Top private school denies welfare risk over bullying

The headmaster of a prestigious Edinburgh private school last night reacted angrily to claims that pupils' welfare was at risk after it emerged that the Scottish Government had sent in inspectors to address allegations of bullying.

The principal of the school said the measures were "bureaucratic".

George Watson’s College has been told it has to adhere to a list of conditions laid out by Scottish ministers after they conducted a special inspection in September.

The case was raised in a parliamentary committee meeting yesterday as Green MSP Andy Wightman said that the victim had been left with “lifelong injuries” and claimed that the school “was aware of a catalogue of complaints of various forms of bullying” against the pupil.

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But principal Melvyn Roffe dismissed the measures – which include the distribution of a new complaints handling policy – as “purely bureaucratic” and said the allegations were a one-off.

The claims came from the parents of a former pupil, constituents of Mr Wightman, whose child left the Merchiston school two years ago. They complained of “sustained bullying without appropriate action or recognition from the school” and also alleged “poor handling of complaints and a culture of covering up” at George Watson’s – which counts Olympian Sir Chris Hoy and architect Sir Basil Spence among former pupils.

A letter written by Education Scotland said that Scottish ministers had deemed that the school was at risk of “becoming objectionable” based on the grounds “that the welfare of a pupil attending the school is not adequately safeguarded and promoted there”.

The school now has three deadlines – the first of which is next week – to meet the conditions laid down by ministers.

Mr Wightman said: “I was approached by constituents with a case involving a child who was the victim of serious bullying that ended up causing lifelong injuries at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh.

“In September this year, a special inspection was conducted and three weeks ago Scottish ministers wrote to the Merchant Company of Edinburgh to inform it that George Watson's College is at risk of becoming objectionable.”

Mr Roffe said the measures implemented by Education Scotland were “purely bureaucratic” and did not relate to the welfare of pupils.

He said: “This is not a mass uprising by parents at George Watson’s. There are three bureaucratic things we need to complete to satisfy [ministers] that our regulation is in order.

“Some constituents, who have waged a war of attrition on us in the past two years, have managed to persuade a member of the Scottish Parliament that they should launch an attack on the school. This is an example of how a child who was having problems making friends in school ended up a pawn in a political game.”

The criteria include the publication and distribution of a new complaints handling policy; a “clear statement” of the functions of the governing council and its sub-committees; and the creation of a report on governance policies and how the governing council provides the scrutiny and challenge to school policy.

The inspection comes just months after an annual HMI visit to the school reported that there were “no identified areas for development” in relation to safeguarding.

Neither the Scottish ministers nor the Registrar of Independent Schools usually handle complaints relating to the running of private schools.However, they are able to take into account information when deciding whether or not to exercise their powers in relation to non-state educational establishments.