Recruitment and retention

Retention: adult bullying must be confronted head on

Heads are completely alone in the face of intimidation from parents and their communities, writes Rachel Smith, and it’s silently stealing too many careers

Heads are completely alone in the face of intimidation from parents and their communities, writes Rachel Smith, and it’s silently stealing too many careers

10 Oct 2021, 5:00

It is a sad fact that anyone who enters the teaching profession today can expect to face some degree of hostility, harassment or verbal abuse at some point during their career.

To a certain extent, this is to be expected when working with children and young people. This doesn’t mean it is acceptable, by any means; but teachers do have training to deal with such incidents, and schools have policies designed to help staff navigate and manage them.

But it should go without saying that schools should never be expected to deal with similar bad behaviour from adults. Yet the threatening letters from anti-vaccination campaigners discussed in these pages last week are just the tip of an iceberg. Threatening, abusive and aggressive behaviours aimed at school staff have become much too common.  

Not only are such events extremely damaging to the members of staff concerned – to their mental and physical health, as well as their careers – they often leave a damaging legacy for a school’s reputation, too.

On a pragmatic level alone, they suck up hours of valuable time and resources in correspondence and legal advice. And to add insult to injury, in many cases the organisations that exist to protect school leaders and teachers are unable to act against or stop the perpetrators. Individuals are often simply left with the impossible choice of continuing a demoralising battle or stepping down from their position to preserve their own wellbeing.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been repeatedly presented with that choice myself. A sustained campaign has seen me accused of abusing my power, intimidating staff, lying to governors and being obstructive. My team and I have had to deal with countless emails, freedom of information and subject access requests, which has taken hundreds of hours – all while coping with the pandemic.

I realised there was no one to turn to for help

We refer to our school as a ‘telling’ school; anyone who is aware of harassment, victimisation or bullying can feel confident about speaking up. It’s a culture of transparency I have worked hard to create and to model, so our board of governors have done their due diligence. No fewer than eight separate investigations by them and external professional investigators have found no evidence to uphold any of the allegations. Yet the campaign continues. Only my departure, it seems, will satisfy these campaigners.

I know too many other heads and teachers for whom, among all the many pressures of the job, such intimidation and aggression has been the deciding factor in standing down from their positions. It’s the unspoken truth of the retention crisis and it must be confronted.

There is frustration in our communities, and schools are left on their own to meet this frustration face-to-face. We need to deal with that underlying problem, but in the meantime, we need to be safer.

Enough is enough. We have already normalised signage that states “Abusive behaviour will not be tolerated” in GP surgeries, hospitals and on public transport. It will be a tragic day when we see similar notices in school receptions.

With accountability must also come a culture of support. Yet the Department for Education is more often seen scapegoating local decision-makers than taking a lead on solving issues. When it is supportive, there is not enough press coverage to show that support. And the DfE’s solutions are often seen as overruling local decisions and undermining heads’ autonomy.

Frightened of inviting only further criticism, heads continue to operate alone and hope for the best. It’s a truism to say that leadership is lonely, but the job has never felt lonelier than when I realised there was no one to turn to for help to make things stop.

We deserve better. We deserve the openness, transparency and unconditional support that comes from a culture of telling. We need it in our schools, and we need it for our schools.

So let this be the start.

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