Sunday, September 27, 2009

Confidentiality Trumps Transparency-Minette Marrin

Occasionally a writer sees a nail and hits it, full thwack on the head, Minette Marrin did it with this article in the Sunday Times:

The curious case of the dinner lady of Great Tey stands for everything that is worst about government in this country today. It demonstrates, in its small way, the disastrous rule of muddled dishonesty to which we are now subject, and how far-reaching are the consequences of the perversion of language we have seen for many years in all government agencies.

The Great Tey story has aroused a frenzy of indignation, understandably enough. Imagine that you as a parent were to discover at an after-school club that your seven-year-old daughter has been horribly bullied at school. Imagine that you find out about it only by accident, because a woman volunteer at the club, who is also a school dinner lady, happens to ask you how the child is feeling, on the assumption that you, the parents, know all about the incident.

Imagine that until that moment you had no idea anything serious had happened. The school has simply informed you of a “skipping rope accident”, and your daughter has said little, but the dinner lady now tells you your child was tied to a fence and whipped by older boys: she saw it herself, and went to the little girl’s rescue.

Then imagine that soon the friendly dinner lady is suspended from her job for breach of pupil confidentiality, and finally, at the age of 60, she is sacked. The school and its governors, including the local vicar, are silent. They merely hide behind repetitions of the word “confidentiality”.

If such a thing happened to my child and to the dinner lady who came to her rescue, I would be tempted to tie up the headmistress and the vicar myself and whip them senseless with a copy of Ofsted’s Safeguarding Children review 2008.

However, it is possible that this is not quite what happened in Great Tey, Essex. Such stories are not usually as simple as reports make them seem and small villages are often cesspits of intrigue. However, the school and its governors do not deny the dinner lady’s allegations. The fact that they haven’t is telling. If her story is untrue, the school would have had absolutely nothing to lose by saying so. In doing so it would have done much to reassure the parents and other children, instead of leaving the community in a limbo of demoralising gossip.

For years Labour has been promising us a new order of openness, transparency, accountability, consultation, empowerment and inclusion. But what do we get, in this case and countless others like it? The precise opposite. Transparency, accountability, consultation and empowerment do not exactly square, policywise, with shooting the messenger, as here.

The awful joke is that in the case of Great Tey all this is being justified by another big word — confidentiality. Yet this too has been turned into a weasel word — a word that has been almost drained of meaning. This government has neither the slightest interest in — nor perhaps the slightest understanding of — confidentiality.

How otherwise could it have imposed the astonishing children’s database, logging countless intimate details and anecdotes about every child onto sites where thousands of people can access them legally and countless others can hack into them? How otherwise could it seriously propose to have a unified NHS information base, with exactly the same grave threats to confidentiality? How else could it force innocent people to leave their DNA profiles on a police database without redress? How else could it have turned us into the most watched society in Europe? Confidentiality is something that Labour has been relentlessly destroying, ever since it came to power, in the interest of ever-greater control.

Yet in Great Tey, when a state-run school faces serious allegations that cry out for transparency and accountability, confidentiality suddenly becomes trumps. (The public may demand to know what happened to all the anti-bullying guidelines and the Keeping Children Safe recommendations that bureaucrats have been so busily imposing on all schools, but too bad.) The head teacher can, apparently, use “confidentiality” to keep things dark.

There is a great deal to be said in favour of confidentiality, of course, particularly where young children are concerned. But here it seems to apply in an odd way. According to the school, the dinner lady broke her duty of pupil confidentiality. Presumably this means she shouldn’t have talked about the bullying out of school. Rather than talk to the child’s own parents, as a teaching union trusty explained on BBC Radio 4, she should have followed proper procedures. That is daft, inhuman and unrealistic: real life in a real, close-knit community of responsible adults isn’t and can’t be and shouldn’t be like that.

In any case, there is no overriding principle in law that whatever happens in school must stay in school. Other principles may apply, such as the principle of public interest, or a duty of care. As for relying on “proper procedures”, it seems that the dinner lady may have had good reason to fear they were already being ignored by the school, in an attempt to cover up the whipping.

Leaving aside any question of the law, it is obvious that cases like this should be sorted out locally and openly, without excluding the proper interest of the wider community. If Carol Hill, a dinner lady of many years’ service, was excessively interfering or indiscreet, a reprimand would have been more than enough and would have been a great deal harsher than the punishment many incompetent teachers receive. It’s odd that it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to sack a useless teacher for good reason, yet it is easy to sack a good dinner lady for reasons most people would question.

That’s what is striking about this case. It seems daft to most people, as do many other gross inconsistencies and follies in the public sector. Think of the political survival of Baroness Scotland. And that’s because all public services and government agencies are now firmly in the grip of a mindset in which words mean what new Labour at the time chooses them to mean.

Befuddled by jargon, frightened by diktats, vaguely aware of a requirement to square circles and believe several impossible things at once, overburdened by unachievable targets — put an end to bullying in schools but never exclude bullies, for example — public servants are losing their common sense, in a toxic combination of fear and folly.

This corruption of sense leads directly to the desperate silliness of the case of the dinner lady of Great Tey, and to a much wider corruption as well.

I've long thought that 'confidentiality' has been used to counter openness and honesty, as Minette Marrin says, but could never put it as eloquently as Minette Marrin. Which is why she writes for The Times, and I blog.

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