The last time I mentioned this subject was in middle of May when I noted that Sir Alan Davies, head of Copland Community College, north London, who was being asked by The Guardian why he had suspended three members of staff after they revealed his £80,000 bonus on top of a £100,000 salary was himself among a number of people suspended pending inquiries into the school’s financial management.
In today’s Education section of The Guardian there is a profile of Hank Roberts, the geography teacher and union activist who blew the whistle on Davies.
The part which deals with Roberts went about exposing Davies is instructive.
The legislation encourages whistleblowers to go to the authorities, not to the press and the public. But his years of union activity, Roberts says, have taught him that “left to themselves, the authorities will cover these things up”. So he went to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) conference at Easter and announced Davies’s bonuses from the platform, which gave rise to stories in the national press.
“I knew Alan Davies would find it hard to face me at the first staff meeting of the following term,” he says. “But I had made it very hard for him to suspend me.”
Instead, Davies did the last thing Roberts expected. The Friday before the school term began, Davies suspended him for something else.
A letter had been sent opposing trust school status from the three union representatives at the school. Roberts’s wife, Jean, dispatched the letter without knowing that it had not yet been seen by one of the three, the ATL representative. This, says Roberts, was a genuine error, and made little difference because the ATL representative agreed with the letter, which was in line with her union’s policy. But Davies suspended Roberts, and two other union reps.
Roberts’s main worry was that the authorities might not act fast enough. So he sent off a second dossier containing more allegations, which are now being investigated, together with a letter explaining his fears:
“You may already know that I have … been suspended on a trumped-up charge. I know that long-term this simple act of retribution and victimisation will be exposed. However, in the meantime, the very governors who authorised, and the headteacher who accepted, these unlawful bonuses may dismiss me. Protection of whistleblowers should be such that they are protected against trumped-up charges and disciplinary action taken on that basis.”
Very soon, Davies was suspended, along with his deputy, Richard Evans, and the school bursar, Columbus Udokoro.
Philip O’Hear, principal of Capital City academy, has now become acting head, spending four days a week at Copland.
The day after Davies was suspended, Roberts was given permission by O’Hear to go into the school for a union meeting. Roberts can still feel the glow of the reception he got that day. He is emotional as he tells me: “It was astounding, teachers and pupils standing and cheering. That was a good moment.” The next day, at a meeting with O’Hear, all charges against Roberts were dropped.
Roberts has long been a union activist and has never been afraid to stand up to authority. A fierce opponent of academies, last year he was among protesters who camped out on the site of a proposed academy in Brent to stop the construction work. But he accepts that not everyone is a born activist or whistleblower. To any teacher faced with a decision about challenging the powers that be, his advice is: “If they have evidence, they should blow the whistle, that’s the right and proper thing to do. Under the legislation, if they do it in good faith, they are protected. There is also extra protection for union representatives, and they should keep their union informed.”
Right now, Roberts is pleased with himself. He hopes the investigation will lead to real questions being asked about what he calls the “bonus culture” in schools. Also, he believes good will come of it at Copland. “One year’s bonus for Sir Alan is equivalent to the textbook budget, and the school is very dilapidated.”
He hopes he has made school privatisation harder to justify, for in a trust school or an academy it would have been almost impossible to stop the Copland bonuses.
Perhaps, says Roberts, we will start to focus on classroom teachers. “No one ever said: I did well in life because the head managed the school well. They talk of inspirational teachers. These are the people who change lives.”
This reader cannot help but feel that Roberts was probably lucky to be vindicated in the long run, but can’t help but wonder just how many in similar situations as he found himself – or, more accurately, put himself – are quite so lucky.