Top public school accused of ‘toxic culture of racism’ among pupils

More than 250 former pupils at Westminster School have signed a letter demanding that it combat the “toxic culture of racism within the student body”, promote the teaching of black culture and confront its links with the slave trade.

It is one of the first indications that Britain’s public school system is now coming under pressure to follow the example of many universities and examine how it tackles racial and colonial issues.

The letter, to the outgoing headmaster Patrick Derham and his replacement, Dr Gary Savage, explains how “recent events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement” have forced the pupils to examine what they were taught at the prestigious school whose political alumni include Nick Clegg and Dominic Grieve.

While praising the school for “taking a constructive approach to learning”, the former pupils said “our education fell short in educating us about the great privilege that we had as predominantly white students of a public school”.

The pupils complain that during their time at the school they did not read a single book by a black author and that black history and Britain’s role in the slave trade were largely ignored.

“Schools such as Westminster, with all its privilege and power, have a duty to ensure its students are actively anti-racist, and equipped to contribute to a fairer and more equitable society,” the pupils claim.

The letter notes that the school has a house named after Richard Hakluyt, who promoted the English colonisation of the Americas, and boasts a society named after John Locke, whose Constitutions of Carolina justified slavery. It also has a statue to Elizabeth I, whom the pupils describe as “the monarch who began the English colonial project”.

The UCL Legacies of British Slave ownership website reveals that Westminster School has at least 28 alumni linked to the slave trade. These include William Beckford, a former lord mayor of London who inherited an estate in Jamaica with 3,000 slaves.

Dr Miranda Kaufmann, a historian whose blog promotes greater understanding of black British history, welcomed the pupils’ intervention.

“There’s been quite a lot of movement on this among universities over the last couple of years but I’m not very conscious of many schools doing much. But … the pupils need to think personally about what they can do as well.”

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The letter also claimed that racist incidents at Westminster had been brushed aside.

“It would be great to hear from you what concrete measures you have taken, or intend to take, to reverse a longstanding toxic culture of racism within the student body, which has long gone unpunished,” the pupils ask in their letter.

In a statement, Westminster said it had established a “challenging racism committee” made up of staff and pupils and that it was reviewing its procedures to identify ways in which it could “ensure a diverse school community that is truly reflective of the multicultural city in which we live”.

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