The sound of silence

6th November 2009 at 00:00
Should teachers be whistleblowers or does professional responsibility dictate that they must always work in accordance with school policies on disclosure - even if this means turning a blind eye when something could be badly amiss?

Bonnie Langdon* knew there was something seriously amiss with a Year 3 pupil. He was displaying behaviour that hinted at abuse and was regularly unkempt, dirty and hungry when he arrived at school.

Parents also complained that their children were being bullied by him and copying his sexually explicit language. Ms Langdon informed her headteacher, but he was reluctant to make a referral. So, acting anonymously, she tipped off social services.

"Under pressure from the head, the school learning mentor assured social services that the family was fine, that the mother was well intentioned and that the children were not in danger in any way," says Ms Langdon, a primary school teacher in the North West of England. Nothing more was done. "Whether the head felt a referral would damage the school, I do not know."

What Ms Langdon does know is that the boy was permanently excluded last year. He did not fare much better at a specialist unit and was duly excluded again. She is not sure what has become of him.

Should Ms Langdon have done more or did she do too much? Before taking matters into her own hands, should she have approached the school governors? Or when insufficient action was taken, was the best response to contact the local authority, her union or even the media?

Had she done so - even if she had acted anonymously - she could have faced internal disciplinary action. Recent media accounts of the case of a school dinner lady who was sacked for telling a parent that her daughter was being bullied have highlighted the thorny issues around speaking out - even when you think it is the right thing to do.

The dinner lady in question, Carol Hill, was accused of a breach of confidence when she bumped into the girl's mother after school. "She said she had been given an accident form, which said Chloe had been hurt," she told a national newspaper. "I couldn't believe they had not been told. I had to tell her."

She divulged to Chloe's mother that the seven-year-old had been tied to a fence by pupils and hit with a skipping rope. Mrs Hill was suspended and then dismissed for gross misconduct after she approached her local newspaper.

She has since been celebrated as a martyr who was simply exercising her duty of care. But Great Tey CofE Primary School in Essex insists that no adult actually witnessed the incident. It says Mrs Hill should have allowed the school to deal with the incident, in accordance with its behaviour policy.

The dismissal seems heavy-handed, according to Philip Parkin, general secretary of education union Voice. As a former primary school deputy head, he was aware that members of staff would, on occasion, discuss confidential incidents with the wider community.

"It happens a lot," he says. "Lunchtime supervisors talk to neighbours, friends or family about school-related issues. It might be regarding internal politics or pupil behaviour, but it should not go beyond the school gates."

Instead of turning it into a disciplinary issue, Mr Parkin chose to have a quiet word with those involved, outlining the need for confidentiality.

He would remind staff of the many school mechanisms that allow for their voices to be heard, and that their existence obviates the need for them to share information with the "outside world".

Problems should first be raised with school leaders. If that fails to resolve the issue (or the problem concerns senior staff), teachers can approach their governors or union, which can talk to the head on behalf of teachers without naming them.

"The school management have a right to feel aggrieved if teachers have spoken out before exhausting other routes," says Mr Parkin. "Going public is the last resort."

Hank Roberts, a teacher and union activist, laughs at the idea that internal processes could, or would, handle his grievances. He was suspended from his position as head of geography after alleging that senior staff at Copland Community College in Wembley, Middlesex, had received almost pound;1 million in "unlawful" bonus payments. He has since been reinstated. The headteacher, who has defended the payments, has been suspended while auditors investigate the claims.

"If I had complained to the chair of governors, I have no doubt it would have hastened my suspension and even led to my quick dismissal," he says. "Internal procedures are not always confidential or reliable. In my experience, there is often a cover-up."

Mr Roberts sought protection under "whistleblower" legislation. The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 provides a legal right to report misconduct, providing it represents a threat to the public. Even if your accusation proves to be incorrect, so long as it relates to a serious matter and is made in good faith, you cannot be disciplined for it by your employer.

Although the legislation encourages whistleblowers to go to the authorities rather than the media, Mr Roberts received no response from the Government for several weeks. Eventually, he announced his disclosure at a union conference and it was picked up by the national press.

"You do a public service when you expose corruption or wrongdoing," Mr Roberts says. "Confidentiality is a catch-all that can conceal a whole host of things that should be in the public domain."

There are laws to protect people who are being slandered or libelled, Mr Roberts adds, and obviously things such as children's records should remain confidential. "But other than that, teachers should be able to exercise their freedom of speech," he says.

Mr Roberts received a number of calls from concerned teachers who want to speak out about malpractice, but are scared to do so. A handful have approached him because their school condones, and even promotes, excessive assistance for pupils taking Sats. Others say that colleagues are falsely marking pupils as present in a bid to improve the school's attendance records.

Both examples illustrate how much pressure schools are under to perform. "I sympathise with people who bend the rules like this because they are doing it in the best interest of the school as opposed to any personal gain," argues Mr Roberts. "But ultimately, colleagues must decide if they are comfortable with what is taking place under their noses."

The chances are that most teachers simply won't take the risk, says Walter Humes, research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland. He believes that a culture of compliance and conformity prevents teachers from sticking their necks out.

"The desire to reach a group consensus means that dissidents are easily identified and marginalised," he says. "I have known teachers who, in my judgment, have not been promoted to levels commensurate with their abilities because they have refused to go along with the approved orthodoxies."

Professor Humes recalls the case of a school which was decanted into run- down, out-of-town temporary accommodation while a new school was being built. Parents were very vocal in their protests, but staff sympathetic to their concerns were told not to speak out by the local authority.

"Corporate loyalty to the local authority was deemed to be more important than freedom to express a point of view on a matter of public interest," says Professor Humes.

Some local authorities have explicit policies that prevent teachers from speaking or writing to the media on matters of public interest. An increasing number of schools also direct journalists to the council to handle even the most uncontroversial inquiry.

But gagging orders are not always imposed from above, adds Professor Humes. "The processes of training and socialisation into the teaching profession mean that teachers police themselves quite effectively," he says.

"They are encouraged to think that it's unprofessional to speak out and that those in authority should be given their place."

Professor Humes has former students who have quit teaching because they could not stand the degree of deference that was expected of them. "It's highly ironic, since teachers are supposed to be developing independence and critical thinking in the young, qualities that are not appreciated if they exhibit them themselves."

If no one dares put their head above the parapet, malpractice may go unchecked, he warns. Whistleblowers can be hailed as heroes and trigger much-needed improvements. But equally, a witch-hunt may follow and they may be ostracised by colleagues. Some even lose their job on souped-up charges.

"A culture should exist in schools in which teachers are comfortable and able to alert school leaders to problems," says Julian Stanley, chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. "They should feel confident that their views will be taken into consideration without fear of being perceived as trouble makers."

It sounds good in theory, but in practice the whistleblower can get caught in the crossfire. "Everyone knows that it makes good sense to blow the whistle, but there is a deeply ingrained fear that those who put their head above the parapet will be trashed in the process," says Cathy James, acting director of Public Concern at Work, a charity that champions whistleblowers. "That is why they don't want to be known as the tip-off. Those who are named will often end up moving on to another job."

This perceived desire for confidentiality may also explain why so many teachers were reluctant to talk to TES Magazine for this article - even under the cloak of anonymity. For many, the preferred route will be through a union such as Voice. Complaints are often made to Voice about schools that are not adequately meeting the needs of pupils with special educational needs or health problems, or are failing in their statutory requirements. But they frequently stop short of asking the union to raise the issues with the school, for fear of being identified.

"In many instances, such as a headteacher refusing to `do' performance management, it might be quite easy to keep the individual anonymous," says Philip Parkin. "But if it's a teacher who works one to one with a pupil complaining about that child's provision, it can be quite obvious where the complaint has come from. It can put people off, especially if those in power are bullying or intimidating."

I f it is a child welfare issue that is not being addressed, teachers should never hesitate to speak out, says Kate Aspin, senior lecturer in education at Huddersfield University. The infamous Baby P case in Haringey is a chilling example of what can happen when abused children fall through the net.

"If it involves children's safety and wellbeing, it is our duty to speak out even if that threatens our jobs," she says. "Children come first."

That is also Ms Langdon's philosophy. She has reported concerns anonymously to appropriate agencies when she felt her school's inertia was undermining pupil safety. And she has also asked parents to complain to the head if their child is being bullied but the school is slow to respond.

"I think parents should be informed of any problems inside school that affect their children," she says. "If the whistleblower is overreacting, the school can reassure the parents. If not, the school has a duty to do as much as they can to protect the children in their care."

As a parent, Bonnie Langdon would have been "eternally grateful" if she had been told her child was being bullied or victimised. "Then I would be able to do something about it," she says.

The parents of Chloe - the girl who, it is claimed, was bullied at Great Tey primary - were certainly thankful that Mrs Hill kept them informed. Their daughter has now left the school and the parents are said to be "disgusted" with the way Mrs Hill was treated.

But although taking matters into your own hands may seem to be the best course of action, individual teachers may lack key information, warns Mr Parkin. Without all the evidence, they may paint a distorted picture to parents or the wider public.

"Some members of staff get too emotionally involved," he says. "They don't stand back and see the wider picture. You need a level of detachment to handle these things effectively."

Lynn Fulford, deputy head of school and course director for the BA in primary education at Birmingham City University, agrees.

"If everyone gave parents their account of events, it is likely to cause an enormous number of concerns and anxieties among parents and carers."

S taff can also misread situations, she adds. For example, was the "bullying" at Great Tey actually a playground game? "This is why schools need to investigate things thoroughly so that appropriate and proportionate action is taken," she says.

If staff have not received training on confidentiality, however, they cannot be blamed when they break the rules. Most schools will have clear policies on professional conduct that are disseminated to all members of teaching staff, but auxiliary staff may be left in the dark.

"A senior member of staff should liaise and support the continued professional development of support staff so that dinner staff and teaching assistants all know about expectations and safeguarding issues," says Mrs Aspin.

Teacher trainees at both Huddersfield and Birmingham City University receive training in professionalism, responsibility and appropriate behaviour. This is not advocating secrecy, insists Ms Fulford, it is respecting matters of confidentiality.

But the decision to discuss issues with parents is not always so clear- cut, especially when pupils themselves divulge sensitive information. As a school counsellor at the independent St Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith, west London, Jackie Cox is regularly on the receiving end of personal disclosures. If it is abuse, she immediately refers to social services, but no action is usually taken unless parents or carers have been informed.

Non-abusive issues can be even harder to call. "A lot of girls tell me or their teachers that they are self-harming or battling with eating disorders," says Ms Cox, who also trains teachers in pastoral care. "If it's their family that is causing them pain, it won't necessarily help to talk to the parents. But in other situations, it might."

Teachers are not legally bound to inform parents about their children's disclosures, but they may feel torn about what, if anything, they should declare to others. Moral dilemmas include under-age pupils who reveal to teachers that they are sexually active or in need of emergency contraception.

A school policy should help to guide teachers to do what is in the best interest of their pupils. "It can be very scary for a teacher to be told certain things," says Ms Cox.

"For example, if they learn that a child is self-harming, they may be frightened it will lead to a suicide attempt. A policy will make teachers and pupils feel safer."

Policies usually suggest teachers speak to the designated child-protection officer at the school, who should be able to advise them. Just being there for the pupil will sometimes be enough, she adds.

Pupils and staff know that, as a counsellor, Ms Cox maintains total confidentiality within the school, but she may let the head and relevant teachers know if a girl is going through a tough time, without necessarily divulging details. "If a teacher speaks to a parent or the wider public without the pupil's permission or knowledge, that trust will be lost forever," she says.

Ideally, internal processes will address concerns so that staff do not need to break confidentiality rules. But if the system fails, they may feel compelled to divulge sensitive information beyond the school gates. Speaking out could cost them, or others, their career, or it could save or improve lives. Either way, it is a decision that demands careful consideration.

Blow the whistle?

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"Consider yourself first. Do you want to work again? I know we should do what is right, but you need to weigh up the facts. If it is something bureaucratic then I would say, `Is it worth it?' If a child was in danger, then yes. Take advice."


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