As head teacher of Britain’s most expensive day school, since 2017 Robin Appleby has enjoyed a pay packet to rival those of the turbo-charged bankers, sports stars and celebrities whose ultra-privileged children she educates.
Last year, her basic salary for running the £32,650-a-year American School in London (ASL) was £337,000. She was also paid £25,000 in ‘other remuneration’, plus £34,000 in ‘pension contributions’. In other words, the 56-year-old former English teacher took home very nearly £400,000.
That is more than ten times the pay of the average teacher in the UK, and nearly six times that of the average school head.
Not bad for someone employed by a registered charity!
Nothing lasts for ever, though. And last week Mrs Appleby’s lucrative reign at ASL — which has 1,350 students and alumni who include Kathleen Turner and Police drummer Stewart Copeland — came to a juddering halt.
Parents of pupils at the school (who rub shoulders at its gates with the likes of Hollywood siren Salma Hayek and football coach Thierry Henry) were emailed with news of her sudden resignation. She will depart on January 1.
Such a move is highly irregular. ASL has had just eight heads in its 70-year history, and the previous two each served out their full ten-year contracts.
As head teacher of Britain’s most expensive day school, since 2017 Robin Appleby (pictured) has enjoyed a pay packet to rival those of the turbo-charged bankers, sports stars and celebrities whose ultra-privileged children she educates
Parents (whose children face being left without a head midway through the academic year) were given precious little explanation, aside from a carefully worded statement saying she had left to ‘focus on her own wellbeing and that of her family’.
But few of them, surely, can have believed that was the real reason for Appleby’s premature exit.
For her decision to cut and run came amid two toxic controversies involving perhaps the most divisive issue of our times, racial politics.
With Britain’s classrooms increasingly on the front line of culture wars amid claims that Left-wing teachers are imposing politically correct values on a generation of children, the fallout from recent events on this gilded campus near Regent’s Park may have implications for schools across the land.
One of the two controversies that predated Appleby’s departure involves long-standing complaints by parents about an ultra-‘woke’ teaching agenda she chose to introduce some 18 months ago.
The second revolves around concerning allegations that this agenda led to incidents of anti-Semitism on her watch.
For her decision to cut and run came amid two toxic controversies involving perhaps the most divisive issue of our times, racial politics
I can reveal that the governing board of trustees at the school, which has many Jewish students, decided to launch what a spokesman calls the ‘complaints process’ amid claims that highly offensive remarks had been made at a meeting of ASL’s entire faculty of teachers, which Appleby chaired.
Details of what occurred at that meeting, which took place on November 3, are heavily disputed.
But two written accounts passed to the Mail — at least one of which was seen by members of the board — suggest that the words ‘Nazi’, ‘swastika’ and ‘Hitler’ were used by members of Mrs Appleby’s staff during a heated conversation about the reaction of parents to the school’s efforts to educate children about race relations.
The school — which holds a tape recording of the whole conversation — denies that the contentious terms were ever ‘used to describe parents’ of pupils (many of whom, particularly Jewish ones, believe the issue is being taught in ways that are divisive and politically biased).
It will not comment on whether the inflammatory terms were used in a different context.
In a statement, the school’s spokesman did, however, concede that remarks made during the meeting ‘could cause offence to the community’.
The statement adds: ‘There were questions asked about whether the response to racism is always as strong and immediate as the response to anti-Semitism.’
One of the two controversies that predated Appleby’s departure involves long-standing complaints by parents about an ultra-‘woke’ teaching agenda she chose to introduce some 18 months ago. Pictured: ASL
Some details of the affair, and other related incidents, have also reached the ears of Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, an influential Jewish organisation based near by, which documents hate crimes.
‘We have been receiving disturbing reports about the American School in London,’ says a spokesman. ‘There are claims that terms like “Nazis” were used at a staff meeting. Although the school denies this extreme language referred to Jewish parents, it apparently does not dispute that these terms did appear in their discussion, which allegedly also featured language suggesting that anti-Semitism and racism are different.’
The whole thing, in other words, appears very ugly indeed.
Ructions at ASL date back to the summer of last year, and the soul-searching that followed the killing of George Floyd.
Like many institutions, ASL decided it would be appropriate to make a public stand against racism. With this in mind, Mrs Appleby announced a ‘detailed action plan’ involving sweeping changes to the school’s ‘diversity, equality and inclusivity’ [DEI] curriculum.
Parents were, according to an email, to be instructed on how to ‘raise anti-racist children’ and ‘recognise their own implicit biases’.
It was, on paper, an entirely noble aim. Yet to achieve it, the principal and her senior lieutenants decided to reconfigure much of their curriculum around something called ‘critical race theory’.
This is a highly contentious academic ideology, first popularised in America, that revolves around the concept of ‘white privilege’. Its adherents posit that Western society is intrinsically racist and that citizens are either victims or recipients of privilege, depending on the colour of their skin.
The second revolves around concerning allegations that this agenda led to incidents of anti-Semitism on her watch
Teachers launched a 'queer and questioning affinity group' for 13- and 14-year-olds who were 'questioning their gender expression, gender identity and/or sexuality', or thought they might belong 'to the LGBTQI+ spectrum', or be 'non-binary or gender nonconforming' (file photo)
At first, Mrs Appleby’s new initiative passed without complaint. But over time, parents began to express concern about the degree to which racial and gender politics had started to influence the teaching of almost every academic subject, from literature to maths to PE, and where gym sessions were replaced by debates about ‘politics in sport’.
By the start of the year, reports had begun to filter back of teachers accusing pupils of ‘white fragility’ and suggesting that they were guilty of ‘inherited white guilt’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ because of their ethnic background.
According to other complaints, many starting to be shared on parental WhatsApp groups, pupils were also taught that they were ‘either oppressors or oppressed’, depending on their ethnicity.
In a particularly contentious move, the school had even decided to introduce racially segregated after-school clubs, in an initiative one parent branded ‘offensive and immoral’, arguing that it breached UK equalities law.
By May, many ASL parents (who hail from 50 countries and speak at least 70 languages) had come to the view that certain teachers were ‘indoctrinating’ children with hard-Left ideology.
They argued that the constant focus on racial politics was counter-productive, dividing pupils along ethnic lines rather than uniting them.
Some Jewish parents, who believed Black Lives Matter’s leadership to be anti-Semitic, further complained of a ‘culture of fear’ in which their children had been ostracised by peers following lessons — seemingly influenced by the DEI programme — focusing on Israel.
At one point, the head of ASL’s middle school was instructed to issue a formal apology to them, for allowing students to be shown a highly partisan video about hostilities in the Middle East.
Complaints also began to reach Campaign Against Anti-Semitism. A spokesman says it is aware of ‘concerns that the school is teaching that Jews are part of a privileged elite’, adding: ‘It is outrageous that the school seems not to have tackled its problem suitably forcefully and seriously.’
The school is seen as a ticket to top grades and the best US universities, with former footballer Thierry Henry and Hollywood actress Salma Hayek (pictured) among parents at the school gates
At pick-up, parents rub shoulders with footballers Thierry Henry and Mikel Arteta and the occasional plutocrat and oligarch
A series of angry letters, some from the offices of expensive lawyers, ensued. One 12-page document sent to the school’s board of trustees accused ASL of ‘institutional racism’. One of its authors compared the school to a ‘woke cult’ and added: ‘Every subject, from art to literature to history, is now being taught through a prism of race and gender, at times to very young children.’
In more recent weeks, a 19-page complaint was submitted to the Department for Education (DfE) by a leading London barrister, acting on behalf of 26 ASL parents. It claims that the school’s teaching of race relations ‘has already become so extreme as to amount to a serious, systemic and ongoing breach of the Independent School Standards’.
The parents behind this letter, most of whom ‘are from minority racial and ethnic backgrounds’, provide half a dozen examples of what they regard as illegal teaching activity at ASL, some of which they claim breaches the 2010 Equality Act.
In one incident, in September, 15-year-old pupils were invited to use a wheel-shaped diagram (reproduced top right) to ‘audit’ their own privilege or victimhood based on ethnicity, sexuality and religion.
One child allegedly responded to the exercise by going home and ‘begging to have their DNA tested because they needed to find out what per cent victim they were’.
Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, has yet to respond, although a source close to him said ‘ministers at DfE are alarmed by reports of what is going on at the school and are taking them very seriously’.
The issue of wokery in schools is undoubtedly close to Mr Zahawi’s heart. Last month he warned: ‘Schools must not promote partisan political views and should take steps to ensure the balanced treatment of political issues . . . this includes contested views about white privilege.’
As those remarks suggest, ASL is by no means unique.
For while the school is almost certainly at the extreme end of the spectrum (perhaps because of its links to the U.S., where critical race theory is more firmly entrenched in the education system), versions of this row are playing out across the land.
Only this week, the head of Benenden, a £40,000-a-year boarding school once attended by Princess Anne and Rachel Weisz, gave a speech at a teaching conference warning parents that they needed to ‘keep up’ with their children by embracing woke ideology.
The American School in London is Britain's most expensive day school, charging an astonishing £32,650-a-year in fees to the capital's loftiest bankers, corporate lawyers and celebrities
Last month, Tory MP Miriam Cates called for an inquiry into what she called the ‘alarming’ spread of transgender ideology in schools, alleging that children are being encouraged to change their name and identify as the opposite sex without parental knowledge or consent.
The apparent politicisation of education is also the subject of a dossier sent to Mr Zahawi last month by the Free Speech Union [FSU], which campaigns against ‘cancel culture’.
It contained a collection of teaching materials obtained from the parents of children at 15 English schools where, the FSU alleges, teachers have ‘failed to comply with their duties to forbid the promotion of partisan political views’. Wherever they crop up, these disputes tend to pit Left-leaning academics against more traditional-minded parents. And that is the dynamic that led to fireworks at the ASL.
At the meeting on November 3, members of staff began discussing complaints levelled at the school’s DEI curriculum.
At one particularly heated moment, an unnamed teacher appears to have suggested that parents who send their children to ASL tend to be far more vigorous in opposing anti-Semitism than they are in opposing racism.
This remark caused offence among colleagues, as it appears to posit that abuse of Jewish people is different from racism (and therefore less deserving of sympathy). After the meeting, several members of staff passed on their concerns to both parents and members of the board of trustees.
One parent used an online message board viewed by the Mail to state that terms such as ‘Nazis,’ ‘Hitlers’, ‘swastikas’ and ‘skinheads’ had been used during the conversation, adding that ‘several teachers who attended were shocked’ by the tone of the discussion.
A different written account, passed to various trustees, also reportedly cited those terms.
The complaints are believed to have prompted senior trustees to listen to a recording of the staff meeting, which was kept so that teachers unable to attend could listen to proceedings. At some point shortly afterwards, roughly ten days after the meeting took place, Mrs Appleby appears to have decided to resign.
Among those concerned by the woke-ification of British education is equalities minister Kemi Badenoch (pictured), born in London to Nigerian parents, who used a Commons speech in October to highlight the duty of schools to avoid political partisanship
Asked about the November 3 meeting, a spokesman for the school said: ‘Teachers did not refer to parents by any of the words you’ve mentioned.
‘However, Mrs Appleby and the school were concerned that the question contrasting the responses to racism and anti-Semitism could cause offence to members of the community, and this was addressed immediately.’
Regarding Mrs Appleby’s subsequent departure, the spokesman added: ‘It is completely inappropriate for the school to comment on private board meetings or discussions related to specific individuals. The complaints process is confidential.’
Apropos allegations of wokery, the school added: ‘We are committed to building and sustaining a diverse, equitable and inclusive school community and firmly believe this will lead to a better future for all our children.’
The parents at the centre of the dispute think otherwise. I gather they are now turning their attention to ‘senior members of the school’s administration and faculty’ who remain in post, alleging that they ‘continue to indoctrinate our children into this racist and toxic ideology’.
Their first step is expected to involve efforts to force the school to publish a transcript of the meeting at the centre of the alleged anti-Semitism row, which it currently refuses to make public.
Like so many of the rows about wokery taking place throughout the British school system, the one at London’s most expensive day school may have only just begun.