You can say anything you want - just as long as you run it by the Ministry of Truth

2nd September 2011 at 01:00
Heads must have the right to speak out without reproach

In September 2009 an article I wrote, critical of Scottish local government, was published in a daily newspaper. Days later, City of Edinburgh Council, my then employer, informed me I was to be investigated for writing the article, an alleged gross misconduct, a charge with the potential sanction of dismissal.

For over three years I had written for TESS and other journals. Senior officials, including my director, had discussed my writing with me with no instruction to submit material for checking. But the council's code of conduct said authorisation was required prior to contact with the media. With my union's support I defended my position, arguing that senior officials' awareness of my writing was de facto authorisation, but I regretted any embarrassment and accepted that in future I would seek to avoid such situations. (Less than two years from retirement, that did not seem too restrictive.)

What surprised me was the detail. I was to present for approval any articles which addressed "educational matters andor matters associated with the policy and practice of Edinburgh City Council, our partner agencies or the Scottish Government". Not only could I not criticise the council, I was to avoid criticising bodies such as HMIE.

The first example of such censorship was a proposed article for my January 2010 TESS column, ironically, marking the 60th anniversary of George Orwell's death. In analysing the dehumanisation of latter-day society, I wrote: "How are such iniquities perpetrated on a democracy? More subtly than by Big Brother: by a profit-hungry media which plays to the new hedonism; by a bloated public-sector quality-assurance system, allegedly `raising standards' but singularly failing; by a micro-managing HR caste which dresses control in the language of staff welfare; and by the promotion of uncritical mediocrities." General criticism, but enough to annoy the censors.

With that piece marked "verboten", I was pushed to find copy to reach TESS prior to the Christmas break. I had an idea: a piece on our school pantomime. Nothing there to annoy our municipal masters.

"It's pantomime time again. (`Oh, no, it isn't.') At Wester Hailes, as at many schools, the props come out, guitars are tuned, the talent prepares for its curtain call. The town is bankrupt. Global warming has killed the crops. Bad bankers have stolen the money. The council has overspent on the trams. Jock and his mother are destitute." The offending sentence? "The council has overspent on the trams." Perhaps I should have censored the script-writer on behalf of our political controllers.

I retired a fortnight ago, so can now share such forbidden thoughts. What a tragedy that heads are expected to be uncritical, conformist apparatchiks. What a parody of educational values.

Alex Wood now works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration, Moray House.

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