This phrase – The Age of Impunity – is I think recently attributed to David Miliband, the ex-Labour Foreign Secretary from a time when politics seemed quite sane. The phrase attempts to capture how nation states feel they can get away with pretty much anything without any resulting intervention from their neighbours. Think Putin, Trump, Orban etc. etc.
A very unpleasant and recent incident has led me to consider its relevance for those of us working at the sharp end of education.
I am talking here about the growing problem of abuse and character deformation. I had heard about it from other schools and colleague headteachers – nasty comments, usually online, taking pot shots at teachers or school leaders. I’ve had to deal with them from time to time, often leading to this type of polite request during a phone call. ‘It’s been brought to my attention that you called Mrs *** a dragon on Facebook. Would you be so kind as to take it down immediately?’ Cue great embarrassment and an immediate apology.
I would eliminate here this type of gossipy behaviour. Let’s face it, this has always been there, just that we rarely heard it. If you’re a public figure, you’ll always be discussed in houses, in the pub, on holiday (it’s amazing just how many parents talk about schools on holiday!!). That’s just fair enough and you’ll get as many complimentary comments as you will derogatory.
No, I am talking of deliberate and targeted attempts to paint a member of staff in a particular way – and not to apologise at all.
What has shocked me (and yes maybe I’m a bit naïve here) has been the limitations of the system now to deal with such allegations. This is where the issue really resonates with Miliband’s geo-political hypothesis. For I have been left open-mouthed as a procession of officials, advisors, bureaucrats and managers have brushed off any involvement when things get serious, Pontius Pilate style. It’s not in their jurisdiction, not their responsibility, not their remit.
Well, that might be the case, but where is the collective, moral support here? Where is the reaction of outrage to an allegation so unfounded? I’ve been amazed by the shrugging of the shoulders, as if that’s what we all have to expect now. It’s ironic as there’s outrage a-plenty in the rest of our ‘divided nation’.
Of course, this was all predicted. Once the public found out that MPs were fiddling their expenses, bankers were lying about their balance sheets, and some celebrities were abusing young people, any public figure has been fair game. The advent of social media means it’s all unregulated and out there in its unexpurgated nastiness.
But I don’t think I had realised just how little there is to defend against it, once the school leader has exhausted the powers available to him/her.
Last year, I wrote a blog putting some detail to a strategy I wished to pursue: that parents needed to be at the heart of school development. Making them part of the accountability process would give them greater ownership and actually reduce aimless criticism. When I consider this in the context of the ‘age of impunity’, this really is going against the tide and is possibly quite reckless. Far easier is it to erect the fences, keep the parents out (and everyone else for that matter), and engage in heightened surveillance to ensure they respect the rules and protocols of the school.
I have to admit to being tested these past few weeks. After all, I’m responsible for a large number of staff who deserve some protection against false accusations. With the local support structures in such decline, and the law appearing to support the complainant at every step, this is a testing time for any school leader.
The age of impunity doesn’t just affect the citizens of Russia, USA, Turkey or Hungary. I fear it’s now affecting us. And when schools are now one of the only bulwarks against moral decline and malfeasance, it’s a testing time to be a school leader.
No wonder there are less and less wanting to do it.
Ah well, let’s look on the bright side. At least we’ve now got a new Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, who has been severely punished for his misconduct when Defence Secretary.
Err, except he wasn’t.
Yes, the ‘Age of Impunity’ is most definitely upon us.