Would you be a ‘whistle-blower’ or a ‘Secret Teacher’?

The Guardian newspaper has been running a series of popular articles by a ‘Secret Teacher’ revealing ‘what it’s really like to be a teacher’ in 21st century Britain. The articles have at times revealed some frank and surprising revelations. I suppose it’s one version of an open society.

The Care Quality Commission – the body responsible for guarding patient safety in places like care homes for the elderly – in a similar vein, has announced that its new inspection regime will include the possibility of using hidden cameras to ensure care staff are not abusing patients. Big Brother Watch – a pressure group monitoring the scope and extent of official surveillance of private behaviour – has weighed in, saying that where there is no reasonable cause for concern this is likely to infringe a patient’s right to dignity and privacy.

Over the last couple of years, some nurses have found themselves in front of disciplinary panels of their professional bodies for taking hidden cameras and secretly filming what has been going on in hospitals and care homes where they believed patients were getting a poor deal or even suffering abuse. They claim that their motivation was to bring to public attention patient neglect and abuse. Nevertheless, they filmed their patients without their knowledge or consent.

Uncovering wrongdoing, misconduct and professional incompetence is usually considered heroic.  ‘Whistle-blowers’ are people who after all, are putting their own professional reputation, career and livelihood at risk.

Should we feel any different about that if someone in authority (such as an inspection body) takes up that role?

If Ofsted were to announce it was intending to put cameras in to schools as part of standard inspection procedures or in schools where they had specific concerns, what would your professional response be?  (Actually, I’m a bit worried about giving them ideas here…!)

You may be surprised to learn that someone else has got there first…  Some years ago, a headteacher colleague of mine described to me his novel method for dealing with seriously disruptive behaviour by persistent offenders. He had, where he felt necessary, installed video cameras in classrooms to record and show the evidence of a child’s serious disruption to their parents. He claimed it was extremely effective in dealing with serious and persistently disruptive behaviour.

A couple of years ago a teacher in collaboration with a television production company did something similar. She filmed – secretly – the extremely disruptive behaviour of the children she taught and presented the evidence on television as ‘a matter of public interest and concern’; claiming that such behaviour was not only damaging to other children’s education but also to the ability of teachers to teach effectively.  She also claimed that schools colluded in keeping disciplinary issues ‘quiet’ and failed to address them assertively because high numbers of exclusions would result in poor Ofsted ratings.

Serious and persistent school indiscipline is a legitimate matter for public concern, but should teachers have the right to film it?  Are they doing something that many would argue is fundamentally damaging the relationship of trust with their clients?  In the case of the teacher and the television programme – was she also potentially damaging the reputation of colleagues, the school and the teaching profession?

Is filming clients without consent unethical, unprofessional or both?

Is a filming client with consent a breach of dignity and privacy?

And in whose interest is it that such a thing be done – the client’s, the public’s or the teacher’s?

What do you think?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in March 2014.


3 thoughts on “Would you be a ‘whistle-blower’ or a ‘Secret Teacher’?

  1. I was a whistleblower, as described in my book Chalkdust Memories.
    I never used cameras, however. There were times when I tried to insist that a camera accompany unscrupulous supervisors who were evaluating me, but I never succeeded. Absent the camera, they were free to misrepresent what was going on in my classroom in ways that were most deleterious to me.
    When I had seriously disturbed students, like the one who repeatedly threatened my life, I wish I’d had a camera. Instead, I would take copious notes, as soon as the incident occurred, to try to force some administrative action.

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