prompted calls from former pupils and staff who attended when it was known as the Old Rectory School and based in another part of the village.

Norfolk County Council clarified that from 1975 until 2004 an independent day and boarding school operated at Banham as the Old Rectory School, the Church Hill School and then as Banham Marshalls College, under the ownership of George Robson.

The school could accommodate up to 100 boarders and 20 day pupils and these came from across the country, including Norfolk.

These children had various special educational needs, including learning, communication, emotional and behavioural difficulties and were placed there by a large number of different local authorities.

As an independent school, the council said it did not have any regulatory authority in respect of Banham Marshalls College. The college was registered with the then Department for Education and Skills (DfES), which had the legal authority to withdraw approval for the school.

Over the years, the school took pupils from 24 local education authorities across the country, including Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

Det Insp Matt Sharman, senior investigating officer at Norfolk police, said: “It started off as a family protection unit-based inquiry, rather than a CID inquiry.

“Because of the things they were being told by pupils and by members of staff, the National Care Standards Commission decided to formally approach us and suggested there ought to be an investigation.”

Det Insp Sharman said there was a lot of fear about whistleblowing among staff, but they started getting calls from former pupils and staff, some relating to the 1970s and 1980s.

Acting Det Insp Debbie Gunnill, who was working in the child protection unit at the time, said: “What they were saying really raised the level of concern. Some of that concern was related to staff still at the school.”

Norfolk social services got involved and it was decided that all staff and children at the school would be interviewed.

Following media coverage of the defendants' first court appearance, police received more calls from former staff and pupils.

Officers interviewed about 116 children and all the staff, as well as about 120 ex-pupils and staff.

“We've had statements from members of staff who were so disgusted that they left the school. Even 20 years later they are very upset about what was going on,” said Det Insp Sharman.

“We have had people say to us that when they went to George Robson about things they were unhappy about, they were told, 'Well you don't have to work here'.

“Going back 25 years it's not clear what the policy was about who got sent there. Some were just problem kids. There were some extremely vulnerable people there, there's no doubt about that.

“A lot of these people live hundreds of miles apart and remembered these incidents from years ago.”

Because of a lack of facilities for such youngsters at the time, Det Insp Sharman said parents had few options.

“The kids were allowed to fight and the school seems to have been run on a climate of army-like discipline. Staff were encouraging and sanctioning fighting.”

Det Insp Sharman said the cruelty was “unacceptable” even in the 1970s and 1980s when corporal punishment was legal.

“The school had a good reputation for a time. Clearly there were kids who had good times and loved it. But some people have been severely traumatised. I think they [the defendants] genuinely feel they were doing the best for the kids. During some of the interviews they were quite emotional.”

Det Insp Sharman admitted that it had been a difficult investigation, especially because some of the incidents went back 25 years.

Police records for the 1970s and 1980s no longer exist, but the court heard about an alleged incident of indecent assault against George Robson by a female pupil in the 1970s. Police investigated but the complaint was not pursued.

Acting Det Insp Gunnill described Robson as “arrogant”, adding: “Even when things have been reported he's managed to present a reasonable argument to the authorities.

“There were complaints made, but because there were different LEAs, those kids or parents would go to their own LEAs. There was no one central agency that was taking the concerns as far as the police.

“In the last 10 years complaints have been made, but they were made direct to social services. We might not have got all the complaints that came through.

“You look back and there was certainly no safety net for the kids. Those from other LEAs would go away. They [the LEAs] didn't really know the school and didn't know that kids around the country were making complaints,” said acting Det Insp Gunnill.

“There were some investigations made, but they were just single investigations. There was no further action taken. Generally it was presented by the school that they were difficult, vulnerable children and in court one- on-one allegations would be difficult to prove.

“The school wasn't for kids who had committed offences. If you were a child who had been taken out of your home or expelled from school and got put in a place like that, if you ran away you got taken back.

“On the occasions that they did report things, it was always investigated by George Robson.”

Det Insp Sharman said that today there was a more “joined-up” approach.

“I think it's very much [the case] that we didn't know. Nobody ever came to us and said there was a problem at the school. Even in the schools there was not the child protection strategies at the time.”

During the investigation police travelled around the country to speak to potential witnesses.

An ex-officer was employed to trace former pupils and staff, and at any one time up to eight officers were working on the investigation.

“It's been a complex child abuse investigation. I don't think Norfolk has had one on this scale before or for a long while. There have been so many people who have said that things have happened to them,” said acting Det Insp Gunnill.

“Some of these people are still suffering.”

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