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From: The Sunday Times Sunday 25th February 2001

'Bullying' choir head told to quit

Christopher Morgan - Religious Affairs Correspondent

THE headmaster of Westminster Abbey Choir School, Britain's most prestigious school for choristers, has been told to resign by the abbey's dean and chapter following months of acrimony in which some parents have accused him of "psychological bullying".

Roger Overend was summoned to the abbey's Jerusalem Chamber last Friday, suspended from duty and instructed to leave his job. The same evening, parents learnt in a letter that he would be away for the weekend.

Overend is resisting the attempt to oust him, but has asked the National Association of Head Teachers to negotiate a package on his behalf.

A friend said the headmaster was "shell-shocked" by the decision, following eight months of bitter conflict between the parents and the abbey authorities. Four of the school's 37 boys have been withdrawn and one expelled.

The suspension is thought to have come about following a change of heart by Wesley Carr, the Dean of Westminster, who appointed Overend to his post in 1997. Carr had told parents that the headmaster enjoyed his full confidence. An abbey insider said this weekend: "Carr finally snapped when he realised that a council report critical of the school and abbey is about to be published. He had to be seen to act."

Parents believe the problems at the school could have been solved if the dean and his fellow governors had listened to their complaints earlier. Michael Beckett, whose son used to attend the school, said: "The whole human tragedy could have been avoided if the dean had handled the matter with sensitivity and understanding."

The dispute came to a head 12 days ago when Christopher Besse, the school's doctor, tendered his resignation. While Besse has refused to comment publicly, it is believed he diagnosed a number of the school's 37 boys as suffering from stress.

The battle started last September when the parents of one of the four withdrawn boys accused Overend of making their son leave his bed at night and go to the library, where Overend shouted at him. The abbey started a seven-week investigation, but Overend was not subjected to disciplinary action. The row appears to have affected demand for places at the school. A recent audition for boy choristers attracted only four for six places. Additional reporting: Joe Perry

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