School Chain Shaming

February 23, 2019

I’ve been writing about school shamings for quite a while now.

A school shaming is where somebody on social media or in conventional media denounces a school in public and encourages others to denounce it too. The school staff get loads of abuse and more accusations come forward. While school shamings in local newspapers show no sign of stopping, the most recent school shaming on social media was the one that started like this:

And in the end it kind of backfired. There was more criticism for the trolls who started it, and joined in the abuse, than for the school, and it didn’t get into conventional media.

However, in the last couple of weeks we seem to have moved into a new phase of school shaming, where MATs are targeted rather than individual schools. This changes things in two ways:

  1. Because more schools are in the firing line (the recent chain shaming started with a MAT with 30 schools then added another MAT with 50 schools) it is very hard for anybody to say that none of the accusations are true anywhere. In fact, when you are dealing with dozens of schools and multiple accusations, the odds are that something will be true somewhere. After all, no chain  is going to have nothing but perfectly run schools. And anyone questioning whether the shaming is deserved will be told, “You can’t prove it didn’t happen in any school.”.
  2. Far more people will make accusations. Every school has disgruntled ex-employees, and 80 schools will have a multitude between them. You will get normally sensible people saying, “Well I heard bad things from a friend about this chain.” and warning you not to challenge the shaming. And because there will be more people to make accusations, and it will be harder to disprove every accusation for every school implicated, the education press are more likely to claim the story has been corroborated and run it. Journalists who would not think of shaming a single school because of the claims of one disgruntled employee, might nevertheless shame 80 schools on the word of 80 (or far fewer) disgruntled employees, even though the evidence base is proportionately the same. In this case, poor journalism by the TES is responsible for much of what has happened.

However, in other respects nothing much has changed. Witch hunts follow a typical pattern.

  • Accusations are made.
  • Accusations are widely accepted as true.
  • Any challenge to the accusations is interpreted as defending the behaviour people are accused of, not the truth of the accusations.
  • Any attempt by those accused to defend themselves make it worse.
  • When accusations start to seem unreliable, the accusations change.
  • People actively seek out new things to accuse the target of.

I’m not going to link directly to the stories as I don’t want to encourage people to share them, but just looking at what was published in the TES we see many of these features.

In this case the original accusation, for which no supporting evidence seems to have been found, was from a blogpost, but repeated by the TES:

In the blog, Mr Tomsett refers to “a MAT-endorsed behaviour ethos-setting exercise called ‘flattening the grass’ rolling assemblies”.

The blog goes on: “Allegedly, this involves the MAT executives visiting the school, en-masse, to stand around the edge of the assembly hall whilst the head of school outlines, in emphatic terms to year group after year group, the MAT’s expectations of students’ behaviour.

“Before the assemblies begin, individual students are identified for the head of school to single out in front of their peers until they cry.

“If the head of school is not emphatic enough, the MAT CEO walks forward, replaces the head of school and concludes the assembly in a more suitably emphatic manner.

“The students are the ‘grass’ which is ‘flattened’ by the experience.”

In my experience schools do not tend to use public humiliation as a punishment; nor do they try to make kids cry, and targeting particular students in public is likely to backfire. This juicy gossip, in a blog that did not even name the MAT, would be a story if it was more than gossip. And a MAT was named on Twitter as having a policy called “flattening the grass”. A MAT spokesman denied any connection between assemblies and “flattening the grass” but, bizarrely, the TES managed to report this as not being a denial even though it contradicted the main accusation.

Within a week the TES was backtracking, changing the story and introducing new accusations. The TES found plenty of disgruntled former employees to denounce the trust. But one of them said:

The senior leader [the TES source] …. said the executives did not select children in advance to target, but rather “just indiscriminately picked on children either in the line or in the assembly”.

This should have been the point at which the TES admitted the original story had not been corroborated. Instead the accusation changed to become vaguer and more subjective. There was inappropriate shouting and this was seen as a positive. Staff felt bullied. And, somehow, the second trust with 50 schools were dragged into the story. “Flattening the grass” ceased to refer to a policy of identifying kids in advance and deliberately making them cry in assemblies, and became a catch-all covering any behaviour that somebody didn’t like.

In 80 schools, it is highly likely that some staff felt bullied. As for regrettable shouting, many of us have been there:

It is possible that a line was crossed. No, let me take that back, if we are looking at a collection of 80 schools – any collection of 80 schools – it is probable that lines were crossed in some of them at some point. But there are few schools without disgruntled ex-employees, and fewer still without that teacher who thinks everyone else is beastly to the darling little kiddlywinks and that only they truly care.

Teachers often don’t agree about what is appropriate. Following this I had quite an amusing discussion on Twitter with various people who claimed only to “raise their voice” not to “shout”, so convinced were they that they were morally superior to those of us who have actually shouted.

What’s appropriate, when it’s appropriate and even what counts as shouting are all subjective. Too strict and not strict enough are all subjective. The only thing that ever made this chain stand out as doing something wrong, that couldn’t be claimed about hundreds of other schools, was the initial accusation of a policy called “flattening the grass” that meant identifying kids in advance, then publicly humiliating them until they cry. When that was being denied even by sources critical of the school, the story should have ended there and the TES should have apologised.





  1. […] wrote here about “school chain shaming” and the involvement of the TES website in sharing […]

  2. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. […] School Chain Shaming […]

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