The Dinner Lady’s Tale

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.


13 thoughts on “The Dinner Lady’s Tale

  1. Wow, truly terrifying. I’d heard a little part of that story when it first happened but none of the details since.
    I’m sorry, call me a loony rabble-rouser, but if I were the mother in that case would have marched my child to the police station and filed an assault report. I don’t believe necessarily that simply punishing bullies is the way to go as most of them have just as many if not more issues than the bullied, this is well beyond taunting and exclusion and into the realm of true, scary violence. What will they do next?

  2. Indeed. It seems strange that there is a zero tolerance policy for racism and homophobia, yet this continues to co-exist with the belief that a little bullying won’t do you any harm. Nothing can be further from the truth – I was bullied at school and the scars last a lifetime.

  3. *seethes*
    How can a head of school even think a game like “prisoners and guards” where kids are tied up with a skip rope is okay? That’s just mind-boggling in itself. And then one of the bullies is the son of a governor. I–I can’t even.
    The dinner lady was right–sometimes confidentiality has to take a back seat to safety. If those boys did that to that girl, they’ll do it again.

  4. Yeesh. On the one hand I understand why the cconfidentiality laws are there. Juveniles have pretty strong protections over their records on the presumption that if they rehabilitate they deserve to lose the baggage a criminal record brings.
    The school completely dropped the ball in downplaying the beating of a child to “an incident”. I think I would have felt compelled to inform the mother as well. That is not information that one withholds from parents.
    I hear you about church schools and their atmosphere. I worked in a Catholic school for seven years. I was not a member of the church nor was I Catholic. I spent those years being treated like a part-timer and outsider while being expected to act as a full community member. Finally. my contract was not renewed and I was given no real reason as to why the change was being made. I have since heard from other former employees and former students that the foreign language program, which my coworker and I had built into a solid foundation for skipping the first course in upper school languages, degenerated to a point that the kids were routinely making the new teacher cry in class, her management was so bad.
    She was the parent of one of their students.
    Sory for the ramble. I hope the dinner lady wins her case.

  5. How sad is it to say that I’m not surprised? As you know, I’m a teacher. My husband was a parent governor at my daughter’s primary school for about 5 years, but resigned recently over something that happened concerning the brother of a friend of my younger daughter. It’s an outstanding school according to Ofsted – and I would certainly say that my daughters have received/are receiving a good education there. But what you say about the denial, and the league-tables is spot on. Everything is so geared towards money, which of course is related to pupil numbers, so league tables have assumed a position in educational circles that’s totally out of proportion to their benefit to pupils.
    What you’ve said about the comparison between the attitude towards this type of bullying and the zero-tolerance to things like racism and homophobia are also true. Quite rightly, those things are jumped on – but other forms of bullying – despite what the schools say – are not dealt with so quickly or severely in my experience.

  6. The dinner lady in question may have breached a confidentiality clause and that’s a serious issue
    I can’t imagine — and maybe this is my American perspective at work — how any school can hold confidentiality at issue from a parent for something that happens to their child. If the dinner lady had been talking to a third party, I would understand. But to realize the mother didn’t know and to tell her what happened? It is shameful, shameful that someone hadn’t already, and to have any negative legal fallback on the whistleblower is reprehensible. I use the word whistleblower intentionally. There should be some protections here to tell the affected child’s parent what happened.

  7. Well, if you want to be terrified, in the US whistleblower protections are not extended to teachers. In an article I read about it they presented a scenario where a teacher knew that a fellow teacher was abusing one of his students. If another parent were to witness this and reported it, it would be fine. If the teacher were to report he/she would be fired by law for breeching confidentiality, because insider knowledge was used. Now how this reconciles with the fact that teachers are mandated reporters of abuse I have no darn clue.

  8. I was in a similar issue when I was teaching. The PTA president’s son was whipping a classmate with a stick on the playground. The boy denied doing it, the mom insisted that they believed him because it was important to them that their son know they believed EVERYTHING he told them (he was 8), the admin in there with me refused to call in the other teacher who witnessed it, and the PTA mom actually bullied the whipped boy into changing his story. As the final insult, my report “vanished” from the trouble maker’s permanent file.
    A week later, the troublemaker actually came up and hugged me. I believe he knew what he had done was all around wrong, but I still told him not to touch me. The lengths parents will go to to enable their kids horrifies me.

  9. I chose my words very carefully because I knew I had you and other teachers on my flist, and I think even in the case of the head we need to look at the system that makes them behave in such immoral ways. But I’ve witnessed incidents, both child-to-child and staff-to-child, that I’d certainly regard as unacceptable bullying, and I’ve seen how people close ranks. In one case I went straight to the child’s mother and told her what I’d witnessed – I wasn’t on the school payroll at the time so I’d nothing to lose by speaking out, but the amount of shit that sprayed on me as a result was still monumental.

  10. Sad to say, the British have rather a habit of invoking confidentiality to avoid the open and public discussion of unpleasant things. It’s the downside of living in a less litigious society.

  11. I held back a bit as well. I refrained from adding a comment about what you said regarding racism/sexism because they are things that get jumped on quickly and other things… don’t.
    Closing ranks is part of the reason my husband resigned as a governor.

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