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Dinner Lady sacked for telling parents their daughter had been bullied

September 22, 2009

So here, helpfully, is a practical example of the big rather theoretical principle I’ve just been talking about.

Here’s the BBC News Online coverage, and I’m also relying on the girl’s father’s first-hand testimony given on GMTV.

The facts, as reported so far (and I stress that), are that a seven year old girl was tied up by a group of children and tied to a fence, then hit with a skipping rope.

The school dealt with the incident by informing the parents of the children responsible.  But the letter home to the girl’s parents stated only that she had been (in the father’s words) “injured by a skipping rope”.

The dinner lady who dealt with the incident is a volunteer with the local Beavers and, on meeting the parents there, told them more about the incident. The father contacted the school… as you might imagine.

Subsequently the dinner lady was the subject of a disciplinary hearing and has, I believe, been dismissed – for a breach of confidentiality.

Assuming I have all these facts right, and that there are no other special circumstances to be revealed, the temptation is to react to this decision on its own terms… not least to question whether the school committed some corresponding breach of duty, or even falsified information… I wonder what the relevant entry in the accident book says, and who signed it. I wonder what duty the school has to ensure the parents have all the information needed to help the girl deal with the incident – there’s a good chance the girl was too intimidated or embarrassed to tell her parents. And what about the general example being set to children, where surely the principle is that bullies must always be exposed?

But I’m not going that way. Why? Because to do so is to accept that community ties are overridden by the outsourcing of moral and social interactions between people to ‘authorities’, to ‘Other People’ in a regulated environment, where ‘confidentiality’ is one of the undisputed kings. This isn’t a doctor or a lawyer in 1-1 private consultation we’re talking about. It’s a sequence of events in a communal space, a school, where children learn how to be part of a community, as well as how to do English and Maths.

I think my reaction to this story, and what I hope is the reaction of many others, stems from this demotion of communal connections and relationships. The ‘natural’ resolution of this situation, between parents, children, teachers, support staff has been fragmented by the intervention (or at best the interpretation) of formalised roles.

In my eyes this increases the sense that each of us, or at least each household, is being pushed towards an isolated status, where we can only be trusted to deal with each other through rules and processes. Note that I say rules and processes – not broad principles (which I’m all in favour of, so long as they are open to debate and discussion). The dinner lady’s other connections, through friendships, through out-of-school voluntary activity, have been annulled by her formal role as a public sector employee subject to a set of contractual terms and conditions. That’s the only basis on which she seems to be being judged, an example made and a message sent.

My alternative? Give some weight back to the full range of communal ties, networks of relationships, non-institutional roles, judgement and common sense. Trust people not to react disproportionately. Trust ‘Us’ to deal with it, and to calm the situation, if there are such hasty reactions. If we don’t get to exercise those skills, including the self-restraint – they will fade away and then only institutional/authoritarian controls will be left. Let the bullies get used to the idea that they are part of a society (that they are members of an ‘Us’) that might recognise them and disapprove of their actions, rather than that they are subject only to a formal ‘policing’ by ‘Them’… a policing which only takes hold if you are caught by ‘Them’, and not if your actions are seen by (the much more numerous) ‘Us’.

My reaction is conditional on finding out more. But my principle isn’t. Let’s see how this one turns out. If it was actually a minor incident –  then that just cuts both ways.

But if I’m right about it – what can we do, what can that dinner lady do? What can/should the local community do – and how can local views best be brought to bear on this sort of case? What does a generic, NoBull, way of dealing with such cases look like and how can it push back the bureaucratism without also damaging some if the useful principles within the law and civic mediation?

On that last note, my pre-occupation with Bull, the school’s main response (probably forced upon it by yet more formal processes, pending appeal etc) is only to say that its priority remains to provide the “best possible education” for its pupils. Better, surely, just to say nothing than to say something meaningless?

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