Imagine this. You work as a dinner lady (oh sorry, I should have said lunchtime organiser) at a small primary school. On duty in the playground, you find a seven year old girl tied to a fence being whipped – yes, whipped – by four boys. You intervene and later find out that the child has been sent home with a vaguely worded accident note referring to an "accident in the playground."
You also happen to be one of the increasingly rare, public spirited people who volunteer to help run children’s actiivities in your own time. That evening you’re at a Beavers group and you get chatting to the little girl’s mother. You tell her what really happened.
The result? You lose your job for breaching confidentiality by discussing a pupil’s welfare outside school. Not only that, you’re banned from helping with Beavers and other similar groups.
My daughter’s Guides group has just closed after a long struggle to survive with a shortage of volunteers. Every Tuesday in term time I go into school and sort out a mess and acts of minor vandalism because poorly supervised Guides and Brownies have been allowed to run riot in the reception area, where the school library happens to be. Is it any wonder? I’m not blaming the two young voluntary leaders. There can be a lot of children in the building and they are doing their best. Most of them quit after a term or so because they get so little support.
And if this is the way public-spirited people who give up their own time to care for other people’s children are treated, is it any wonder that Guides, Brownies and other, similar groups struggle to survive?
The dinner lady in question may have breached a confidentiality clause and that’s a serious issue, but the headmistress and governers of the school, one of whom happens to be the mother of one of the children who bullied the little girl – have got of scot free when they have clearly been involved in an appalling cover-up. I’m pleased to report that the dinner lady has just won Round One of her legal battle against dismissal, but her battle is far from over, and she must have gone through hell to get this far.
Two things – no, three – ring warning bells about this particular incident. First, the school is tiny – just 60 pupils. Second, it’s a church school and the local vicar has backed the head. Finally, the head used to work as a teacher at the same school. Now, I work in a small (though not quite that small) church school. In my time there, I’ve seen how enormous the pressures are on teaching staff and heads in particular to present a happy, smiling image to the local community, and to do well in the league tables. My son, at 11, was forced to make a 500 mile round trip in a day to attend his own grandmother’s funeral because it was SATS week and he was bright. His cousin, in exactly the same position, bowed to pressure and didn’t come to the funeral at all. And I’ve also seen what a closed, tightly knit world a little church school can be. Such communities face a very real temptation to go into denial and almost convince themselves that nothing untoward is going on. I acknowledge that there are many wonderful teachers out there who thoroughly deserve to be promoted to headships. But that doesn’t mean that every good classroom teacher will automatically cope well with the pressures and complexities of running a modern school. Most heads spend far more time in meetings than in the classroom.
As with most management jobs, perspective is important. Having seen a number of heads come and go in my workplace, I can say unreservedly that the least successful was the one promoted from within. She was a fantastic teacher and went on later to great success in a management role elsewhere, but she struggled with the demands of headship and things generally worked out better after she left and was replaced by someone from a different school. If we are overworked, stressed, and heavily invested in a small, people orientated institution with a strong ideological bias – and I think even Christians would recognise that as a fair description of a faith school – the temptation to believe in your own version of the truth can be too great to resist.
The little girl and her sibling have, unsurprisingly, now left the school. The head, the Governors and the vicar all remain in post.