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What I’ve learned about whistleblowing in education

What do you do when you know something is wrong but nobody appears interested in doing anything about it? What do you do when you raise concerns and are told to ‘forget it’ or ‘let it go’? I found myself in this situation in 2022. But rather than getting the support I needed, I became part of the 36 per cent of educators facing dismissal or feeling compelled to resign.  

Whistleblowing in education, exposing wrongdoing or unethical practices, is crucial for upholding accountability and safeguarding students’ wellbeing. However, recent findings by the charity Protect reveal that 72 per cent of whistleblowers working in education say they faced some form of detriment or harm after whistleblowing. “Too many whistleblowers working in schools are ignored and victimised for raising public interest concerns,” the report states.

Termination agreements often follow. These agreements include provisions that outline the terms of separation, typically non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and other conditions that restrict the employee from disclosing certain information about their employment, including any wrongdoing or misconduct they may have witnessed.

NDAs were originally designed to protect trade secrets, proprietary information and confidential business or technical information. So why are they being used in education? Why would we not want our schools to be fully transparent and open to outside scrutiny to ensure that our students and their welfare are at the centre of everything we do? 

You might expect that union members would find some protection, but this is not always the case. In fact, unions often advise employees to ‘just get out’ as the process of fighting can cause long-term stress and trauma. 

But by preventing employees from speaking out about their experiences, these agreements are impeding efforts to address problems and hindering long-overdue and necessary reforms. No one in public services should be legally allowed to silence those trying to call out harmful practices – a case recently made in parliament by Maria Miller MP.

Rather than speaking up, many are forced to hide 

Many schools are run like businesses; businesses have reputations, goals and KPIs that do not always fit within a child-centred approach. I strongly believe that this is a huge part of what is causing the many crises in education: exclusion rates are rising, cost is being prioritised over care and children are not being protected, sometimes even leading to avoidable deaths.

Yet rather than speaking up about it, many are forced to hide. Speaking out and admitting we could be doing better might jeopardise our Ofsted grading or affect our pupil numbers. Employees speaking out might bring reputational damage or negative attention that would force organisations to look within and change.  

So many school leaders, current and former, have contacted me to share that if they didn’t take an NDA, they would no longer be working in education. Others did speak out and have suffered that exact fate. Many are so mentally scarred from the gaslighting that followed that they are not working at all.

I am sure that each of us would rather an honest and transparent education system that worked collaboratively to meet the needs of every child. The problem is that none of us wants to go first. Every incentive encourages us to put the short-term needs of our organisations before those of children and the long-term betterment of the system as a whole. 

We must realign education from business and marketing principles to an ethical, values-driven service with the wellbeing of children at its heart.

No one should be forced to compromise their integrity when advocating for children. It might feel like realism to accept this as a norm, but it is a realism of a deeply cynical kind. NDAs for proprietary lesson plans and resources might be appropriate, but NDAs to hide malfeasance and harm to children or staff never are.

Speaking out is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It has left me alone, emotionally and financially exposed, and facing an uncertain career future. But I’m convinced the lifelong harm I’d have suffered from remaining silent would have been far worse. 

It’s time to do away with NDAs – and if we can’t, then better protection should at least be in place for those who are brave enough to speak out. 

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