Head teachers warn against net abuse

One in five say they have been targeted by campaigns of vilification on social networking sites
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The Independent Online

One in five head teachers have suffered abuse on social networking sites, according to figures released yesterday. Now Britain's biggest head teachers' union is urging its members to call in the police in cases where violence is threatened.

Delegates to the National Association of Head Teachers' conference in Brighton have been warned that "groups outside the school's control" can campaign for the removal of a head teacher or against a particular head, teacher or pupil.

"Sometimes it is anonymous, so you don't know the source of the complaint," said Russell Hobby, the union's general secretary. "It is a growing issue. It can be something like a pupil saying: 'We don't like a particular teacher – let's get him or her'. It can seem trivial like 'we don't like what that teacher is wearing'. Then there is the occasional more serious incident, like someone saying 'this headteacher needs a good kicking'."

In two cases, schools have called in police to investigate campaigns against heads. "If there is a threat of violence, we would advise calling in the police," Mr Hobby said.

He added that a survey had shown that one in five heads had been the victims of campaigns against them.

"It can be parents, it can be pupils – ex-pupils is a common thing," he said. "Younger people are more likely to do this. Facebook will obviously be a bigger threat than Ofsted [the education standards watchdog] in years to come."

Delegates warned that – under new legislation – anonymous complaints from parents would be enough to trigger an Ofsted inspection. Mike Welsh, former president of the NAHT and head of Goddard Park primary school, Swindon, told of one staff member who had a fake social networking site set up in his name. "It took him six to eight weeks to get it down," he added. "In the meantime a great deal of inappropriate things were said in his name. Clearly, a lot of parents saw that."

Head teachers said they wanted the Government to draw up guidelines for tackling abuse on social networking sites. They say the incidents are indicative of the growing levels of violence they face in their work.

Last week they published a separate survey showing that one in 10 head teachers had been assaulted by a parent or carer during the past five years. In one case a chair was thrown at a head teacher in his study and in another, the word "bitch" was scrawled on a head teacher's car.

Heads say the Government's oft-repeated mantra of "parent power" has led parents to think they have more control over the way their child's school is run – especially in cases where a child is excluded.

Meanwhile, Chris Harrison, newly appointed president of the NAHT, has hit out at bureaucrats "gorging themselves on public funding".

He cited the example of Labour's Building Schools for the Future programme and Public Finance Initiative under which every school would have been refurbished at cost of about £50 billion. A government review estimated a third of the cost had been wasted on consultancy processes.

"We now know it is not just the bankers who have been in the trough and it wan't our members who were the architects of this country's financial mess," Mr Harrison said.

A new tests boycott?

Headteachers warned yesterday that they may boycott national curriculum tests in English and maths for 600,000 11-year-olds again next year.

Leaders of the National Association of Head Teachers ended their boycott when the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced a review of the tests in the autumn. That means that this year's tests – due to be sat later this month – will be free from disruption. However, heads will today debate a call for further action if the review fails to deliver the changes they want.

Steve Iredale, head of Athersley South primary school in Barnsley, who will propose the motion, said the heads wanted to see a substantial shift away from testing to trusting teachers to assess their own pupils.

Last year, one in four schools had to cancel the tests because of a joint boycott by the NAHT and the National Union of Teachers.

The vote on the motion – together with an emergency motion warning of strike action over a government threat to worsen teachers' pensions – will be taken before Mr Gove addresses the conference.

Meanwhile, tougher measures to dismiss incompetent teachers were demanded by heads last night.

Paul Gosling, head of Exeter Road primary school in Devon, suggested there should be a new target of completing procedures within six to nine months.

Richard Garner