Why Priti Patel reminds me of bullying school leaders

In defending the behaviour of the home secretary, the government is saying bullying is acceptable, says Ruth Luzmore
24th November 2020, 1:37pm


Why Priti Patel reminds me of bullying school leaders

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I'll admit that I hadn't bought a physical newspaper in years. I struggle to throw out newspapers and magazines, so am limited in what I buy, in case I end up buried underneath a pile of them.

But Sunday was an exception, because I saw the headline "Fury as PM tells Tories to back 'bully' Patel". Though now I wish I hadn't bought the newspaper, for the sake of my blood pressure. 

You may ask why I - a headteacher in the middle of a pandemic, with innumerous other concerns, great and small - am so furious about this situation? I'll explain.

I have found that workplace bullying is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon to identify and tackle.

Bullying as a leadership style

Bullying in educational settings can be a few things. Some people seem to use it as their preferred leadership style, and run their schools in a way where senior leaders are encouraged to adopt bullying behaviours. 

So there is public shaming for "non-compliance": staff meetings where "faults" in your marking, class behaviour, displays or presentation are pointed out, while everyone else awkwardly looks at their feet and doesn't make eye contact. 

Even worse, this can happen in front of parents and pupils. I once witnessed a hideous assembly, where a child was tested on the class prayer. When the child didn't recite it properly (they were probably too terrified), the class teacher was told off there and then.

Other types of bullying can be more subtle. One or two members of staff, who perhaps don't fit, are identified and are placed under such intense scrutiny that the personal criticism brings them to the point of resignation. And so more open and transparent competency proceedings are avoided. 

Approaching the governors

I have spoken to teacher colleagues about whether they would feel comfortable approaching their governors in such scenarios. But the reality is that this is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

Governors have close relationships with senior leaders, and staff rarely have an opportunity to have a conversation with them. So what would the governors do? Unless there is a formal complaint, it's just an unacknowledged and non-confirmed report. 

Would asking the governors to issue a warning to the bullying leader help the person being bullied, or make their life more difficult? I think we can guess the answer to that.

I find it difficult to talk about the time that I experienced bullying over seeking a new job. I was verbally abused, my character was called into question, and - as I found out later - a phone call was made to the people on the panel for the new job, putting them off. 

At the very moment of it happening, I was in shock and extremely upset. Luckily, however, I have two HR directors in my family. So I took advice over the weekend, recorded verbatim notes of the incidents. Then I asked in writing for a meeting, where - with prewritten notes in case I lost my place - I expressed my unhappiness and requested an apology. 

I got the "I'm sorry you feel that way" non-apology. But I did seem to hit a nerve, and there were no further incidents, even if the atmosphere was frosty. 

When I left the role, I did inform the governors, but nothing happened. I can understand why. I think it is encapsulated in the tweets we've seen from MPs recently, saying that they themselves have never seen bullying behaviour from Ms Patel. 

Adapting behaviour to suit a situation

This type of response - disbelief that someone you know and respect would even be capable of bullying someone, let alone actually doing it - is common. But this denies the truth that, whether we like it or not, all of us are capable of adapting our behaviour to suit a situation. And all of us have it within ourselves to bully. We shouldn't deny this. 

I think that many of the people who engage in bullying practice would also claim the same reasoning as Patel: it was unintentional. Or perhaps they were doing it for the greater good of the pupils in the school. If you get the results, surely the ends justify the means? 

"But what about morality?" I want to scream. Except I wouldn't. Because, when you are being bullied you are being worn down, and standing up to it is even harder.

And this is what has frustrated me so much about the Patel story. For many of us in the workplace, the likelihood of there being an independent investigation into workplace bullying with a report, like the one carried out by former adviser on ministerial standards Sir Alex Allan, is extremely slim. 

Most of us just put our head down, get on with the job and then get out of there when we can. If we can. 

So here was an opportunity for our government to show the most basic commitment to its own words: that there is no place for bullying. As is often quoted at us in schools, what we choose to walk past, we accept. 

But there appears to be no line in the sand any more, as this week our government chose to accept bullying. The message was loud and clear to bullies: you have a free pass. 

How on earth are we supposed to explain this to pupils?

Ruth Luzmore is headteacher at St Mary Magdalene Academy in North London. She tweets @RLuzmore

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