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Applications drop for Westminster choir school

By Jonathan Wynne-Jones of The Church of England Newspaper - 9th February 2001 Issue No 5550

The full extent of the crisis at Westminster Abbey was revealed this week when it became clear that the choir school had taken the unusual step of issuing an appeal to local primary schools for more boys.

On Wednesday, only four boys attended the voice trials, despite 11 places needing filling at the Abbey. St Paul's Cathedral had 30 boys competing at the voice trials and Salisbury had over 60.

"In the old days many more boys were going for voice trials" said Christopher Compston, a father of one of the boys. "To get into Westminster Abbey's choir was an accolade of accolades."

In the past, Westminster Abbey choir has sung at the funeral of Princess Diana, and the coronation service.

A Sunday Times report told how parents had been upset by the headmaster's treatment of the boys, but this week parents told this newspaper that the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Four boys have already been withdrawn from the school, but several more parents said they were seriously considering "voting with their feet" by taking their boys out of the school. There is a real possibility that the school could collapse if parents continue to remove boys, two of the parents warned.

Blame for the current troubles is being attributed to the headmaster, Roger Overend, and the Dean, who parents say has held them in low regard and "treated the children as commodities".

"I think the old regime was more loving and in an effort to improve academic standards, love has virtually gone out of the window" said Mr Compston. "A Christian organisation demands love."

Another parent, who asked for anonymity for fear of the repercussions for his son, claimed that the Dean had been using "bully-tactics to try and cover up the problems."

In a further allegation, he said that parents were warned by the Dean, the Very Rev Wesley Carr not to mention their complaints to each other, and were told that they were alone in their fears.

Westminster Social Services has been conducting a routine four-yearly inspection at the school, and a statement from the Council confirms that after discussions with staff, student and parents the report is now being finalised with the Abbey Choir School.

"The Headmaster has been routinely reducing boys to tears, telling them that they are failures, and prowling around the dormitories late at night. My boy was reduced to an emotional wreck," claimed the father, who took his children to see an adviser at the Children's Society.

After an internal investigation, the Abbey said that Wesley Carr took appropriate action, but the parents argue that he is firmly entrenched behind the headmaster because he was his appointment.

"The Headmaster, who co-operated with the investigation at every stage, has accepted that his reaction was ill-judged on this occasion," a statement from the abbey read.

Mr Compston hopes that the current crisis can be resolved. "The latest meeting with the dean was quite constructive and conciliatory, and I do think that he is trying to mend fences," he said.

The Abbey this week expressed delight at having four boys attending for the second voice trial of the year.

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