Bullying is an issue often discussed in education. However, when the issues are with those who are supposed to stop bullying in schools, something has gone terribly wrong. There have been long-running discussions about power and misuse of power in Scottish education. Walter Humes' The Leadership Class in Scottish Education
could easily be written today but was published in the 1980s. Not much has changed since he wrote it.
Those who speak out against the system and its imperfections are either brave educators or parents who are fed up; pioneering progressives keen to foster change; or those who have the freedom to speak (sometimes academics or those outwith the clutches of the system who have the ability to speak – although even they are becoming constrained in certain settings). Sadly, for the vast majority, 'keep your head down' is the mantra to survive in the dangerous playground of the Scottish education workplace.
As elections approached, many reflected on the various education policies touted in manifestos. Underpinning it, the culture of national politics pervades national education bodies and the example set to local authorities on how to act, operate and lead. At times, the rhetoric of 'values-based leaders', 'empowerment' and 'trust' is at odds with what plays out within education, including (if not specifically) the actions of those charged with leading it. The trickle effect comes from the top nationally, regionally and at local authority level.
This year, there is an opportunity for Scottish education to 'grasp the nettle' with some of these long-standing cultural issues. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) could drastically alter the purpose of education in Scotland. Prizing education away from power politics, narrow nationalist lenses and hollowed out debates of left and right, Scotland could re-assert a balanced vision of what education is for and the sort of fair society our country aspires to.
Whilst I have suggested that the values on the Scottish Parliament mace were essentially made up, two of the values did adorn the entrance to the old Scottish Parliament: wisdom and justice. Effective and fair education and legal systems are essential to the good order of society. Education run with fairness and justice, through wise leadership, is vital in a civilised society. Many would question if this is how it operates just now.
A second recent change may also provide the impetus for reform and the clearing out of the toxic culture which has been a harmful underbelly in Scottish education for so long. The National Health Service has also long grappled with a culture of toxicity, bullying and misuse of power. This has led to some significant safeguarding concerns and governance failings. Thanks to the persistent determination of some, including an Ayrshire and Arran whistleblower, those issues were unable to be buried.
This year, a new service was introduced for NHS staff: The Independent National Whistleblowing Officer (INWO) was launched to allow a mechanism, and an independent one at that, to hear concerns and progress them as appropriate. That such a system needs created says a lot, however, governance-wise this is a progressive move. Early indications from the INWO, part of the Scottish Public Service Ombudsman, are positive. The real proof will be whether systemic culture change is achieved and safeguarding issues are nipped in the bud when first flagged up.
It would appear that Scottish education needs a similar service – and urgently. An article in TES Scotland on 26 March 2021 noted 'the challenge for teachers is just how precious reputations are', and that 'whistleblowing [is] rare in education', and asked if it is was because there was no issue, because cases don't tend to reach unions or other supports, or because 'staff are too scared to speak up'?
Just over a month later, TES Scotland reporter Emma Seith wrote: 'one in 10 Education Scotland staff reported being bullied or harassed over the past year'. Around a quarter of their staff said 'yes' or 'prefer not to say' when asked if they had been bulled or harassed. Three quarters definitively said that they had not been bullied.
These statistics are the latest blow to a national organisation with only a few years ago significant numbers of its staff noting they were not confident in its ability to lead change. Both most worrying but seeming to go unchecked in a system where accountability systems have also broken down or are not willing to discharge the duties bestowed upon them.
National education improvement bodies have long been cited as part of the culture which influences ethos in education. There have been many moves to reform inspections over the years, with some even calling for an end to what are seen as demanding inspections. HMIE at the moment are perhaps unhappy with their current location in an education organisation itself deemed to be failing. Thankfully, that has now been changed.
Scrutiny does need to exist at all levels, and how it is applied is important. I reported on 31 March 2021
) the way in which power is often misused in education. National examples percolate down to local authorities. A number of cases act as examples where local authorities are misusing power to unfairly treat education staff, or where issues around council's dispensation of duties are questionable and there is limited follow up on concerns raised. A common denominator can be found in all of them: safeguarding. It seems that authorities do not take well to safeguarding issues being flagged up to them, nor to their inadequacies being exposed.
Russell Findlay MSP used his maiden speech at Holyrood to expose the issue on 10 June 2021:
Too often, public bodies use unlimited funds to crush legitimate complaints, wage war on whistleblowers and use non-disclosure agreements to hide the ugly truth from the paying public. Bad faith, back covering and secrecy contaminate too many of our institutions. In Scotland, legal regulation is not fit for purpose.
In education, many 'know where the bodies are buried' in cases of misuse of power and cover-ups. Things are starting to change as many share concerns anonymously, journalists and academics highlight issues, and FOIs continue to expose 'the truth' in some cases. Some of those cases have been high-profile and more will surely follow. Alongside each individual case, there now needs to be a concerted effort by policymakers to ensure a National Whistleblowing Officer is in place for education, to provide assurance and start to end the cultural issues that have blighted education reform for too long.
Let's stop using public funds to cover-up issues and instead use them to resolve the longstanding issue once and for all. It is time to root out bullies, end corruption and put a regulator in place which keeps a close eye on those who feel these sort of behaviours are acceptable. If this cannot be done, bullying will keep happening in education – and not just in our playgrounds.
Neil McLennan is an education leader, former Young Programme delegate and previous Institute of Contemporary Scotland Young Scot of the Year