To talk or not to talk

I was struck by a news item this past week that is a telling story. The story of Katherine  Birbalsingh who was suspended for two days this past week from her job as Deputy Head of her school for speaking at the Conservative party conference. On first sight it appears to be one of those strange stories where schools tend to get a bad press for not allowing people free speech.

It got me thinking back to some of my own experiences in the workplace.

I remember several occasions of incidents in my old company. We used to have engineers based permanently on sites very often and the client was able to use their spare time to help out with their own computer systems.

It wasn’t unusual to see signs of the person going “native”.

They would make disparaging remarks about our company to the client or complain, in front of the client, about our company.

Now there were several problems with this. Firstly, it was the company that gave them a job. They owed their salary to it and it is not unreasonable to expect the employee to be careful what is said about their employer.

Secondly, they were often wrong! They might say things (and did) that had no sound basis in the facts. They seemed to like to say them because the client gave them an audience.

Thirdly, if there was a problem it took our focus off solving the real problem and onto managing the client and his reaction.

Back to comrade Birbalsingh, seemingly according to the papers she is an ex-marxist – which when you dig seems to mean that she nearly joined the Socialist Workers Party.

Which apropos of nothing reminds me of a friend who wanted to compete with the SWP at Uni by standing outside the student union holding up magazines shouting Tatler! Cosmopolitan! Vogue!

Anyway, the issue that her school was worried about was its reputation.

Its an Academy school (usually meaning that before it was an academy it was a ‘failing’ school). Reputation is everything in a school. Get a bad reputation and parents tend not to send their children there. The school, St Michael and All Angels, I imagine, wanted to look at what was being said by her and check whether she had overstepped the mark.

A reasonable situation. Free speech doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences for what you say. She has in fact been allowed back to school and appears to be keeping up her campaign.

There are issues in the educational system. The fact that under 20 teachers have been sacked for poor teaching in the past decade or so; or that as soon as capability proceedings are started against a teacher they tend to go on sick leave making it far harder to continue proceedings; or that too often people are given good references who shouldn’t be.

But how we disagree and how we move the debate forward is important. My suggestion to comrade (hat-tip to PG Wodehouse) Birbalsingh is to start to change the ethos at her school.

To work with other senior leaders to change the way that they work. It takes hard work and effort, and maybe at some point the government will help by changing some of the rules and culture (but I wouldn’t bet on it). But we don’t have to be victims. We can choose to keep raising difficult issues and discussing them without seeing ourselves as victims


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