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Rein in playground Chinese whisperers

Heads must not turn a blind eye to malicious gossip against staff, writes Brenda Roe, but they must also beware of being accused themselves of bullying teachers, says Chris Lowe.

"I JUST couldn't take it anymore. I couldn't talk to the pupils without wondering what they had heard about me the night before. My children were coming home crying about what someone had called me. It wasn't worth it."

This is how a tearful Linda Nash (not her real name) described why she felt forced to hand in her notice at an east London primary. As the children's favourite dinner lady for almost six years, her head did not want to lose her, especially as the source of Ms Nash's misery was the parents of those same children.

Ms Nash claims she became the victim of a malignant round of Chinese whispers after she was seen shouting at some older pupils. The incident occurred one weekend in a playground some distance from the school. "Yes, I had angry words with kids that I knew were bullying a couple of younger girls. But that was it. They laughed and jeered at me and then they left."

When she returned to school the following Monday a pupil asked her if she had really threatened to have a bouncer friend of hers beat them all up.

"Later that week a parent asked if it was true that I had punched one of them. I couldn't believe it. I have no idea where it started, but it just wouldn't stop."

A small, close-knit community can often be a major strength of a school like Ms Nash's. But when everyone knows everyone else, gossip can spread through the playground like a cold through a class. And when the rumour machine starts to grind against a staff member, a wise head should not dismiss it as "just gossip". It is staff such as midday and teaching assistants who are more likely to be known outside school by parents and less likely to be union members, who often need most protection.

"Heads have to protect staff as far as possible," said Michael Lloyd, a professional adviser with the National Association of Headteachers. He advises heads to try to depersonalise the issue. "If you publicly try to answer allegations, you risk spreading the problem, as parents not in the gossips' ring will think 'no smoke, without fire'."

Ms Nash's head followed another of Mr Lloyd's pieces of advice - she had a quiet word to discover Ms Nash's version of events.

"In some cases, staff members can contribute to the gossip," said Mr Lloyd.

"If they have run off with someone's husband it helps if the head knows that. If it is a case of misunderstanding it may be possible to clear it up. But whatever the situation, the head needs to know the staff member's version to be really effective."

Having established that the gossip is groundless, the head must be openly supportive of the person concerned. With non-teachers it can help if the head promotes the victim's staff group, by highlighting their work.

"Some parents feel staff can become 'too big for their boots' and want to pull them down. Such announcements show they are valued by the school," said Mr Lloyd.

Theoretically, the victim could take libel action, but as the laws of defamation are not subject to legal aid the plaintiff has to be as rich as Jeffrey Archer to seek such redress. But even the threat of legal action can be enough to stop gossips' tongues wagging. Schools should also bear in mind that they can put themselves in legal jeopardy if they fail to intervene in a harassment case (see Chris Lowe, below). Schools and local authorities are responsible for staff welfare, and if an unchecked whispering campaign leads to a resignation, they could face a constructive dismissal claim.

Fortunately, for Ms Nash and her school, the head persuaded her to withdraw her resignation. Knowing she has the head's total support she feels able to rejoin the children. "I'm not ready to go back into the playground at the beginning or end of the day, but I won't be hounded out of a job I love," she said.

Silence the gossips

* Issue general reminders to parents that you have the right to ban anyone from school grounds if their behaviour causes a "nuisance or disturbance" and outline the grievance procedures.

* Warn parents that malicious gossip can legally be considered harassment or slander.

* Investigate correctly presented concerns but remember the staff member has a right to confidentiality in all disciplinary matters.

* Involve governors, particularly parent representatives, and remind them of their legal duty to protect staff.

* Offer advice and support. Where possible refer the victim to his or her union.

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