Abuse within swimming – independent investigation into Ellesmere College Titans

Ellesmere College Titans, an elite swimming club based at Ellesmere College, an independent boarding school in Shropshire, is to close following an independent investigation which found widespread failures to protect children, leading to eating disorders, bullying and significant mental health issues.

The investigation began in 2020 when parents contacted the club’s governing body, Swim England, concerned about children’s welfare.  The investigation (commissioned by Swim England) uncovered more than 70 separate complaints concerning some coaches’ behaviour and the club management’s failure to deal with multiple serious issues concerning the children.

Allegations in the confidential report, as seen by the BBC, include a number of children’s attempted suicides not being reported as well as incidents of self-harm. Derogatory comments were also allegedly made towards swimmers, including sexual and personal remarks.  Some girls developed eating disorders which were linked to a controversial regime of weighing children as young as 10, with the results publicised among teammates.

The report also found that the swimming club’s systems for dealing with safeguarding concerns raised were “woefully inadequate” and that key members were untrained.

The Titans’ director of swimming, world silver medallist Alan Bircher, was suspended and subsequently stopped from forming part of Team GB’s Tokyo 2020 coaching squad last year.  Coach Danny Proffitt was also suspended for four months and has recently returned to work at the club.

When Bircher and Proffitt were suspended, more than 80 past and current swimmers signed a letter of support saying none of them had experienced “any hurtful or damaging behaviour” from them.  The letter said that Bircher created a “fun, exciting and elite training environment”. There is still a widely held belief among some club supporters the complaints have been instigated by vindictive parents whose children did not progress as far as they had wished.

Bircher has issued a statement through the British Swimming Coaches Association which said: “Alan Bircher proactively participated in a Swim England investigation into concerns raised at Ellesmere Titans.  This investigation and its findings were confidential. Mr Bircher’s involvement in related matters concluded in October 2021 and he is no longer involved in swimming in any capacity.  He will make no further comment.”

Swim England recently changed its guidance on weighing swimmers following its investigation into the club and now says that only those under 18 on a “nationally-supported pathway” should be weighed as part of their training.

Last year the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) assessed Ellesmere College and as part of this it looked into the care of its students who swam with the Titans.  It concluded that the school “fails to ensure it provides a safe environment in which children can learn while they are taking part in the activities of the swimming club”.  It also found that the school’s annual review of safeguarding “does not include adequate consideration of the safeguarding of pupils” who are members of Titans, and that it fails to make “effective assessment of the potential risks” in the swimming club.

Swim England, which had been reviewing the club’s progress since its investigation concluded, said “further and ongoing concerns” had been raised which had resulted in its decision to dissolve the club.

“Following further careful consideration of all the information available, Swim England (alongside statutory agencies) have determined that there will be no affiliated club based at Ellesmere College going forward,” it said.

There are up to 60 children who are currently members of Titans and now face having to move clubs if they intend to compete.  Swim England has said that it would “provide total support to the swimmers in transitioning to another affiliated club.”

Shropshire Council has stated that it was “liaising with Swim England and Ellesmere College to manage and resolve any allegations.”

The NSPCC has also stated that it had been made aware of the investigation into Ellesmere College Titans.  It added:

“Coaches, above all else, must safeguard young people while all organisations should set minimum professional standards whether they are affiliated to a national governing body or not.  Any breaches of these should be reported and robustly investigated alongside statutory child protection agencies and appropriate action taken, if necessary.”

David Milton, Partner, BLM

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