We all have the right of ‘Freedom of Speech’ don’t we? It’s one of those things that is often quoted as being one of the fundamnetal rights of being a resident of this country. So much so, that the Public Interest Disclosure Act of 1998 explicitly states that it’s existance as:
All seems quite straightforward, doesn’t it? If something is fundamentally wrong in your employment, you have the right to speak out about it without fear of repercussions. There are exceptions to this, namely members of the police. Fighting crime becomes a little more difficult if you disclose the tactics that are being used. There may be certain instances in which full disclosure is in the public interest, yet it is witheld. The Ian Tomlinson case is an example of this.
So, matters of national security and crime fighting, which continue to protect our freedoms, may not themselves be discussed publicly. There is no protection for whistleblowers in this instance. On the whole, I don’t have a problem with that. I can see where the need arises from. I don’t always agree with it, but I can see why it is needed.
But teaching? Is it really neccessary to gag teachers who wish to speak out and paint a true picture of education today? Apparently it is.
Last week, Katharine Birbalsingh, a deputy head and French teacher at St Michael and All Angels Church of England Academy in Camberwell, South London, has fallen foul of the expectation that teachers are never whistleblowers. On the 5th October she addressed delegates at the Tory Party Conference in Birmingham. Her speech is available on Youtube and is worth watching. She makes a very clear case over the constraints and criticisms faced by teachers today, and stresses how important it is that those constraints are removed in order to improve the prospect of all children.
But what has been the reaction to her speech? A joint statement from the teaching unions agreeing with much of what she said and calling for change?
She has been vilified by both the establishment and the left equally. She has been held up to be a figure of contempt, a person who has pushed the boundaries of acceptable revelation too far.
Many teachers have publicly denounced her speech, saying that it is inaccurate, biased and that she has a political agenda. Maybe Katharine does want to enter politics, maybe she does want to further her own career in a different field, maybe she does want to move into television and media.
It doesn’t matter how right any of these things are, they don’t make her words any less true.
I, by the very nature of my job, work in lots of different schools. I’ve seen different standards of education. different expectations of behaviour, different methods of behaviour management, different styles of management.
And I’ve seen classes populated with children such as those she describes.
The government have promised that things will change. Michael Gove nodded in enthusiasm throughout Katharine’s speech – does this mean he will implement much needed change? Will he support a return to the teacher setting the behavioural expectations of the class, rather than the children?
I’d like to believe so, but in reality I doubt it. The greatest harm to our children’s education has been done by politicians, and they are the only ones with the power to change it.
Constant new initiatives, new reporting procedures, new targets, new this, new that, leave teachers with a feeling of bewilderment. It all seems too much. With all this reporting (and producing multiple copies of ‘evidence’) that’s expected of us, there’s no time left to teach.
And what of Katharine Birbalsingh? She’s spoken out, the politicians and the public have heard the true state of education today, from a practicing teacher not an intellectual removed from the classroom, she’s made an impact and this will hopefully lead to change.
In some ways it already has. Her school have sacked her.