Cat Hughes was just 15 when the headmaster of her private boarding school began sending her messages via Instagram.
The teenage schoolgirl wasn't entirely surprised. She'd heard other female pupils at £37,500-a-year Ruthin School in Denbighshire, North Wales, talking about chatty texts they'd received from the principal, Toby Belfield, calling them 'cute' and 'naughty' and 'gorgeous'.
And at first it seemed Belfield cared about her wellbeing. 'I'm thinking about you. I just wanted you to know,' he wrote in one.
When Cat was struggling to cope with problems at home, he even offered her a free boarding place at the co-ed school, telling her: 'I'm your 'father' now.'
Toby Belfield, 47, (pictured) the principal of £37,500-a-year Ruthin School in Denbighshire, North Wales sent messages to 15-year-old Cat Hughes telling her she was 'naughty' and 'cute'
So began the exchange of hundreds of messages, sent at all times of the day and night, over several months. Most were about school life and Belfield's frequent trips abroad where he went to recruit wealthy overseas pupils.
But when Cat turned 16, the tone of the messages changed, shifting towards subjects such as sex and boyfriends and babies — even, on one occasion, the size of Countdown star Rachel Riley's breasts.
The married 47-year-old told the teenager she was 'naughty' and 'cute' and looked like a 'model' in her school blazer and joked she was 'breaking my heart'.
More, in a moment, of the barrage of disturbing messages sent by Belfield to Cat and other girls in his care — but given they first came to the attention of educational authorities as long ago as last May, the question being asked is why on earth he hasn't been sacked.
Speaking exclusively to the Mail this week, a visibly vulnerable Cat said: 'It is shocking he has not been sacked for what he has done. He has ruined my life.
'He should be sacked. He knew I was vulnerable. At the time, school was the be-all-and-end-all for me. I was having problems at home and he offered me a free boarding place.
When Cat (pictured) turned 16, the tone of the messages changed, shifting towards subjects such as sex and boyfriends and babies
'When he started messaging me, I thought it was weird but I thought I had to reply because he was my headteacher. I was scared he would kick me out if I blocked him.
'School, my friends and teachers were my family at that time, I was scared he could take it all away.'
Today, the Mail can reveal that despite an investigation by social services — as well as two separate school inspections last November which concluded that pupils are 'at risk of harm' — a loophole in the law means only governors at the independent school are able to dismiss members of staff.
Ruthin's governors, known as the 'Council of Management' (COM) and whose members include a retired doctor and a circuit judge, say they are co-operating with 'ongoing external investigations' and that 'the principal has not been carrying out his role while these investigations are ongoing'. But they have yet to sack him.
Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams announced this week that, while she had 'no powers to direct an independent school to dismiss a member of staff', she would shut down the school, which has 360 boys and girls aged 11 to 18, if appropriate action is not taken by the COM.
So why hasn't it?
Money plays a big part, according to one source at the school. Belfield has presided over a huge increase in funding, effectively doubling reserves to £9 million.
More concerning, perhaps, is the fact the Mail has discovered a family building firm run by the COM chair Julie Oldbury was paid £970,381 for renovation and building works at the school between August 2013 and August 2018. Mrs Oldbury, 61, is director and majority shareholder of Best Construction, which undertook the work.
According to the school's publicly available accounts, filed with the Charity Commission, the work was put out to 'competitive tender' and 'potential conflicts of interest' addressed to ensure good value.The school insists Mrs Oldbury 'was at no point personally involved in any decision to appoint Best Construction, or in any negotiations over the terms of the appointment'. The fact remains that Mrs Oldbury, an HR specialist, is among those who must decide whether Belfield should stay or go.
'It beggars belief that he can still be in post,' Cat's mother Susan, an NHS speech therapist, told the Mail this week. 'How can he be allowed to send inappropriate text messages to pupils, especially boarding pupils, some of whom are thousands of miles from home, without fear of reproach?
Cat had heard other female pupils at £37,500-a-year Ruthin School in Denbighshire, North Wales (pictured), talking about chatty texts they'd received from the principal
'It's a terrible loophole in legislation. It's wrong. Because my daughter was at private school she had no protection or rights.'
Even at Ruthin, where staff were only told this month that Belfield is on a 'leave of absence', there is disbelief about why he has yet to be given his marching orders.
'He needs to go and we can't understand why he hasn't gone,' the school source said this week.
They said that for any other member of staff it would have been against the rules to send pupils messages via social media, but that Belfield, whose 62-year-old wife Barbara is a bursar at another private school in Shrewsbury, was openly doing it.
'He said it was to do with his guardianship of the pupils and he needed to be able to contact them more informally. We assumed it was about work and test results.'
The hundreds of messages seen by the Mail make it clear that was far from the case. In one, sent the morning after a school dance, he laments to a pupil: 'No photo of you in your lovely red dress!' To another pupil he wrote: 'To me you are extremely special, which is why you get away with so much.'
On another occasion Belfield, who had a strict 'no relationships' policy at the school and threatened to expel anyone who formed one, threatens to tell a girl's father about his suspicions she is involved with someone and says: 'I don't want to see you with him.'
What he was trying to achieve with these messages is unclear but it is surely not the job of the headteacher to be sending messages of this type.
Belfield, who was also an organist at Roman Catholic Shrewsbury Cathedral until 2018, adds: 'I worry, definitely, about you and sexual behaviour. You might need my support — and you shouldn't risk not having it.'