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Whistle while you work?;Opinion

EVERY weekday, driving to work, I pass a shop shutter on which is spray-painted JOSIE IS A GRASS. Sometimes imagination takes over and I ponder Josie's fate. Contract killing? Public shot across the bows? Or is it just pointless vandalism, with kids leaving a footprint on the urban sand?

At primary school my teacher would leave the class and appoint one person to write the names on the board of anyone who misbehaved. The anointed one could either be embarrassed by such an accolade, or welcome the brief glimpse of petty power. Either way, if names were written up they were usually rubbed off before the teacher returned, the whole procedure an elaborate charade, understood as such by all the parties involved.

Anti-bullying policies throughout the country try to encourage what was previously derided as "clype culture", pointing out that bullying often persists because of silence, and telling victims that it's good to talk.

A probationer teacher is asked by her head of department to leave a vulnerable student teacher alone with a troublesome class. Fresh from her own difficulties, the probationer demurs, the principal reader seems displeased, and at the end of the year the probationer's report refers to a "lack of co-operation", an "unwillingness to take advice".

The hierarchical nature of teaching makes the disclosure of problems very difficult to achieve. Financial irregularities or child abuse are relatively clearcut situations to address: there are legal responsibilities, but if you are the depute in a school and you see that the headteacher drinks on the premises what can you do? Ignore it and it could be held against you if anything subsequently goes wrong.

Inform on the headteacher and whispering voices suggest you're after the top job. Speak directly to your boss and expose yourself to the random responses of a cornered and irrational man. Share the guilt and the knowledge by discussion with other senior personnel and it smacks of engineering a palace revolution.

It takes tremendous bravery sometimes to stand alone and challenge practices you see as wrong, but a climate of suppression, fear and retaliation is one in which such a tender plant will not flourish.

After all, a recent court case from the medical sector revealed that the whistle-blower on the unnecessary deaths of children had to go to Australia before being re-employed, such was the ability of top doctors and administrators to close ranks and to affect his career development. In the country of the blind the one-eyed man may sadly still be king.

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