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How to be a Whistleblower Without Risking Your Career

So you’ve got evidence of serious wrongdoing in your school – but can you expose it without risking your own livelihood? Absolutely, discovers Anna Blewett...

  • How to be a Whistleblower Without Risking Your Career

If you enjoyed the spectacle of Mark Zuckerberg sweating and gulping his way through a recent congressional grilling, you might be forgiven for forgetting this reckoning was made possible by a player absent from the televised proceedings.

Christopher Wylie joins a long line of whistleblowers whose brave testimony has lifted the lid on misconduct the powers that be prefer to overlook.

Sound familiar? More schools than we might hope have their share of financial irregularity, professional misconduct and even safeguarding breaches; as a teacher, what do you have to do in order to bring such misdeeds to light?

Develop a thick skin

If you’re pointing out wrongdoing, expect to become a little unpopular in certain quarters. “Ultimately we haven’t really gotten over ‘shooting the messenger,’” says Francesca West, chief executive of whistleblowing charity Public Concern At Work.

“It feels much easier to attack the individual rather than deal with the problem. I think there’s a fundamental grassroots issue with how we deal with hearing things we find uncomfortable: uncomfy truths and potentially criticism of ourselves.”

And yet the unique position of responsibility, indeed loco parentis, that any member of school staff finds themself in makes that discomfort entirely necessary. So grasp that nettle, but armour up accordingly.

Protect yourself

Spotted something seriously questionable going on? When reporting misconduct you need to make sure your own reputation and job security isn’t compromised.

“I don’t want to sound cynical but you do have to be careful about whom you trust,’” says Will*, a former teacher turned grievance advisor who himself blew the whistle after discovering systematic exam-fixing at his school [see case study at end of feature].

“And be extremely professional. Just because you believe something doesn’t mean it’s true. You’re protected in law even if what you believe isn’t true, but put your version of events – your first concerns – in writing, even if you only email that to yourself or a friend. Document it. And if you’re feeling brave send it to your head teacher, or line manager. I shared my concerns informally with no witnesses. That was a big mistake.”

Be brave

“A lot of the people we speak to actually care very much about their organisation, and the people it’s caring for, so they don’t question that speaking up in the right thing to do,” says Francesca.

In teaching, a profession when the futures of our most precious and, potentially, vulnerable citizens is at stake, it’s worth risking the ire of your organisation.

“When I’m advising clients I suggest that it’s not a machine – the whole system – that’s fighting them, it’s an individual,” says Will.

“And they’re probably doing it because they’re doing something wrong. They’ve made a mistake. Take them on. Get some advice first to make sure that you’ve got a case (Public Concern at Work is like an encyclopaedia at your fingertips). If you’re right it’ll either end up in a settlement or you’ll win your case.”

Seek external support

If raising a serious concern causes you to be cast as a troublemaker within your team, find support outside the workplace. “Individuals often don’t recognise they’re blowing the whistle,” points out Francesca.

“When they first start questioning things with a manager it may take them a while to realise that they’re suddenly being undermined, and things seem to be turning quite negative for them. They might look back and realise that ‘wrong’ question they asked has led to someone having it in for them.”

And facing hostility at work can take its toll; Public Concern At Work (pcaw.org.uk) offers support and advice, as does Young Minds 360º Schools (youngminds.co.uk).

Be the change

In a position to affect your school’s culture of transparency? Don’t assume having a whistleblower policy in writing stashed away somewhere is enough.

“Getting the policies right is important but it’s just the beginning,” says Francesca.

“The real difference is in making it culturally acceptable for people to raise things. If you’re on the leadership you have to be out there talking to your staff about how you’d like them to raise concerns.

“If you have people working together in small pockets – in classrooms maybe – you have to work hard to make sure everyone knows that speaking out is a safe and acceptable thing to do. Line managers need to be taught ‘it’s OK to have staff going over your head because there may be very good reasons why they can’t talk to you.’”

“It didn’t occur to me the fallout would hit me – I was just the messenger”

When Will* was presented with evidence of mark-fixing at the academy where he was head of department, instinct told him to take his concerns to the head.

“I had a very good relationship with her,” says Will. “I knew raising the issue was going to be awkward but I had a set of distraught teachers on my hands who were counting on me to speak up.”

So, at one of their regular one-to-one meetings, Will relayed everything he’d been told. “I’ve never seen such a change in someone,” he recalls.

“I was instructed not to tell anyone; she’d deal with everything. Frankly I was relieved. I had a horrible feeling the situation was going to explode, but it didn’t occur to me the fallout would hit me. I was just the messenger.”

In fact, Will was unwittingly blowing the whistle on his academy’s systematic mark-fixing. He later came to believe his head was one of the architects of the plan, and discovered his was one of many schools exploiting a flaw in English examinations that made national headlines in 2012.

His reward for raising the alarm was a concerted campaign to force him out. “It was like a tidal wave coming over me,” says Will. “Virtually every day there would be an email about something that was my fault, or a complaint that had apparently been made.”

Will’s written grievance about the mark-fixing was badly received and, suffering insomnia and stress, he took time off on grounds of ill health.

“I was off for two months but within two weeks my office was given away and a new head of department appointed, so it was clear my future at the school was looking dim,” he says.

A disciplinary hearing, verbal warning and eventually a suspension lasting two and a half years followed, during which time Will filed for an employment tribunal. On the second day of his hearing the academy settled.

“I came to realise that the people I’d been fighting were in fact very scared, having made a big mistake and been found out. It gave me some closure when they were quietly removed from their posts.

“There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think about what happened; I now run a small business helping people, particularly teachers, get through the grievance procedure and – where possible – resolve it without walking down the road I did.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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