EdinburghEducationLocal GovernmentPoliticsThe Herald

A RIGID SCHOOL OF THOUGHT Former head teacher Alex Wood was disciplined and 'counselled' for speaking out about education reforms.

By 29 January 2012No Comments

On 15th September 2009, The Herald published an article by me on Scottish local government.  It suggested that many of local council Area Committees gave an appearance of consultation but were impotent on issues of substance. 
 
It stated that the public did not understand the functions of council committees and departments and that new mega-departments (such as Children and Families departments combining social work and education) were failing.
 
It made the point that political parties had not come to terms with proportional representation and that the weak coalitions which PR created lacked strategic vision.
 
I was then a head teacher employed by the City of Edinburgh Council.  Two days later a senior official in the Children and Families Department, informed me that my writing would be “investigated by the Department in accordance with the Disciplinary Procedure as potential gross misconduct”.  Gross misconduct potentially leads to dismissal.
 
The charge did not directly concern the content of the article but was that I had “breached the Council’s Code of Conduct by failing to seek authorisation for contacting the media”.
 
I had not indeed sought Council authority to provide The Herald with the specific article.  Over the four previous years I had had 70 articles published in a range of journals.  I had discussed these with the Department’s Communications Team, my Director and several other senior officials.  No-one had required that my articles be vetted prior to submission for publication.
 
Moreover, most of the contents of the 15th September article had appeared, in different forms, in other articles.
 
The difference was that this article appeared, not in an educational journal but in a daily newspaper and politicians had taken note.  I was told that the disciplinary process arose from ‘unhappiness’ expressed by both elected members and senior officials.  The fact that I had a political past (I had been the Edinburgh District Council Labour Group leader in the 1980s) may have had some impact.
 
The irony was that for many years I have been a member of one of the parties to the ruling coalition in Edinburgh.  Criticism however is not taken easily byEdinburgh’s present civic leadership.  Head teachers have been slapped down recently when any vestige of criticism of the political regime has become apparent.
 
The Council’s Code of Conduct indeed required ‘authorisation’ for contact with the media.  I was well advised by myUnionto press the case that there had been de facto authorisation but to accept the principle for the future.
 
I was then informed that I would be ‘counselled’ on my future relationships with the media.  ‘Counselling’ is the lowest form of disciplinary action within the system.  In ‘counselling’ I was instructed to present to my line manager for approval any articles which addressed “educational matters and/ or matters associated with the policy and practice of Edinburgh City Council, our partner agencies or the Scottish Government”.
 
The censorship of material relating to the Council was the obvious intention.  The inclusion however of matters relating to ‘partner agencies’ or ‘the Scottish Government’ was a bolt from the blue.
 
Unlike other local government officers, teachers are not politically restricted.  To be potentially denied the right to criticise the Scottish Government, or the Inspectorate or the Care Commission was draconian.
 
The impact became clear in November when I submitted an article, for potential publication by The Herald, on the issue of head teacher stress.  Exception was taken to two aspects of it.  One paragraph read as follows.  “Head teachers are rightly scathing about the workload created by the risk assessment culture.  Nothing creates more panic than the fear of being sued for an allegedly avoidable disaster.  We therefore ‘risk assess’ everything from a trip to the local pantomime to our planned response to swine flu.
 
At one end of the risk spectrum, major child protection issues or mountaineering trips, risk assessment is essential.  At the other end of the spectrum, the most time-consuming end, they are an insult to professional intelligence.” That was seen as undermining the Council’s risk assessment procedures.
 
A further paragraph was seen as unacceptably critical of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. “Head teachers are also frustrated by a world where rules which are certain to have the opposite effect from that intended, are zealously applied.
 
Children cannot be weaned from chips, salt and stodge in one fell swoop.  Current rules on healthy eating (reinforced with Jesuitical rigour by Her Majesty’s Inspectors) are driving young people in hordes to the local chippies.”
 
Frankly, the comparison was likely more insulting to the Jesuits than the HMIs.  Paranoia was obviously rife.
 
The most recent example of such censorship was in June of this year.  I submitted a draft article commenting on COSLA’s submission to the McCormack review on teachers’ conditions of service which stated that ‘the primary role for a teacher should not be to teach children but should be articulated in terms of ensuring the development, well-being, and safety of children.  This is the primary role that teachers should share with other children’s services professionals.’
 
I commented that “Such an outlook represents an attempt to de-professionalise and de-intellectualise teaching.  It trivialises the unique curricular content and pedagogic skills of the teacher’s art and turns the teacher’s job into a cross between that of a foster-parent and that of social worker – both invaluable but hugely different jobs from teaching.  It is almost beyond belief that such a document, presumably drafted by COSLA’s education officials, could have been written by anyone with any experience of teaching.”  I was told that this could not be submitted.
 
I retired as a headteacher on 14th August.  I am no longer subject to the disciplinary procedures of the City ofEdinburgh Council.  I can now comment freely on the political and bureaucratic failings of that organisation.
 
What a farce that such petty restrictions are placed on headteachers.
 
 
The above article was first published in The Herald on 16 August 2011

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