A Primary School MutinyJanuary 13, 2013
This guest post has been written by a reader of this blog. If you have anything you think other readers would be interested to hear about, just send me an email.
In March, during my first year of teaching, a group of teachers met in a room above a pub. What was discussed changed the education of hundreds of children for the better. This is the story of how a headteacher was removed who thought they were untouchable.
A bit about me: I came into teaching late and obtained my Primary PGCE aged 32. Prior to this I had worked in academia, gaining my masters and PhD during my time at university. I had tried hard to get a job during my final year, but found the doors closed to men my age. I got the impression that the (mainly) women in charge did not want a man working for them who had all these academic qualifications (despite the fact that in my day to day teaching they are practically worthless). So I started working as a supply teacher and got a number of assignments which helped my teaching skills progress. It was a great experience and being a supply teacher is probably the best thing you can do at the start of your career, you learn so much. After a while I got a regular posting 4 days a week at a tough school working with Year 6. Through this job I got to know someone who knew someone else and I went to a interview for a job where I was the only candidate and got the post. Yes it was through nepotism, but having applied for circa 65 jobs and getting only 5 interviews, who was I to care?
I started teaching at this primary school one September. From the start it was clear the school was full of staff who had lost the will to teach. The main reason for this was the headteacher. It took me two months to work them out, and when I did it was a massive shock for me. Prior to being a teacher you assume that those in charge of schools are professional, upstanding members of society. You think that schools are tightly controlled by the government (through the local council) and that bad practice and incompetence could not happen. How wrong can you be? After two months I had worked out that the reason the headteacher bullied everyone and threw their weight around was because they didn’t have the first idea what they were doing. In my first two months I had been shouted at in front of my class, made to feel like an idiot for daring to ask them a question and told I was unsatisfactory. The probable source of the issue was my complaining to them that I wasn’t getting my NQT time; only getting an hour and a half each week instead of three and a half. This bullying culminated in the head shouting in my face in front of parents and staff during a whole school assembly. I felt totally demoralised.
A week after this event I was pulling off the motorway on my trip to work and noticed there had been a crash on the roundabout it fed on to. As I got closer I noticed that the car involved looked suspiciously like the one my head drove. My heart jumped and I literally said out loud: “please be the head!” I glanced at the number plate and saw that it was indeed their car. I punched the air and hoped they were seriously injured.
What had I become? Here was a man who had two children and a third child on the way, and I was hoping that someone else was seriously injured? I was disgusted with myself and decided that rather than get more and more bitter, I would do what I could to make sure this person was no longer allowed to continue their behaviour. If you are interested, the head had one day off with whiplash, came back to school and insisted they could have died.
Just for a bit of background; prior to that March meeting I had witnessed the head doing the following since starting my post:
- Screaming in the face of an Afghan child who had started school at the start of term and who had spoken no English prior to doing so: “8 weeks, you’ve been here 8 weeks! You should have learned English by now.”
- Walking into my classroom and shouting at a child and reducing him to tears for no reason than he looked at the window when they were walking by.
- Telling the staff that if they wanted more money for books they should “go and stand on ******* **** road.” (a local red light area)
- Implementing changes to planning without guidance and shouting at those who did not understand
- Shouting at staff that they could not keep food in the staffroom because “it is not your home.”
- Calling the Year 6 cohort “thick” in conversation with a supply teacher
- Bawling at the teaching staff about (impending) OFSTED visit and saying they were unsatisfactory (when opposite was the case)
- Regularly emailing staff in the early hours then reprimanding them if they hadn’t read their email by the time they had got to work
- Having regular days off to work from home
- Leaving school to go and do the following: have car serviced, have a haircut, go shopping
- Copying an advert for recruiting new staff from a local school, despite having the morning off to come up with one. Added to the advert were the following attachments: one about dinner money, a out of date staff list and a letter littered with grammatical mistakes
Other staff did not know what to do and, in conversation over a few weeks, it was decided to contact our union and get a meeting called. This took a long time for people to pluck up the courage to attend due to fear of losing their job. The catalyst for most staff was the fact that many of us had gone to doctors and been prescribed anti-depressants to stop panic attacks and some had gone off sick due to stress. I include myself on that list. As we poured out the litany of misdemeanours of the head to our union rep his eyebrows continued to rise. By the end of the meeting they must have been on the ceiling. We collectively breathed a sign of relief when the union rep told us something would happen soon.
We decided to formalise our complaint into a proper grievance and lodged it with the council just before the Easter break. Co-incidentally I had been made to reapply for my post during the last two weeks of term and I was told I would not be appointed. So I was potentially unemployed with three children and a wife to support come the following September. It was the culmination of a long bullying process. At the same time one member of staff left to get another job and another handed his notice in, leaving the profession for good.
After submitting our grievance we expected immediate action from the authorities.
It didn’t come.
At the start of the summer term the head returned as normal. I was amazed. I was also appalled and decided to make the problem known more widely.
Here requires a bit of commentary. If you are experiencing the same thing at your school then I would recommend the following. Get the governors involved, get the local councillors involved and get parents involved. After the failure of the council to act I decided to email the local MP and councillors (helpfully both Labour) – detailing the complaint. I got an email back saying he would write to the head of Education asking why nothing had been done. On the back of this the council started to take the complaint seriously but they did not want to come and get any evidence from us. We had to write and complain to the investigator that we WANTED to give evidence, so they could do their job. Finally we were allowed to give our verbal evidence to the investigator face to face during the last week of summer half-term. During that evidence we made further allegations against the head, including racism, bullying of staff and children, dismissing people illegally, not having proper policies in place for anything and serious safeguarding issues. We expected something to happen over half-term. Nothing did. The council were attempting a cover-up. Luckily the chair of governors had been removed and a more pro-active one elected in their place. She wanted answers. We couldn’t provide them due to the nature of the complaint, as she may be called to arbitrate on the case.
More staff went on long-term sick. The head continued in post, oblivious to what was going on around them, but losing their grip on reality further. This dragged on until the last Monday of that term when they were finally suspended. An audit that week revealed serious financial mismanagement and a lack of basic provision for the children. The suspension only came after a further intervention from our MP and local councillors, as well as the chair of governors badgering the council for action.
I started in a new post in the September of the new academic year, but the saga dragged on further and was only ended before that Christmas when a newsletter went to parents saying the head had “retired.” Still we have had no formal response to our grievance, and no admission of culpability from anyone at the council, who had supposedly audited the school over the past few years. The head has been allowed to retire with a (probable) pay off and a (probable) large pension that all of us tax payers are paying. As far as I can make out, I have been the only one to have lost my job over their incompetence. The council subsequently approached the union and asked for the grievance to be dropped, on the basis that the head has retired. We rejected this as absolutely unacceptable. Why should the head get away with a large pay-off and a huge pension when they ran an otherwise successful school into the ground through incompetence? Clearly the council still did not understand our resolve in getting justice for the staff involved.
The moral of the story, I think, is this: If you are in a job where someone is abusing the power given to them it is your responsibility to act. Often, incompetence in post merely hides a mass of problems beneath the surface. Headteachers in the primary setting often think they are judge, jury and executioner. In a lot of cases they are right, as the system of governors running schools is wide open to abuse and nepotism. However, it is important to remember that everyone has a boss and, if you see incompetence affecting the education of children, it is your job to report it. If the governors do nothing go to the council. If the council do nothing go to the MPs. If the MPs do nothing go to the Secretary of State. If he does nothing give the story to the newspapers. If this doesn’t do anything leak to the parents. Eventually something will happen. We have come a long way in 10 months, but there is still work to be done. If you are in the same boat as we were, have the guts to make a stand. Good luck.