Recent tragic and unpleasant events have brought the issue of “trial by Twitter” and social media campaigns into the spotlight. This is a threat students, teachers and school leaders have faced for a long time.
Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, has announced an investigation into sustained harassment through social media and we have written to him to highlight the challenges faced by those in frontline public service. He rightly wants to balance freedom of speech with freedom from intimidation and fear.
Schools face a similar challenge – the right of parents to criticise and offer opinions, to shape the direction of the school even, balanced against the way campaigns on social media can escalate into something very ugly. I want to focus here on harassment against staff in school by adults. Three quarters of our members have received threats of violence from adult members of the school community and one in five of those were conveyed through social media. The BBC reports that a third of calls to the Professionals Online Safety Helpline concern online threats.
Clearly, people can express an opinion, however unpleasant it may be. They can also legitimately “blow the whistle” on malpractice. But threats of violence, unfounded allegations of misconduct, sexual harassment and misrepresentation are a different matter. Worse, the power of social media can bring other people into the action who have very little to do with the issue. Some of the features of social media seem to amplify aggression: anonymity loosens inhibitions, distance makes the victims less real, and the networks spread gossip, multiplying the effect.
There is no right of reply, appeal or redress against these campaigns; there are no rules of evidence; very often staff cannot respond without breaching pupils’ confidentiality. Even Ofsted’s Parent View website will publish data without verifying the source and with as few as three entries – we have seen Facebook campaigns where people with a grudge encourage others to complete the surveys and “count off” the number of negative entries.
The shame of it is that legitimate complaints levied in this manner cannot easily be acted on. If a parent has a real concern, a conversation with the teacher or head in a confidential setting is much more likely to solve the problem.
Our advice to members is to ignore unfounded gossip and negative opinion as far as possible; and certainly don’t wade in to the debate online. At best, invite the authors (assuming they are not anonymous) in to express their concerns directly. The knowledge that online comments have consequences can have a sobering effect. If the campaign involves threats or incitement, call the police immediately; if it is libellous then your union may be able to help – we are actively lobbying the companies which host sites to take complaints about harassment more seriously, so that offending items can be removed quickly.
Prevention is better than cure, of course, and parents with a voice in school affairs will feel less need to shout online. Setting up legitimate and safe mechanisms for parental feedback will encourage those who are happy with the school, but naturally less proactive, to get involved. And the positive voices will counter-balance the small but inevitable minority (after all, 85 per cent of parents rate their child’s school good or outstanding). The good news is that inspection teams have to take account of robust data on parent perceptions, whatever the source.
We cannot take the consent of parents for granted but there is a solid basis of trust to work from. If we can explain the basis and rationale for our decisions, we probably begin with the benefit of the doubt.
Russell Hobby is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Visit www.naht.org.uk