A renowned drama school supported by Andrew Lloyd Webber has been accused of promoting a “toxic” environment with a widespread culture of bullying stemming from its principal, according to reports.
Theatre super producer Andrew Lloyd Webber has been associated with the west London-based institution ArtsEd since 2007.
The institution, led by principal Julie Spencer, is considered as one of the most reputable places in the UK to train, and features actors Julie Andrews, Lashana Lynch (No Time to Die, The Woman King), Nigel Harman and Simone Ashley (Bridgerton), and dancer Darcey Bussell among its alumni.
As well as holding the ceremonial role of being the school’s president, Webber’s ALW Foundation’s £3.5m donation in 2013 funded a refurbishment of the school’s main theatre, now named after him.
However, ArtsEd has faced substantial internal criticism in recent years and, in 2021, was subject to a rigorous investigation, following which barristers concluded that the school had a “sexualised environment”.
The review, carried out by barrister Rebecca Tuck KC, led to the resignation of the former principal Chris Hocking after some former staff members felt it was “impossible to challenge” him.
Now, in a new report by the US publication Deadline, figures connected with the school have claimed that the well-being of students has “continued to be put at risk”, two years after the investigation.
ArtsEd told The Independent that its leadership team has “made considerable progress to put things right” following the review, and pins many of the complaints as having occurred prior to the 2021 investigation.
The allegations of bullying are largely attributed Spencer. Twenty people speaking to the publication accused her of being an “erratic and occasionally intimidating leader” since she joined the school as head of acting in 2019.
According to the Deadline report, published on Monday (6 November), some former students recalled Spencer having “bizarre outbursts” and said they’d felt threatened by her behaviour. They also spoke of a “culture of fear” existing, with some feeling anxious about their ability to achieve their desired grades.
“Aspiring actors and singers need to feel safe and supported; you need to feel like you’re not being judged,” one recent graduate said. “At ArtsEd, it felt like you were walking through a Mafia neighbourhood in Napoli.”
Steven Kavuma, a former teacher at the school, was a rare figure to agree to be named in the report and claimed he witnessed “first-hand bullying towards students and teachers”. He continued: “I tried to challenge it within the school, but the principal would isolate you.
“I don’t think it is a safe environment to train. If students don’t feel comfortable challenging that within that school, if they feel fearful… I just don’t think that’s healthy at all. Some students felt like they had to be watching their backs constantly, they felt intimidated.”
In response to the claims made, a spokesperson for ArtsEd rejected any suggestions that students’ safety had been put at risk, and noted the changes put in place by Spencer in light of the 2021 inquiry.
The statement reads: “We strongly reject any suggestion that we have put student safety at risk and also reject the accusations of misconduct and bullying levelled at our principal Julie Spencer. The safety and welfare of students is our highest priority.
The spokesperson added: “Since the publication of the Rebecca Tuck KC review two years ago, Julie Spencer – with the full support of the board of trustees and senior leadership board – has made many robust changes that were needed in light of those very serious findings. These changes have included staff departures and instilling a new and more student-focused culture.”
It is said that Webber found the findings of Rebecca Tuck’s 2021 report to be a shocking read, and it is not suggested that he had any awareness of any accusations.
A representative of Andrew Lloyd Webber declined to comment when approached by The Independent.