How our investigation into a prestigious ballet school led to its closure

An ITV News investigation uncovered years of alleged abuse at Scotland’s biggest ballet school and led to its closure

Police are also now investigating accusations we reported against the Vice Principal of Ballet West, Jonathan Barton.

In total, we spoke with more than 60 women over three weeks of this investigation, corroborating accounts and obtaining evidence.

We travelled the length and breadth of the UK interviewing and taking statements from the women who alleged abuse. 

We heard harrowing allegations of bullying, grooming, inappropriate sexual relationships, and cover-ups at the family-run Ballet West boarding school.

And we confronted both the school and Jonathan Barton with our findings.

Located on top of a secluded hill in Argyll, the isolation of Ballet West is supposed to be part of the attraction. 

Young dancers start from 16 years-old, moving to a remote part of Scotland where they can live and learn far from distractions.

The fees are just over £9,000 per year, not including accommodation, and the school was just awarded ‘Best British Ballet School’ at the British Ballet Grand Prix awards for 2019/20. 

The school building itself is a long way up a dark, tree-lined drive at the end of a single-track country road.

It is far enough away from the tiny village of Taynuilt to be considered its own little kingdom. 

The women we spoke to in our investigation told us the Barton family owned the place and ran it like their personal empire, answerable to no one.

The name Jonathan Barton was given to me for the first time on a  phone call at the end of July. Then he was mentioned again, and again, and again. 

Jonathan Barton has been accused of grooming by former pupils. Credit: Facebook

Jonathan Barton, we were told, was the 38-year-old Vice Principal at Ballet West who was now married to one of his former students. 

We looked into him and found he was seemingly respected enough in the ballet world to be invited to judge at various dancing competitions. He had toured the world as a dancer himself, earning favourable reviews for his performances onstage.

However, the women contacting us alleged Jonathan Barton was also a serial abuser of power who had been sleeping with his teenage students for years.

“He is… charming,” one of the women calling me to give her story said.

“Tall, a good dancer. He was also quite a good looking man among a class of mostly teenage girls. And that’s how he operates.

"He charms impressionable 16-year-old ballerinas, and has sex with them.”

Each time we heard a story like this, we asked if the accuser knew of others who could support the allegations.

Usually they did, and in the first 72 hours so many women got in touch we decided to assemble a small team to look at these serious allegations - producers, lawyers, and editors all had their input.

We knew the consequences of this work could be severe and it was important to be absolutely certain.

The accusations were certainly consistent and convincing. The women contacting us had either experienced Jonathan Barton’s approaches or witnessed something inappropriate.

Each year, they said, Jonathan Barton would pick a new first-year girl to be his ‘favourite'. 


'I'm not letting them get away with that again'

He had a type: slim, usually lacking in confidence, someone he could befriend and impress.

He would, we were told, lavish this favourite girl with attention in lessons, offering them more corrections than other students, which meant getting up close and personal and physically touching them as often as he could.

This is, to some extent, normal in ballet.

Teachers often physically handle their students to correct movements and postures. This makes ballerinas particularly susceptible to any teachers seeking to abuse their position.

Anne Marie Christian, a safeguarding expert who works with schools and sports clubs, told me: “I usually tell young people that their personal space is their first line of defence.

"If someone gets too close and touches them, that’s normally a red flag for inappropriate behaviour.

"In ballet, though, the young dancers have to concede their first line of defence just to take part. They are expected, from a young age, to accept their adult teacher touching them.” 

Changing the ’norms’ of a situation is also identified as a classic grooming tactic.

“This is about pushing boundaries to making the other person think what is happening is acceptable,” Anne Marie said.

What Jonathan Barton was being accused of was grooming behaviour.

He was said to target these teenage girls who were boarding at Ballet West and living far from home for the first time. 

They were in his care and they accepted his place in their lives.

Jonathan Barton pictured during a ballet performance. Credit: Facebook/ Ballet West

“I think he picked his victims really carefully,” is how one of the former students who says she was groomed described it to me.

“He was calculated, it was methodical.”

A few former students told a similar story of how Jonathan Barton would make his first move with a text. He had all the students’ phone numbers because he used a system where he sent updates about his classes in the school timetable by text message. 

If a girl became a favourite, he would send flirty messages with kisses, then bombard them with flattery.

Some said he would be extra ‘hands on’ in class and a brush of his hand down their arm or up their leg would be followed by a smile. They would sometimes be asked to stay on for late lessons then given a lift back to their accommodation in their teacher’s Dodge Viper sports car.

One of the women told us they always slept together in his bedroom.

“It was always on his terms, when he wanted me,” she said. 

Another former student says he liked to go into the shower with her.

Jonathan Barton has denied all of the allegations against him. 

When we presented his legal team with evidence of messages he sent a former student, which included him describing a fantasy he had her of, and saying, “I love kissing you", they went to court to obtain an interdict - or a legal ‘gagging order’ - to stop us reporting this. 

Our lawyers successfully challenged it and Barton conceded, also agreeing to pay legal costs.

The obvious question I asked everyone who came to us was how on earth has he been getting away with this? Does nobody complain to the Principal?

“That’s the thing - the Principal is his mother.”

Gillian Barton founded Ballet West in 1991 and was the Principal the entire time the school was open. She is American and Jonathan was born in the US. 


'There is no way you can complain about him'

She apparently had a career as a dancer herself before moving the family to Argyll where she opened this prestigious fee-paying ballet school.

“Gillian always defends her son,” I was told. “She’ll shoot down anyone who dares to question her Jonathan.”

A former student, Annie Gaffney, who decided she did not want to be anonymous, told me: “I tried to report him.

"When we heard Jonathan in our housemate's room, me and two other girls went to the Principal - Jonathan’s mum.

"She just shouted and said to stop spreading rumours. That’s when our lives were made hell. The bullying and humiliation started in front of the whole class.”

The Bartons were described as the gatekeepers to a career in dance for these young women. They were the very people who could decide grades, direct careers, and offer future references, and they were also the landlords for every student at the school.

This was something that struck us as extraordinary about Ballet West. The accommodation was not owned by the school itself - it was owned by the Bartons. 

A few former students showed me the agreements they had to sign before joining the boarding school and it was in black and white that in order to study at Ballet West it was compulsory to rent your accommodation from the Barton family. 

So, on top of the students’ £9,000-a-year school fees, the Bartons would charge around £500 per month per student for a room in a house share with several other dancers - that is relatively expensive by any standard for a shared house in a rural Scottish village.

An entire flat in nearby Oban can be found for just a few hundred pounds per month, in comparison. But students were simply not allowed to find their own place to stay.

Ballet West, founded in 1991, is a prestigious, £9,000 a year boarding school located in Taynuilt near the Argyll coast. Credit: ITV News

What’s more, even though students would only be taking classes at Ballet West for ten months of the year, they were compelled to pay rent for a full 12 months - including during the summer recess. 

If they suffered an injury and had to go home?

One girl who experienced this very situation said there was no break in paying rent even if you had broken your leg.

The former students also told familiar stories about Jonathan Barton entering the accommodation they were renting without knocking and without an invitation. 

This is another example of social norms being altered. The women say he would turn up, let himself in, and tell them he was there to change a lightbulb or give some other excuse.

They complain they were often in little more than a towel or a nightgown when he walked into their personal living space. 

“It just made you feel like there was nowhere you could really be away from him,” one woman said. “Who were we supposed to complain to, though?” 

That was a common theme at Ballet West.

We weren’t just being contacted by former students about these issues. We heard from parents as well who told us stories of dealing with the emotional fallout of their child leaving Ballet West. 

Former staff members also got in touch to tell us about the culture of ‘covering for Jonathan’ at Ballet West. 

“I quit because I felt my job was like ‘pimping’ for him,” a former colleague of Jonathan Barton told us.

“I was bringing in new students each year who were so excited, and seeing previous girls who left broken.”

We were also given documentary evidence of opportunities the school had to reform, to give better protection to its students, but failed to do so. 

Ballet dancers at the school have spoken to ITV News about their experiences. Credit: ITV News

In 2012, the University of Highlands and Islands cut ties and reported their concerns about Ballet West to police.

Police confirm an investigation into Jonathan Barton took place at this time but say no criminality was established.

Things quickly returned to normal at the school, with a new academic partner found to keep things ticking over.

Then in 2018, the Open University gave notice it was withdrawing accreditation for a degree at the school, citing concerns over “student safeguarding".

They say they reported their issues with Ballet West to the Argyll and Bute council.

In spite of this, Ballet West’s board of trustees insisted to us that both of these universities parted ways with the school on rather harmonious terms. 

We also uncovered that in 2018, a complaint was made to the school board about Jonathan Barton having sexual contact with a student.

An internal investigation was conducted and he was issued with a written warning. Yet the school allowed Jonathan Barton to stay on as Vice Principal and as ballet teacher. 

We have seen evidence that board members were given assurances by Jonathan Barton that he would adjust his behaviour after this complaint. This was not a condition of his warning, but he volunteered that he would no longer teach one-to-one lessons.

Yet, within months of him giving these assurances, his name can be seen on school timetables listed as once again coaching private sessions with female students.


'Hopefully this has given them an idea of how they can change their own training'

Most former (and even some current) staff members at Ballet West have been entirely supportive of the women speaking out and of our investigation.

“It is high time all of this came out and people found out exactly how the Bartons have been running that place,” one told me.

However, some were less than helpful.

One individual in particular who had access to important information that could have corroborated another allegation simply kept repeating, almost with glee: “I shall be making no comment!” 

“You realise you could help these young women?” I asked.

“I am not interested in helping anyone,” was the blunt reply. “I shall be making no comment!”

Another former staff member, who did give us assistance, told me rather revealingly: “The thing is, Jonathan Barton is just such a great dancer and teacher - if only he could keep it in his trousers with the students!”

This was said through bursts of her laughing. 

I didn’t laugh along. Instead I told her about the effect Jonathan Barton has had on the young women.

One woman we interviewed has her own family now, she has a professional career, and her husband was in the room with us as she spoke.

Yet she trembled in front of me when talking about being invited up to the Vice Principal’s bedroom as a teenager.

“I know it was silly of me but at 16 you thought it was really exciting.”

She had never been in an intimate relationship before, and when she left his room the first time she said she was shaking. Her classmates consoled her. 

“For a long time after I left Ballet West I just couldn’t trust men,” she said.

“I’ve now found the strength to talk about it. I know what he did to me was wrong. And I’m not blaming myself anymore.”

Noticing she was shaking again, I tried to reassure her.

“He has no power over you now,” I said.

“You don’t know him and his family like I do,” was the reply with eyes fixed straight ahead - not at me but right through me. 

Our investigation has also uncovered evidence the school was made aware of concerns about Jonathan Barton’s behaviour. Credit: Facebook/ Ballet West

A week into the investigation, it took a bizarre turn.

Word was getting out among former Ballet West students that we were conducting an investigation. At this point, I started receiving some unusual phone calls.

“I want to remain anonymous,” said a soft voice at the other end of the phone. That was fine - perfectly reasonable and not unlike what I had been asked by so many people getting in touch with information about this story.

“Jonathan Barton is a wonderful teacher,” the caller informed me. “And he’s never done anything inappropriate.” 

Now the caller was sounding totally out of place. My suspicions were aroused. 

“Do you mind me asking,” I followed up. “What prompted you to call me to tell me your old school teacher was so good?” 

I have investigated numerous stories about alleged abuse in schools and not once have I been contacted by former students to tell me they, in fact, had a great time in spite of what others might say.

“I am aware there’s a lot of gossip about him and it’s coming from jealous ex-students of his who never made it as dancers,” the soft voice replied.

I pried with a few more gentle questions - and let’s just say the caller wasn’t as good at covering their tracks as they probably imagine.

Then a couple of other young, nervous-sounding women called to add their input on how Jonathan Barton never did anything inappropriate to them. 

During one of these calls I could actually hear someone whispering in the background as two people consulted over what to say in reply to my questions. 

“Sorry, let me stop you right there - are you being told what to say?” I asked.

“No!”

“Why can I hear someone whispering answers to you?”

“That’s my little brother. He’s, er, playing video games.”

I had no such concerns with any of the women who contacted us to make extremely serious allegations. Those emotions were raw and real.

The women were quite happy to meet us in person where possible. All were willing to put their names to statements. 

It is also worth noting the lack of jubilation among the women who let us tell their story. 

When it was announced the school was being shut down, I received messages from most of them saying their overwhelming emotion was relief. 

Every one of them also expressed sympathies for the current students who will no longer be able to complete their degrees at Ballet West. 

Shannen Redmond, who didn’t experience any sexual assault but says she witnessed inappropriate behaviour and Jonathan Barton’s unorthodox teaching methods in her time studying at the Taynuilt-based ballet school, said: “It is upsetting for the current students.

“I really hope they understand this is the right thing to have happened and their training is definitely going to be better elsewhere.”

This wasn’t about getting one over their old school and their old teacher.

It was, for more than 60 women, about being heard at last.

It was about making the dance industry safer so that no more 16-year-olds would leave home filled with hopes and dreams of becoming a ballerina, only to be sent straight into the arms of Jonathan Barton at the Ballet West boarding school.

I still have a text from when our first report was shown - the woman who had trembled when she even mentioned Jonathan Barton’s name said: “For so long I have been ashamed of what happened at Ballet West. Now I am proud to play a small part in challenging this.”


Our team is continuing to investigate allegations, not just in relation to Ballet West, but other ballet and dance schools.

If you want to report concerns about a dance school or teacher to us, please contact is in confidence at ballet@itv.com.