Maree Todd, Minister for Children and Young People, believes that Councils can be trusted to act in children’s best interests regarding Deferral: https://twitter.com/IainGrayMSP/status/1131238873244295168
I beg to differ. Councils control what teachers are allowed to tell parents and teachers are too scared to disagree with their managers. This article demonstrates how the culture of fear prevented a headteacher from telling us the truth about our son’s much-needed deferral. Apologies that this article is not shorter: substantial quotes are necessary to demonstrate that the problems are real, and serious.
2. Summary: Fear In Scottish Education -The Worst Censorship is Self-Censorship
- Our son began school in 2013 aged 4 only because we were told by the headteacher that the nursery was full. This wasn’t true.
- We learned that several staff, including the Headteacher, agreed with us that: (1) our son would have benefitted from another year of nursery and (2) would benefit from a return to nursery from Primary 1
- Nobody told us – we found out by accident via Subject Access Request under the Data Protection Act. We were repeatedly told he was fine in school
- Many teachers don’t feel free to share their honest professional opinion with parents – e.g. that Deferral is in their child’s best interests.
- Teachers have a double professional duty – (1) professionalism and (2) to employers
- Councils require teachers to follow council priorities and policies, often finance-based
- Every funded deferral carries a cost for the local authority – the teacher’s employer.
- This can create situations of Conflict of Interest e.g. around Deferral – tell parents or not?
- Any teacher seen to go against management or criticise the council will likely be disciplined. So teachers go against their professional view and do as told – this is often why GIRFEC isn’t followed
- Councils overly rely on the views of senior teachers who fall into line, and exclude contrary views
- The GTCS Standards don’t specify which duty takes precedence if there is a Conflict of Interest – employer or professionalism?
- Teachers need an overriding duty of professionalism, like other professions. They need to know that they must speak out if they are required to go against their professional view
- Teachers are currently not held accountable for breaching the Standards when they are acting as Council management wants them to do
- This amplifies the problem: senior management know there is no real accountability. Matters then become more difficult and dangerous for those teachers who continue to do the right thing
- Fitness to Teach is not working when Councils and Headteachers back each other up. It is wrongly assumed the professionals must be telling the truth
- Effective policing of the Standards by GTCS is needed, especially for those in management positions. This will protect teachers who act professionally from bullying management
Parents need to know when teachers believe children need Deferral
Those who would bully or scare teachers into misleading parents MUST be held accountable
3. Our developing concerns about trust in the system
TPS blogged about what happened when we tried to defer our December-born 4-year-old in 2013. You can find much of the detail at
“It’s wrong that school nursery staff are not free to tell parents their professional opinion that deferral would be in the best interests of their child. It’s wrong that headteachers and school staff are told by council staff what they can tell parents and what they can’t.
When your child’s nursery teacher says your child is ready for school, how do you know that is their honest opinion? Are they free to say what they think? How do you know it’s not what they’ve been told to say, whether to save money or because there’s a shortage of nursery spaces or because “policy”? How do you know school is in your child’s best interests? How do you know they are likely to thrive and not just “cope”? Will the system treat your child like an individual?”
I’ve been told many stories by other parents and professionals about what is allowed to be said, for example:
- A social worker and a headteacher believed a child ought to be deferred. Council officials (who, of course, didn’t know the child) overruled them both.
- A nursery teacher thought a child should be deferred but was so scared of openly telling the parents that they left the information in the child’s tray.
- A nursery teacher was “hauled over the coals” by their headteacher for telling parents their opinion that the child would benefit from a deferral.
- An independent playgroup leader was pressured by the local Primary school Headteacher to not support a deferral application for an end of December and premature child.
4. Raised concerns during Scottish Government consultation
At a Scottish Government “Engage for Ed” conference in 2016, I raised the issue of Head/teachers being honest with parents, specifically when their managers in Local Authority Education Departments don’t want the parents to receive the information. The two headteachers at my table were shocked at the idea. They said they have to do what their managers want, because “they pay your wages”.
Shortly afterwards, I wrote to the SG facilitator:
“I was astonished when the headteacher from ******** explained that a headteacher is expected to investigate a complaint against themselves. If a person is of the calibre to be a head, then they ought to have the gumption to tell their managers in the council that such a course of action is a ridiculous waste of everyone’s time. I was disappointed when she replied that headteachers can’t refuse because the bosses pay their salaries. No wonder parents often don’t trust the system.
In contrast, two headteachers at the end were very supportive of my points. One said that, in her opinion, November and December children are often not ready to start school aged 4. In such cases, she tells the parents that she recommends deferral. She works in *********, who, as per the attached article, are very against deferral. I put *********’s position to her and she replied that she simply ignores the council and does what she thinks is best for the child. She looked in her 50s to me and is obviously not scared of the system, nor is she looking for more promotions. She understands her role and has the guts to perform it properly.
This is exactly what I was trying to get at – those two conversations could not have exemplified better the points I was making. Heads must realise that part of their job may be to talk back to education officials and to go their own way at times. They should be the child’s person in the council, not the council’s person in the school, when there are conflicts of interest. If they did so, it would empower them and their staff. Problems and issues can be better dealt with when they are aired in the open. More children’s needs would be met and lives would improve.
The GTC Standards must enshrine that school leaders’ ultimate responsibility is to their professional integrity (i.e. the children) and not their employer. The alternative is that council officials will garner ever more power and headteachers will be reduced to administrative yes-men. And, not surprisingly, parents will be very frustrated. Ultimately, children suffer.
A Headteacher, about to retire, has confirmed publicly that his employing council has asked him to go against his professional views. He thinks the same will have happened to many Headteachers.
This is the crucial issue facing the system: parents think they can trust Headteachers but they can’t. How can they be held accountable? How can they be truly free to make the best decisions according to their professional judgement? No tinkering with the system will improve it unless people can trust the system, and the people in it. The system is rotten to the core if headteachers must do what they’re told by councils and are too scared (or thinking of their next promotion) to act with integrity and honesty.”
5. Basis for our concerns in our experiences
These are sweeping claims I made to the SG facilitator, so personal experience in relation to our son’s deferral will illustrate my point. Part of the communication with the council is recorded here:
On 26.11.13, we met with our son’s headteacher to discuss our request to remove him from Primary 1 and return him to the school nursery (he only began school because we were – incorrectly – told by her that the nursery was full). The headteacher did her best to reassure us, but we still felt his needs were best served by a return to the nursery. We did a Subject Access Request to obtain the notes she used during our meeting.
In January 2014 we received the version on the left (below), printed by an Education Officer. Much later, we discovered that another copy, the one on the right – with the Headteacher’s handwriting at the top – had been materially altered. Comparing them, we saw that on p.2, comments from the PSW and the PE teacher had been changed in a way that fundamentally changed what they were saying. Both staff had believed our son would have benefitted from an additional year of nursery. The Headteacher’s changes (in breach of Data Protection legislation) were an attempt to deny us this highly relevant information.
Why did the Headteacher remove this highly relevant information? The council later told us that, in the two months it took for us to receive our data, the staff had changed their minds and the Headteacher didn’t want to confuse us by giving us the previous information. This is not a valid exemption under Data Protection legislation. In any case, council officials knew we both have Law degrees and I’m a secondary teacher: it wasn’t about “confusing” us, it was about controlling us by denying us our son’s highly relevant information. They wrote:
“Mrs ****** discussed your concerns with the Quality Improvement Manager *******, and e-mailed a copy of the original note to ****[QIM]. Mrs ***** later [2 months later] clarified with the two staff members that they felt ****** was making good progress and did not think that ****** should be taken out of Primary 1, and Mrs ****** therefore amended the document to avoid confusion. I am satisfied that it was appropriate for Mrs ****** to have sought advice, and that it was appropriate in her role as Headteacher to query the comments made, and to make the changes to ensure clarity”.
Our MSP wrote to the Deputy Chief Executive on 06.02.14:
“By mid-November they had seen enough to feel sure that he was not ready for school, but given the importance of the issue they sought advice from others. They have had written observations from ******’s qualified swimming and exercise coaches, and from the Kumon teacher who carried out an English assessment on *****. They also sought the opinions of adults who knew ****** well, including a retired primary school deputy headteacher. The view was absolutely consistent; that ****** was not ready for school and would benefit from another year in nursery.”
On 03.03.14, the Deputy Chief Executive replied:
“I note your comment in relation to the views of various individuals, including a pupil support worker and a PE teacher, and a retired Deputy Head Teacher. I cannot agree, however, that these would outweigh the professional opinion of the Head Teacher of ****** Primary School.”
It is disturbing that the Council has the view that the Headteacher’s opinion is so important that no other opinion matters. Contrary opinions might confuse parents, therefore can be hidden. This is a disgraceful undermining of Parental Engagement. Our response was clear, from 22.03.14:
“The second issue does not require a response but is an observation I would like you to consider carefully. I would characterise the position expressed in your letter that the opinion of the Headteacher should be allowed to drown out any other professional views as being a classic example of professional arrogance. When it comes to matters affecting my children the headteacher may not parse, edit, revise or in any way interfere with the opinions of other professionals. I am more than capable of hearing all the opinions, seeing all the evidence, and forming a conclusion on my own, without the headteacher deciding what I may or may not be told. This is my right as a parent and I flatly do not accept anyone’s interference. The school’s desire to present a united front does not trump a parent’s right to have all of the information necessary to make decisions…
In my opinion this was a breach of the Parental Involvement (Scotland) Act 2006. Under this legislation the local authority is required to provide me with the information I need to make choices about my child’s education.”
6. What did the Headteacher actually think?
But was that actually the Headteacher’s opinion? Did she really think our son was making good progress in P1 and should not be removed? And did she agree with an Education Officer, who wrote on 19.12.13 that:
“the only option open to the council at this point is for ****** to stay in Primary 1”?
We later accessed an email written by the Headteacher, to the Education Officer, after we met with her on 26.11.13. During that meeting she had again told us the nursery was full and tried to reassure us about our son continuing in Primary 1. Why did she tell her bosses – but not us, the parents:
“although I still believe that ****** is happy in school, and we are meeting his needs – I am also sure that he would benefit from another year in nursery”?
7. To recap
- two of our son’s school staff believed he would have benefitted from an additional year of nursery.
- The Headteacher also thought he would benefit from a return to the nursery, but didn’t tell us.
- Why would a Headteacher delete comments made by other staff, that she agreed with and that accorded with the parents’ views?
- Why would a Headteacher hide such information from parents?
8. More examples of the headteacher being guided by Officials on what to tell us:
- On 09.01.14, following the Child Planning Meeting, the Headteacher wrote to her bosses:
“You will see from the Minute that school believes that it can support all of ******’s needs going forward at present in P1, with the support of any multi agency work necessary. I left dad with this message, and that he now has to accept that or think about what his next step would be. I am not sure what that might be.”
- On 13.01.14, when we stated our intention to withdraw our son from Primary 1 following a Child Planning Meeting, the Headteacher wrote to her bosses:
“can you give me some guidance on my next step please?”
- On 20.01.14, after we had withdrawn our son from Primary 1, we were informed that he wouldn’t be permitted in Wraparound during the school day because he had a place in P1. We believe they were trying to force us to return our son to the nursery by preventing us from accessing alternative childcare. On 21.01.14, the Headteacher wrote to her bosses:
“Mrs ***** has been in touch to let us know she doesn’t need wraparound today as the childminder [is] having *******(!)”
9. Conflict of Interest
So can parents trust that they are receiving honest information and opinions from school and council staff regarding Deferral? If the staff who know your child believe they would benefit from Deferral, will you be told?
I believe the answers to the above questions lie in the conflict of interest faced by teachers, as both professionals and as Council employees. Ultimately, if a Council wants to save money by denying Deferrals, they will find ways to pressure teachers to fall in line. But is that an acceptable course of action? Does it meet the profession’s standards?
10. General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS)
Standard for Leadership & Management – excerpts
“Professionalism also implies the need to ask critical questions of educational policies and practices and to examine our attitudes and beliefs.”
“Demonstrating openness, honesty, courage and wisdom.
Critically examining personal and professional attitudes and beliefs and challenging assumptions and professional practice.
Critically examining the connections between personal and professional attitudes and beliefs, values and practices to effect improvement and, when appropriate, bring about transformative change in practice.“
On Trust & Respect, it says:
“Acting and behaving in ways that develop a culture of trust and respect through, for example, being trusting and respectful of others within the school, and with all those involved in influencing the lives of learners in and beyond the learning community.”
On the Key Purpose of Head Teachers, it states:
“The Head Teacher acts as the leading professional in a school and as an officer in the local authority. The Head Teacher also plays a pivotal role within the broader children’s services network.“
I could go on, but they’re online and public:
11. Conflict of Interest, the culture of Fear – GTCS’ role?
This Key Purpose is very troublesome and indicates dual responsibilities that can easily be in conflict with each other. In our experience as parents, the council had priorities that did not align with ours. Perhaps money, perhaps policy, I don’t know – certainly not GIRFEC. We believed our son ought to be deferred and, when this didn’t happen, returned to the nursery from Primary 1 once it became clear he wasn’t coping at school.
As we saw above, we discovered by accident that the Headteacher agreed with us. But our data, received via a Subject Access Request, made it clear that she was following instructions from the Council not to assist us, in fact to actively hinder us.
In the current economic climate, local authorities have difficult decisions to make. It is also within the bounds of possibility (read: likely) that any headteacher who rocks the boat is likely to find their career progress stalled, if not reversed.
So where a (Head)teacher’s professionalism is in conflict with their duty to their employer, which duty should they follow?
Should they obey the employer and fail the child?
Or do their best for the child and face potential disciplinary action or maybe just good old-fashioned victimisation?
Other professions have considered this issue carefully, e.g. http://www.journalonline.co.uk/Magazine/59-6/1014113.aspx.
I don’t believe teaching is unique in that Local Authorities’ priorities and those of teachers and children are always aligned, so that there isn’t even the possibility of a conflict of interest.
Here is an excerpt of what I wrote to GTCS in an anonymous survey over a year ago. I hadn’t thought I would make it public so apologies for the tone:
If GTCs is going to be a regulatory body then it needs to properly investigate complaints. We complained about the headteacher [our child’s], yet our complaint was thrown out without us having SEEN their evidence [the school and council], nor having had the chance to rebut it. This falls short of basic legal protections. So people THINK there is accountability when in fact there is not. Fitness to Teach needs to be a robust legal procedure, or nothing at all. A wishy-washy half way house is worse than nothing because it creates the illusion that accountability is possible. Will there come a day when a headteacher will be disciplined by GTCs for misleading parents, when that is what their employer has wanted them to do? When we were falsely told twice by the headteacher that the nursery was full, the local health visitor was told the same thing, but by Pupil Placement. And, strangely enough, the local authority where I live had one of the lowest rate of “discretionary” deferrals in the country i.e. those children born between mid-Aug to December. The evidence suggests the council WANTED deferrals to be denied, by whatever means. Of course they were going to back up the headteacher during our Fitness to Teach complaint.
Will GTCs emphasise to teachers that their overriding duty is to children first, and employers last? Headteachers said directly to me at the Engage [for Ed] event with John Swinney in November 2016 that they have to do what their bosses want, even where it goes against their own professional opinions. They were acting like administrative clerks, not reflective practitioners. They were falling far short of the Standards for Leadership & Management. How will THEY be held to account for failing those children? At our child’s previous school, several parents complained during an ES inspection 3 years ago yet the report was still excellent.
How are parent voices to be REALLY heard? How are children’s needs to be met? How can senior staff be held accountable when neither GTCs nor ES appear to have the inclination to judge against “professionals like themselves”? How can junior staff follow their professional duty when those above are failing in theirs? Staff giving honest opinions to parents are being disciplined by bosses for going against “policy”. The education system needs to get a grip on itself and see that the culture of compliance, and a false sense that everything is fine are undermining the very foundations of our education system. I know several children whose lives have been harmed by these attitudes.
As both parent and teacher, I would dearly love GTCS – our Regulator – to consider the obvious:
If local authority officers (usually Headteachers who have been promoted) – who put pressure on teachers to go against their professional duties – were properly disciplined by GTCs (and SPSO), then the culture would improve, if only because they would know they’re more likely to get caught. That would protect those teachers who want to do their best for their pupils but who, right now, are too scared of their employers to do so.
Local Authorities are independent of central government. If a Council backs up a teacher under investigation by GTCS or SPSO – say, to save money – there is virtually no chance of accountability. GTCS is therefore in the best position in Scotland to improve the culture within education.
Reading the Standards as a teacher and as a parent breaks my heart, because they are not enforced. I am anonymous because I am scared of consequences to me personally for speaking out on this sensitive issue.
The culture of fear is real. As an example of this fear and bullying, I came across this story recently of an outstanding Headteacher who was ousted in a disgraceful manner yet I don’t believe anybody at senior level within the council was ever held responsible for faking a bad HMIe report about her. https://www.scotsman.com/news/headteacher-forced-out-of-job-by-bogus-inspection-1-1488402.
Teachers need an overriding GTCS duty to the pupils and effective policing of the standards for those in authority. This will help and protect teachers to act like professionals.
- Parents need to know when teachers believe children need Deferral – Councils can’t be trusted
- Those who mislead parents and prevent their Engagement need to be held accountable
- Those who would bully or scare teachers into misleading parents need to be held accountable
A teacher’s view is not a teacher’s view when they’re more worried about their managers than the children they serve
Need help with deferral? Not sure if your wee one is coping in P1 having started aged 4? Deferral Support Scotland on Facebook can provide help and support. See also @givetimescot on Twitter. Both supported by Taking Parents Seriously.