We had the most extraordinary letter home from school yesterday, a whole side of A4 from the Chair of Governors and the Head Teacher telling us how we should comport ourselves on social media and informing us of the law regarding malicious communications…
“….As a school, we encourage parents to support us with the education and wellbeing of their children. Parents who have concerns about their child’s education have established procedures to discuss these in school. As a community we should all frown upon the use of social networking sites to criticise and make unsubstantiated comments about the school or any members of staff. We ask that parents are mindful of this when using social media. Current laws such as the 1988 Malicious Communications Act, 1997 Protection From Harassment Act and 2003 Communication Act all can be used to protect people from malicious and threatening posts on the net, and unfortunately there have been instances when schools have had to resort to having to send out legal letters from solicitors to parents about unsubstantiated and damaging comments made on social network sites…”
– good grief I thought, have there been death threats towards staff at our school? Surely this can’t just be about some frustrated/angry/ parent sniping on facebook? Unaware of any overt maliciousness aimed at school staff other than the usual after-school playground chatter, I spoke to one of the Parent Governors at school this morning. What, I wondered, could have provoked such a heavy handed missive? It was, it seems, about a stream of colourful invective on facebook aimed at the school.
So, what’s your problem I hear you say. Well it seems to me that social media or not, if a parent is prone to de-crying their child’s school in public they’ll do this one way or another, a hard-line letter is not dealing with the problem itself and indeed, simply shows the school is as guilty of intolerance itself and also has communication issues. It implies ‘I don’t like being criticised, and rather than dealing with this on a human level over a cup of tea and cake, where I listen to you tell me why you feel so frustrated by what we are or aren’t doing and try to help you manage your expectations of us, instead I’m going to flex my collective muscles and let, not just you, but everybody else know I am not to be treated in such a way’. It is a bullish response to bullish behaviour.
Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.
There is plenty of colourful language about in our daily lives; American films abound with it. It is a tool for people who don’t have a better grasp of language, or who express their frustration or their anger by using less considered language as a pressure valve for an emotional or distressed state. Not everyone is able to talk coherently about the issues and challenges they face in life. Being a parent can be deeply challenging and not everyone is kind, sensitive and selfless. We are human, we are imperfect, we are all different. It isn’t right to demean teachers or other parents or the school your child attends, but if your child’s school is failing to successfully communicate its policies and practice you may well feel the need to criticise. As a responsible educational establishment I would hope a school would recognise this and either ignore it for what it is, petty griping, or try to tackle the underlying problem and ask themselves – are WE communicating enough, are WE communicating effectively? Are the usual channels for parents to air grievances working effectively?
We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. ~John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859
A parents gripes published via social media isn’t anonymous ‘trolling’. It’s a symptom of a wider problem, and a savvy school who has attempted the tried and tested tea and cake method, could consider engaging other ‘happier’ parents to lessen the impact. I understand how distressing vitriolic and abusive language can be and whilst I am not suggesting it should be tolerated directly, if a school which has no social media output and is therefore experiencing this invective second-hand can’t do better than issuing a generic veiled threat and using a mallet to crack a nut then… what hope is there of building a relationship of trust and openness within the rest of the school community?
What happened to ‘Education, education, education?…’ It died it seemed and now ‘Nanny’ is here to tell us all how to behave. It is so much easier than all that messing about with listening, understanding and embracing more than one point of view. Once everyone realises it’s Nanny’s way or the high way mums and dads will be soon be found mindlessly mowing their front lawns with a glassy eyed smile on their faces and ‘Nanny’ at least, will be happy. Meanwhile, I have to hope that I’m not contravening some recent law change and wont shortly be receiving a letter….
If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter