Whistle-blowing – ever a good idea?

I’ve been reading about Katharine Birbalsingh, you know, the deputy head-teacher who recently spoke at the Conservative conference and was out as Miss Snuffy on her To Miss with Love blog, now on its way to a book with Penguin and taken off the blog-sphere. This incident is of interest on several levels – as we see on other blog-sites and in the conventional media. Today in the Times it looks as if the allegations she’s made in her blog are being investigated – well now that she is know her schools are known and clearly there are moves to investigate her claims.

What are the issues then? Clearly education in this country is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. If you’re in the right school you are okay – as a student and a teacher. If you’re in a failing school you’re not. It is that simple. But like most institutions those on the inside can’t tell those on the outside. No, there aren’t official secrets acts but there are things like confidentiality clauses and codes of conduct which prohibit comment to the unassuming public on these matters. Ms Birbalsingh sought permission from her head-teacher to speak at the conference, sought permission to use images. But didn’t  – in my view – think through anything much before she spoke in public. It’s all very well to have a successful and truthful blog but to speak in public of such things is another matter altogther.

One can only assume she was naive, caught up in the moment, the recognition of her “truth”and believing that the truth would save us all. And her. I don’t disbelieve a word she has to say. I work in a former failing inner-city school: she’s right about the students, about what happens and the excuse cultures. I don’t know about cheating teachers, but if that’s true of her school then that’s understandable too in a culture of constant improvement and a data-driven system of education. The problem is she is the messenger, she spoke out and now faces the consequence of that fall-out. She may not have been sacked, but felt she had no choice. It’s unlikely the government will really do anything about her claims – what can they do?

But what will happen to her? The history of what happens to whistle-blowers is not nice. They invariably lose their jobs, sometimes their family, their self-respect; their health suffers, relationships are shattered; their ability to work in their profession is severely compromised. Lives are ruined. They have 5 minutes in the glorious spot-light of truth and then the walls close in – the investigations swing into action, find nothing (oh yes, really?) and continue as before with a few policy changes to show good faith. But the whistle-blower is reviled, by his/her colleagues, by management, etc. Remember there was the doctor recently blackmailed about her affair when she uncovered something unseemly in the NHS?

You speak out at your peril. Anonymous blogs are the way to say something unspeakable, not the way of cowards as was suggested to me in class a week or so ago. But when you are unmasked, outed, what happens? Are you liable for prosecution? If her claims are investigated, the schools and staff identified and found to be false, she could be prosecuted and lose whatever she has left. Libel and slander are nasty, invidious things. Will Katharine be hounded out of teaching? What school will take her on, wondering and worrying about if she’s blogging again, what she might be saying about them? Will her future colleagues applaud her or revile her?

Or like some of us, will she move country, try again in a new place where the truth is valued and those of us who care about health, education, the police can speak out and not be hounded out?

She should have had a word with me. Any public comment that casts your school, or your child’s school into darkness will be responded to with the full force of what they have to throw at you. It won’t be nice, as their resources are far greater than yours, your spirit will weaken before them, and any victory you win will be at a very high price. You will move on and away – there is no other choice. And you won’t say anything contentious in public ever again.

Yes, the public should know. Yes, we should know what happens in schools, hospitals, parliament – all the institutions that are tax-payer funded. But sometimes the truth is too dangerous, for those who hear it and for those who speak it.

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