Blowing the whistle

12th September 2008 at 01:00
If you suspected wrongdoing at school would you take action, and would you know how? Madeleine Brettingham talks to the teachers who spoke up

It's a rare teacher who doesn't enjoy a good gripe about their boss. But what if you suspect your headteacher of more serious wrongdoing, such as financial malpractice or breaking the law?

This was a dilemma faced by Sam, a 40-year-old former head of PE at a secondary school. He suspected money was being misspent after his departmental budget was cut without explanation, and funding given to the school for its sports specialism was spent on facilities for other subjects.

He raised his concerns with the head, followed by chats with the governors and senior staff, but they told him the spending was at the management's discretion. Now, the headteacher has resigned. But the decision came too late for Sam.

After he approached the governors, the head brought a series of bullying allegations against him, and Sam felt obliged to take redundancy, although the complaints about him were later withdrawn. "I didn't want to, but my union representative asked me if I really wanted the stress and the hassle of trying to get my job back," he says.

Sam's is a rare but not isolated case. Blowing the whistle on your manager can be a hairy experience, even if you're certain something's amiss. In theory, you're protected by the law. But many have no idea who to turn to, or stay quiet for fear of losing their job.

The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 gives you a legal right to report misconduct, providing it represents a threat to the public, such as compromising health and safety or breaking the law.

If you make the disclosure in good faith - that is, you aren't motivated by a grudge or using it as ammunition in a disagreement - you should be protected from unfair dismissal. But who should you complain to? And how do you ensure your actions aren't used against you by an angry boss?

When corrupt or incompetent managers find themselves on the defensive, some fight dirty. And that can mean launching a pre-emptive smear campaign against whistleblowers.

Guy Dehn, director of Public Concern at Work, the whistleblowing charity, says that it is crucial for employees to remain level-headed and impartial throughout.

"If you're doing it because you hate the head - back off," he says. "Right from the beginning, you should minimise the risk of it becoming personal. You want your concerns to be assessed on their own merit, and the more people are distracted by the messenger, the less likely that will be."

He recommends amassing evidence and, where this is impossible, taking care not to overstate your suspicions. "Let the facts speak for themselves," he says. "And don't go in saying, `I want the head sacked'. The best you can hope for is for someone in authority to look at the facts and make a decision."

Sadly, even carefully filed evidence can prove useless if you don't know where to direct it. Maria, 52, a secondary teacher from Wales, became concerned when, standing in for the head, she noticed that attendance records had been falsified in advance of an Ofsted inspection.

She reported her worries to the local authority, which investigated and found evidence of wrongdoing. Even so, the headteacher kept their position and Maria was undermined and intimidated from then on.

After being pressured by the local authority to resign, she asked for redeployment. In her next job, she took a pay cut, meaning she was effectively penalised for reporting malpractice.

"I felt let down," she says. "The people who investigated this case were not impartial, they knew the senior staff. I would like to see a system where teachers can approach independent investigators with their suspicions."

Knowing who to approach is a minefield for teachers who suspect wrongdoing. Most local authorities have a whistleblowing policy, which can be obtained from their website. This typically recommends reporting your worries to the head, the chair of governors, or as a last resort the local authority, normally the equality or personnel officer. However, if you're not satisfied they've dealt with your complaint satisfactorily you can forward your concerns as far as the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

That said, it's advisable to start from the bottom and work your way up. Keeping your union informed from the start is vital. It can give you valuable help and advice, and fight your corner if things get personal.

But what if the authorities don't seem to take your worries seriously? It's a scenario that's all too familiar to Irene, 44, who had a bumpy ride after reporting management incompetence to her chair of governors.

"It was complete chaos, with behaviour policies being introduced and retracted within days," she says. Coupled with that, the proportion of children getting good GCSEs dropped below 15 per cent over a period of five years. Irene voiced her concerns to the governors, expecting them to start a serious investigation, but received only a brief note saying they were satisfied with the management's conduct. In the end, she resigned, in despair at the way the school was deteriorating.

"My only motivation was that all these children deserved a decent education. I was frustrated at being surrounded by so much failure and incompetence," she says.

Guy Dehn advises that grouping together with other colleagues can give you added oomph when it comes to making allegations. "If there is wrongdoing at a school it is unlikely only one person will suspect it," he says. "There's safety in numbers, so try and get other like-minded people to come forward too."

No one is claiming that whistleblowers don't face obstacles in their fight for justice. But with the right advice, you can at least help to protect yourself.

"Only if everyone stands up can we change the ethos of brushing things under the carpet," says Maria, who was bullied as a result of her actions. "You've got to be prepared to take it to the line."

Some names have been changed


According to the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, disclosure qualifies as something in the public interest and you have the right not to "suffer detriment", if the following has or is likely to happen:

- A criminal offence has been committed.

- A person has failed to comply with a legal obligation.

- Health and safety has been endangered.

- The environment has been damaged.

- Information relating to any of these matters has been deliberately concealed.


- Club together with other concerned individuals.

- Put your concerns in writing, and identify yourself by name if possible.

- Obtain evidence, and keep a record of all relevant incidents.

- Stick to the facts: don't engage in guesswork or bring in personal grudges.

- Obtain a copy of your council's whistleblowing policy.

- Talk to your union.

- If you are dissatisfied with the response you receive from your school or governors, take your concerns to the local authority.

- If the head responds by launching proceedings against you, keep the two issues separate and make sure they are dealt with by different officials.


John Howson, The TES Magazine's careers expert, advises our three whistleblowers on how they could have handled their situations differently.

Irene left after becoming concerned about bad management and falling exam results. Governors would not investigate.

Howson: It's not always a good idea to act on your own. If others in the staffroom felt the same way, a joint approach to their unions for advice or a letter to the chair of governors by a group of concerned staff might have carried more weight. If the governors back the head, it may be time to cut your losses and find another job. The fall off in performance should have been picked up by Ofsted at its next visit.

Sam tried to alert the governors to mismanagement of funds. His head then accused him of bullying.

Howson: If the council has a general whistleblowing website, Sam could have reported his concerns there and asked for them to be passed to the council's audit team.

Where schools are delegated budgets, heads and governing bodies have great freedom to spend the money as they see fit. Not everyone will agree with the outcomes of spending decisions and those assessing claims must have evidence on which to judge a particular case.

A bullying charge can be a common counter-attack to try to discredit the whistleblower. Make sure the two issues are kept separate.

Maria was undermined and intimidated after blowing the whistle on falsified attendance figures. She was later redeployed and given a pay cut.

Howson: This case demonstrates the problems where the wrongdoer may attract sympathy, especially in close-knit communities. What advice did the union provide and was it satisfied that this was the best outcome?

Time, a change of scene and referees who will support her application for other jobs is probably the best she can now hope for.

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