Calling out the bullies.

About a year ago, Andrew Old published a blog warning about the efforts some supporters of “progressive” education would go to in order to close down debate. 

Social media has opened up the debate, and they do not like it. You may think your little blog or a few tweets won’t bother anybody, but if they see a chance to silence you, they will take it.

As the owner of this particular little blog (a couple of posts and a few thousand views in total), and a school governor who makes a point of not commenting on teaching methods, I was surprised to read about these tactics but didn’t see how it would affect me personally. To be honest, I didn’t – and still don’t – understand the nuances of this debate. 

Well, I got that wrong! In my very first post, I listed a group of teachers whose blogs I found interesting. Many of them write from a “traditional” viewpoint, although I wasn’t aware of this at the time. And so, following a few unsolicited warnings about the evilness of some traditional bloggers – mainly Andrew Old – to a particular gang of progressives I became part of the enemy blob. They pondered whether I was a “sock puppet” for a well-known blogger. One particularly ludicrous tweet suggested that we meet every week for a “cosy Friday night curry”, at which we presumably eat babies and kick puppies. I’m still naan the wiser.

It got nastier. One tweeter has used racist language against a prominent blogger, then continued what appeared to be a campaign of stalking and racist language across an entire 12 months. Like many others, I called this for what it was. I was happy to demand a meaningful apology for the victim. And I remain contemptuous of that person’s supporters, who have not called out her behaviour in any obvious way. Anti-racism, contrary to some people’s beliefs, does not contradict the Nolan Principles of standards in public life. Not even angry anti-racism.

This is in stark contrast to the torrents of bilious tweets which flood the alerts of anyone who tries to call out this hypocrisy. One person in particular is quick to cry of libel and harassment, before informing their sparring partner that they’re heading out that very moment to the police station; this tactic is used so often, the local bobby must be on their Christmas card list. This is all, apparently, in line with government advice. Except it is not, of course, because there’s a whole world of difference between a shouting match on Twitter and behaviour which is actually abusive, intimidating and threatening. Mistaking disagreement for harassment is not only misguided, egotistical and ludicrous, it detracts from the suffering of people who really do receive such threats. But the only intent here is to close down debate and frighten people with different views off Twitter and out of the debate altogether.

Here is how to deal with Twitter arguments in which no threats or abusive language are used. Note again: disagreement about teaching methods or a blog is not abuse. Threatening to come round someone’s house to kill them is. Maintain a sense of perspective. 

– walk away. Ignore it. Read a good book or go for a swim. 

– block the person. It’s hard to claim harassment when you keep an argument going (dressing it up as “refusing to be silenced” doesn’t wash. You’re not Malala Yousefzai). It’s hard to claim you feel threatened when you haven’t even blocked someone.

– if you felt the behaviour was unprofessional and the person is open about their links to a school, confidential routes exist. A discreet and calm discussion with the headteacher or chair of governors is all it takes; it should take place days after the incident, once your irritation has died down. Contact details will be on the school website. The message should be written neutrally and with full context, including any contribution you may have made to the situation. Carefully selected screenshots can be contradicted as evidence by simply looking on Twitter for the full thread.

I say this because one person with whom I have argued on Twitter chose, instead, to call the school office and headteacher on a weekly basis for two months, still threatening to call in the police and go to the media because of my supposedly disgraceful behaviour. Worst of all, this person knew the effect of they were doing, making references to wanting the principal to prioritise their complaint over improving the life chances of 350 “poor” children, and threatening to “drag the school through the mud”. This was not a dignified phone call asking for the headteacher to make up their own mind and be trusted to take appropriate action. This was the offline equivalent of endless Twitter hectoring. Ironically, our principal did also consider going to the police to make it stop.

As a governor, I volunteer my time to a school because I hope it does some good for the children. It can be difficult to fit the role in amongst a demanding day job and other interests. So I did consider quitting to bring this to an easy end, but it was made quite clear that nobody thought I’d done anything wrong, and both headteacher and chair made it clear that my contribution was valued and they were concerned that I might walk away. It must be far worse for teachers who have been targeted like this, as they may feel open to professional consequences.

I still use social media because I’ve learnt a lot from the sensible majority, which has made me a better governor. And I share the story above because Andrew Old is right. Teachers and governors alike, doing their best for children and confronting difficult issues on a daily basis, can and will be targeted through their schools simply for having opposing views to a vocal but ultimately nihilistic little gang of bullies. Worst of all, they are more than delighted to take it into the real world and make sustained efforts to disrupt children’s education in order to feel like they’ve “won” the argument. And I won’t stand for that any more than I do for racism.


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