Former Terra Nova school teacher jailed for sexual abuse of 24 pupils

Keith Cavendish-Coulson, 71, sentenced to more than six years for abusing boys aged as young as eight in early 1970s
  • The Guardian, Thursday 6 November 2014 17.56 GMT
Former Terra Nova school teacher Keith Cavendish-Coulson who was jailed for sexual abuse of boys
Former Terra Nova school teacher Keith Cavendish-Coulson outside court, where he was jailed for 42 sexual offences against boys. Photograph: Ron Lamb/Cavendish Press
A former French teacher at a prestigious boarding school has been jailed for six years and nine months for the sexual abuse of dozens of pupils.
Keith Cavendish-Coulson, 71, preyed on the children while working at the Terra Nova school in Holmes Chapel, Cheshire, in the early 1970s but evaded justice for four decades because of a cover-up led by the then headmaster.
The private preparatory school was described as being run like a “brutal” military regime and as being like something out of a Charles Dickens novel, as Cavendish-Coulson was sentenced at Chester crown court on Thursday.
But, the court heard, Cavendish-Coulson, then aged 30 to 32, would behave in a more friendly and approachable way than the other teachers, or masters as they are called at the school, which used to be for boys only.
After befriending his victims he would molest them in classrooms, their dormitories and his private quarters, sometimes in the presence of other children, with his activities an open secret among the boys.
But despite complaints he was allowed to leave the school for “health reasons”, the court heard, and took up other private teaching posts.
Two separate police investigations in 1998 and 2005 stalled, the court heard.
Past pupils of the £13,000-a-year school include Olympic sailing gold medallist Sir Ben Ainslie and David and Victoria Beckham’s eldest son, Brooklyn.
On Wednesday Cavendish-Coulson admitted 42 offences of indecent assault against 24 boys aged from eight to 13 while working at the school between 1973 and 1975. He also admitted indecent assault of another child while working as a private tutor in the mid-1980s.
Sentencing him, Judge Roger Dutton said: “It is a sad reflection on the attitudes of that time that even when complaints were made by parents no proper action was taken to investigate these grave allegations. That amounted to a shameful and abject failure to deal with serious sexual abuse upon boys.
“One cannot help but conclude that the reputation of the school meant more to those in authority than the exposure of wholesale sexual abuse by a member of staff on their premises.
“It is quite obvious that the impact of the defendant’s behaviour has had a profound effect on them all.”
Earlier, Anne Whyte QC, prosecuting, told the court: “It is quite clear that this defendant was a persistent and predatory paedophile” from whom there was no escape for the boarders. For each victim it was their first sexual experience, they found it difficult to comprehend what was happening and it left wrecked lives, including years of feeling guilt and worthlessness and resentment towards their parents, she said.
While the psychological harm had lasted 40 years for some victims, the defendant had told probation officers he was abused as a child himself and said of his victims: “Why can’t they get over it?”
Cavendish-Coulson’s abuse was uncovered after the father of one boy overheard his son talking about it and contacted the headmaster, Andrew Keith.
But Keith concluded “nothing sinister” had occurred, until weeks later when the defendant was found in a “compromising position” while tutoring another boy privately at a nearby house.
The school covered up the reason for Cavendish-Coulson’s resignation, though governors and doctors were aware of the situation, but did not want to “stir up trouble unnecessarily”. Keith wrote to one parent that police involvement would do “untold damage to the school” and the “quicker we can forgive and forget the better”.
The defendant’s name was, however, put on “List 99” by the education department and he was barred from working in state schools, though not, it appears, from private schools or private tutoring.
He faked references and worked as a tutor in Surrey and for a number of other schools until his past was found out.
Jeremy Laskar QC, mitigating for the defendant, said: “The climate during the 1970s was as far removed from the climate that exists today than can possibly be imagined. I do not seek to suggest that what occurred all those years ago was any less reprehensible.
“When one listens to the regime that existed in the school in the 70s it does, from today’s perspective, seem rather Victorian.”
Judge Dutton interrupted: “Dickensian. Dotheboys Hall. Extra-ordinary.”
Cavendish-Coulson was known as Coulson at the school and when and how he acquired his double-barrelled name is unclear. He was noted for wearing an academic gown while teaching, and affecting the manners and accent of an upper-class public schoolboy, claiming to be an old Etonian. He had a conviction for fraud after adopting the names of peers of the realm to write cheques. In fact he was born in Stockport, the son of a post office worker, and went to a state school.
Martin Hallam, chair of governors at Terra Nova, said: “These offences are abhorrent and deplorable, especially by a teacher on young and trusting children. Our first thoughts are with the victims, who will have lived with this dreadful experience for their entire adult lives.
“We very much hope that the conviction of this man will enable them to begin a process of closing a very long and distressing chapter in their lives.
“I would like to make a full, sincere and heartfelt apology to each and every one of the victims for the fact that these offences were committed by a teacher at the school.”
He said Terra Nova took child protection seriously and had a clear safeguarding policy.
“The school would in no way condone the ‘covering up’ of any allegations or behaviour that could risk a child’s welfare … We are very clear that it is the right of every child to feel safe, happy and secure at school and we take very seriously the trust placed in us by the children and their parents,” he said.

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