Many of my previous posts have detailed, in one way or another, conflicts of interest – most often, those between doing what is right for students and what is advantageous for schools. The outsider’s assumption that the two are synonymous should have been challenged, if not dispelled, by this insider’s revelations. Indeed, you will, quite possibly, have been bored beyond belief by my incessant moaning on this topic – the conversational equivalent of riding the Circle Line for a day, watching the same grotty stations slide past the windows again and again. Apologies for that. I‘ll stop it. Soon.
The recent case of Jo Shuter, former head teacher at Quintin Kynaston School and now barred from teaching, demonstrated how a lack of financial oversight in academies can allow conflicts of interest to proliferate like fungi. Private taxi rides, furniture purchases, birthday parties and jollies for the senior team were all funded by public money – misuses that Shuter has finally admitted. However, her demise was effected not only by greed, but also by nepotism: Shuter’s children were beneficiaries of their mother’s largesse with the public purse, as their mobile phone contracts were charged to the school; and Debbie Shuter’s documentary about her sister’s headship of Quintin Kynaston remains unbroadcast by the BBC, due to concerns about potential bias.
Still, the Venn-like overlap between public duty and private gain is hardly confined to this high-profile case. I certainly know of several instances in which costly acquisitions have appeared oh-so-suddenly in senior staff members’ homes, or large amounts of money have been transferred from school funds to private coffers. Take, for instance, a London school where the head employed a member of his immediate family as a temporary gardener. Four thousand pounds a week isn’t too bad a rate. Especially in a school without a garden. The amount, paid partly in ready cash from the safe and partly in sums small enough to not warrant governors’ approval, passed below the accountability radar. If only the head teacher had employed himself in this capacity, I could have referred to him as ‘Capability Procedures Brown’.
The most disturbing conflicts of interest, however, do not always involve money. Some revolve around other kinds of behavioural licence that border on – and, sometimes, become – serious causes for personal concern. I have worked in three schools attended by colleagues’ children, some of whom were taught by their parents. Only in one have I found myself under fleeting pressure to apply different rules to a child whose mother was a fellow teacher. The overwhelming majority of colleagues employed in their children’s schools have conducted themselves with commendable probity, in part because they’ve known that failing to exercise impartiality would get them into trouble with someone higher up the ladder.
But what happens when the staff member concerned isn’t accountable in quite the same way? What if s/he is the head teacher in a school whose board of governors is so gullible that its oversight of the principal’s activities exists in name only? The result, in one school, was the jeopardizing of other children’s personal safety, as well as their learning, in order to indulge, exonerate or cover up the activities of one pupil with an exceptionally influential parent. As this sorry case threatens to demonstrate, the pursuit of short-term benefits can often beget long-term disasters for all concerned. Not least, the apparently untouchable child.
Like many institutions, schools profess adherence to a strict code of conduct. Indeed, the capacity to be ethically self-regulating is one of the hallmarks of a profession, and a pillar of the trust invested in it by the public. A number, however, are governed by unwritten constitutions: practices that may not accord with the spirit or letter of the stated ethos but, nonetheless, become entrenched through fearful compliance and repetition. In one school, such circumstances have allowed Raven to develop patterns of behaviour that, in a couple of years, will be considered criminal. On the quiet, many of the staff believe that it’s only a matter of time before they see his face looking back at them from a newspaper for all the wrong reasons. Raven is the head teacher’s son.
His aberrant behaviour was first noted at the age of four, when an educational psychologist, brought in to observe another child, identified him as a timebomb. Her warnings were brushed aside and the majority of school staff maintained a judicious silence, having learned that the cost of doing otherwise would be relentless bullying by someone with the power to make life very difficult. Most knew that they were colluding in a distasteful situation, although a few managed to convince themselves that their complicity was a matter of free choice and/or pastoral realpolitik. For a chosen few, the connivance was made ‘worth their while’.
Four years on, Raven is habitually aggressive towards his peers, intimidating them by mental and physical – including sexual – means. If other children’s heads are hit by the weapons Raven brandishes with impunity, then that’s their fault for standing in his path. Or so the staff are told. The modus operandi of collusion has also developed: incidents are ignored or justified, or victims are told that they are holding the wrong end of the stick. A couple have questioned their sanity, as adult after adult insists that their experience is not of bullying – even if it looks, sounds and smells remarkably like it. A few have been removed from the school by parents who suspect that nothing will be done to curb Raven’s activities as long as his parent remains in charge.
Small children, as we know, find bodies fascinating and amusing in a wee-poo-bum sort of way. However, Raven’s knowledge extends far beyond mere anatomical curiosity, having long been characterised by a precision and breadth of sexual awareness unbecoming his age. It was, therefore, no surprise that Bella, a teacher new to the school, was taken aback when, on being assigned to his class, she witnessed Raven’s behaviour: his repertoire then included instructing classmates in the adoption of outré sexual positions, and forcibly exploring girls’ bodies. Bella’s relative unfamiliarity with The Way Things Are Done Here led her to formally document her concerns and pass them on to the head teacher who is responsible for overseeing child protection issues. She took it for granted that the ensuing silence meant due process was being followed out of sight and earshot, with the requisite impartiality such situations demand.
Then came the biggie, when Raven was seen shoving his hands between the legs of a girl in his class, who had tried to repel him and was visibly distressed by his actions. Bella immediately invoked the school’s behaviour policy, reporting Raven’s actions through the assigned channels. She heard nothing more on the matter until the girl’s parents appeared in her classroom a couple of days later, demanding to know what was being done about the apparent assault on their daughter as their complaints to senior staff had, so far, been met with silence. When the head teacher told them that their child had confessed to lying about the incident, suspicions intensified: previous incidents, involving other children, had also been dismissed in the light of similar confessions, all elicited under the head’s intent gaze.
Very soon, Bella began to hear whispers about her performance on a grapevine with roots in the head teacher’s office. Fearing that her professional prospects would be harmed by allegations of incompetence, she contacted her union. Apart from asking that it be recorded, she pursued the matter no further, having understood that silence would be the safest response – in the short term, at least. Within months, Bella was made deputy head and has not produced a single record of concern at Raven’s behaviour since. She does, however, regularly assure the other children that they have misinterpreted his benign intentions: the slaps, swearing and gropes really aren’t any of the above. Thus, within the space of a year, someone who could have been part of a solution has assimilated the preferability of being part of the problem.
The school in which these events have taken place has suffered manifold consequences, besides those documented above. Its behaviour policy has been ‘tweaked’ endlessly, to ensure that Raven’s conduct cannot be classified as sanctionable – which may be why his current favourite pastimes include mimicking cunnilingus and buggery, and trying to remove girls’ clothing without their consent. With the same degree of latitude extended to all pupils, the school is now one in which behaviour problems are spiralling, punishments are scant and staff are faced with a number of children who believe that they are immune from any form of prosecution. The education of Raven’s classmates has suffered due to his continued disruptiveness, and his teachers can expect scant support from senior leaders, when confronted with the consequences of such a regime.
Apart from changing the names of participants, all the details above are true, making this one of the most disturbing and distasteful posts I’ve written. I would apologise for its inclusion were it not the case that, in the meantime, head teachers remain the recipients of increasing powers from the Department of Education. Until their exercise is subjected to consistent scrutiny, some will continue running schools as personal fiefdoms, leaving avoidable casualties in their wakes and pressing others to hide the bodies.