Thursday, 24 September 2009

Well said, Alice Thompson

Like, I imagine, several thousand people, I've only just heard about the case of Carol Hill, the dinner lady who was sacked for telling the mother of a bully victim the truth about why her child was injured.

A seven-year-old was tied up with a skipping rope and, it seems, whipped with another one by four other pupils. A dinner lady saw what was going on, rescued the victim, and marched the others into the school and reported them. The head teacher apparently sent a letter home to the victim's parents which omitted the main point: the story varies on whether it says the child was "hurt by some other children", or whether it was simply "hurt in a skipping rope accident". The dinner lady happened to see the mother shortly after the incident and commiserated with her - during which it became clear that the mother didn't know what had happened. She told her the truth - and has been sacked for "breaching confidentiality guidelines".

Margaret Haywood springs to mind: those supposed to be responsible for people's welfare see not so much incompetence or the allowing of suffering to be a crime, as the admission that such a thing is going on. It's so much easier to shoot the messenger than to deal with the problem. Of course in this case the secrecy may have been extra profitable since one of the bullies was the son of a parent governor . . .

There's a great article in the Times by Alice Thompson which I much enjoyed, and which speaks for the many invasions of machinery, paperwork and guidelines over humanity. I liked the comments, too.

It particularly enrages me in this case that if a teacher discovers that a pupil is self-harming, the child is not offered help but is reported to their parents - even if the child is doing this because of their parents and needs a different place to go to talk and let off steam. A friend of mine believed a teacher who said she'd keep such things confidential, and went to talk about it with her, only to be reported instead of helped. Presumably, if a parent can take the blame, that is what the school aims for; while if the school must take the blame, the parent is not informed. To inform or not to inform? It varies. (Apparently another school instructed children not to inform their parents that all their fingerprints were being taken!) But to lie? If anyone can tell me when it's appropriate to lie to a parent, I'd love to hear about it.

Alice Thompson's article talks about the despair of trust in any human that the Department of Education encourages - or rather, that its proponents feel in themselves and forcibly assign to others, rather the way the anti-Obama Americans campaign against a universal health system: their reasoning amounts to, "We're totally selfish and afraid other people might be, too." The Department of Education assumes that all humans will do the worst things possible, and force all of us to treat each other first and foremost in preparation for this - at the expense of the greater purposes such as humanity and nurturing and love. Thompson writes of the terrible feeling of being forbidden to hold the hands of five-year-olds during the crossing of dangerous roads, of being forbidden to comfort little ones who fall over and hurt themselves - of parents being asked to help with the school trips of other children, not their own children, in case they favour their own children in an accident. "But all parents I know are far more safety conscious about other people’s children," she writes. This is logical; you know what your own children will and won't do, and how sensible they are, but not others' children. I always know which of my cats is more likely to do something ridiculous. Cats or schoolkids, it's called motherhood, and that's a very real thing.

The comments section at the end of articles is always fairly depressing, but there are a few I can't resist discussing here. A Max Martin - whose accusations of those who support Carol Hill I really cannot be bothered to address - tells a more important story here:
People are making a mountain out of Mrs Hill. This is only half a story; the other half we will never know due to professional protection of the innocent . . .
Many years ago, I remember the call for similar sackings of the whole school staff and governers, of a school and local police. A woman had been in fear of her life after she and her son were surrounded, pelted and almost killed by a mob of hundreds of pupils. This school gate story made local, front page with a picture of the poor little, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, son. In fact he was a nasty bully who had had a few snowballs throwen at him by a few younger lads after he beat up one of them. The school had to say nothing in its defence. Some pupils were taken out of the school by parents.
I can well picture it; but there are one or two differences. I'm not sure which "innocent" is being "professionally protected" - the bullies or those who covered it up? - not to mention the slight difference between being hit by a snowball and being tied up; but in any case, this was an incident in which a parent was involved. Good old Paul Lockhart describes the students as "the ones who are most often blamed and least often heard". The massive Every Child Matters agenda did not, as far as I recall, have a single testimony from a child in its multitude of pages, nor link to any studies. It was all about "aims for children" and "agendas" - nothing more than targets and theory. Children's own stories seem not to count. Sure, if I reread the diaries I kept as a child now I'd disagree with most of them; but to dismiss them out of hand is a different thing.

I wonder if Carol Hill being a dinner lady also had something to do with it; with the one exception of a hard-working deputy headmistress, it was invariably dinner ladies and support staff who rescued me from bullies at school (sadly they weren't around the day I was shoved up against a fence, had my arms pinned down and a lit cigarette jammed in my mouth by a large group of girls). I also noticed during my teacher training how poorly teaching assistants ("TA's") were regarded - lower down on the status ladder than the pupils themselves. The teachers would say "his TA" in front of a whole class; they didn't even know their names. To be fair, this may have been due to the huge size of the school and its staff, as well as how busy the teachers were.

In the comments of this article, a Janet Bell who has been a school governor writes down the "mistakes" the dinner lady made. Apparently she should not have said anything to the victim's mother upon discovering she did not know the full details, but gone straight to "senior management" - however long they might have kept her waiting, and who certainly wouldn't have changed their minds, seeing as they chose to do the covering up and already knew what Janet Bell proposes the dinner lady tell them. "She should have made very sure the case details were communicated to senior management; she could have written down her own account to submit, keeping her own signed and dated copy (printing off a dated email to herself and signing it is one way)." How does Janet Bell know the lady did not do this? She hauled the boys into the school where "two of them admitted it", and apparently the accident book states precisely what happened.

Janet Bell goes on to talk about how the dinner lady should have put her concerns in writing once again, and talk to the Local Education Authority in the hope that they would then talk to senior management for her. All this struggle, all this talking to people who don't want to hear, this stressful searching in the dark, this soul-crushing, demoralising burden on the seeker of the truth rather than the proponents of the lies - all this worry that these allied authority figures she turns to will then go and reach some private agreement behind one's back - while there's a seven-year-old in great distress whose parents don't know what happened. The child may have feared punishment from the bullies if she told; she may have been too proud to tell the people whose respect she most wants that other children treated her with such contempt and rendered her helpless. (It's not easy to confess such a thing; many people now unwittingly talk about rape victims "admitting" being raped, as if they were the ones at fault.) She may even have feared her parents wouldn't believe her, and that the school itself would have a go at her for being truthful (this happened to me once, too - my form tutor handed everybody's uncollated school reports at the end of year 8 to the table of the nastiest girls int he class, and asked them to sort them out! I told my parents, who complained to the governers - so he kept me back after tutor time to have a go at me in private. I was lucky because I couldn't have cared less what he thought, for I spent little time in his classroom. For this girl it might be a different matter). And wouldn't it have required uncommon inhumanity to leave this well-meaning, ignorant mother in the dark?

In one version, the seven-year-old's mother is quoted as saying, 'The headteacher had written a note saying Chloe had been hurt by some other children and she was sure she would tell me all about it'. This seems a dreadful burden to put on a hurt child who is so young, and certainly no guarantee of her parents learning the truth.

Certainly it's no good turning the boys who committed the offence into figures of hatred, but doesn't this send out slightly the wrong message? It might actually do them some good to be talked to by their own parents and those of their victim. But it was the adults in the position of supposed responsibility who really are old enough to know better.

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