Professional boundaries

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The Leveson Inquiry has thrown up a debate about professional boundaries ― an issue that teachers are only too aware of, says Marion Gibbs.

The Leveson Inquiry has been dominating the news for some weeks now; it has raised significant issues about communication – who should be communicating with whom, how frequently, what is an appropriate tone, and where are the professional boundaries?

All of this resonates strongly with school leaders and staff. Communications within the school, between staff and pupil, pupil and pupil, staff and staff, staff and parents, and between parents are all increasingly fraught with traps for the unwary.

One might add to that communication between examination boards or examiners and teachers and the reporting about schools and education in the wider media. We have learnt from Leveson that some government ministers, civil servants, special advisors, media moguls and PR professionals communicate via text message and email many times a day. This reminds me of teenage girls, whose parents finally manage to look at their mobile phone records and discover that they are exchanging hundreds of texts with friends, often very late at night.

Inevitably, as the pace of exchange increases, so caution is thrown to the wind and less measured and appropriate remarks may be exchanged and sensitivities forgotten. The same can happen on other digital media such as Facebook or the noxious Formspring. It is somehow strange to see these same follies, which so many teachers waste disproportionate amounts of time dealing with, being replicated by “grown-ups”, and not just any grown-ups, but people in high positions of power and influence.

We live in a world of instant communication where tone and subtleties of meaning can be hard to discern. Schools are now bombarded with emails from parents, some dispatching heated diatribes to several different members of staff at once and demanding an instant response. 

Teachers are in school to teach for most of the school day and to deal with pupils face-to-face; they should not be diverted from lessons and dealing with pupils in order to provide instant responses to emails. Senior pastoral and academic staff have non-contact time which can be used for responding to parents, but only after matters have been investigated, due consideration given and a proper reply prepared. It is important to manage parents’ expectations in this respect.

Pupils communicating directly with staff via emails, text or social media is another minefield. Child protection guidelines indicate that such exchanges may be considered to be inappropriate or indeed “grooming”. Sadly, as we all know, it is quite simple to forward any electronic message on to another person, after altering it, and staff are very vulnerable in this respect. It is also all too easy to impersonate someone else online.

In addition, there are websites established specifically to criticise or make fun of staff as well as the nasty comments posted in various chatrooms.

Recently, I heard of a parent from a school, not local to us, who had decided to set up a Facebook page for other parents at her child’s school. Within a day it was filled with comments, some rather unpleasant, and then arguments about all sorts of things, in less than decorous language. The school was not pleased, the parent host was horrified, and it was taken down.

The other issue, which has loomed large in both the Leveson Inquiry and in the earlier debacle over meetings with examiners, is that of over-familiarity and inappropriate closeness. We should expect to have professional relationships with clear boundaries, but I am not convinced that the young today, and indeed some of their parents, have any idea about what an appropriate boundary might be. 

Will the pendulum ever swing back or should I expect to be receiving text-speak messages from all my pupils soon, starting with “Hi Marion”?

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in South London. 


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