Exit Stage Left Part Nine
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The ‘Sit Down’ - Meeting the Governors
It was a Saturday morning when the letter arrived. I felt sick. Despite my letter to the Chair of Governors clearly outlining my complaint and asking for the intervention of the governing body, I received a letter which basically asked: Are you sure? Because this sort of thing just isn't done. I'm paraphrasing, of course. I showed the letter to a couple of people. They also felt that it contained a veiled threat.. Because I am unable to locate the exact sentence which contains the warning, There is a copy of the letter for your perusal at the bottom of this blog post. I’d be interested to know your thoughts. In my original letter, I clearly asked for the governors of the school to now hear the complaint.
This event marks the low point for me. Exhausted by the game playing, and enraged by the audacity of this letter, I am now thoroughly sick of the school. I have reached my limit. It means having to write a reply to this letter at a point when I have very little energy or patience left. They are now well and truly ‘taking the piss’ - as we say in the very non-ballet language of the vernacular. I am so angered by this time wasting that I write a polite, but direct response to the Chair of Governors and deliver it by hand. Not an ideal way to be spending my Saturday afternoon, but I do not want another day’s delay.
A date is set for the hearing. It is not ideal for me, as I am working away and will be arriving back at home the day before the arranged date. But I agree as it just falls inside the permitted time frame for a complaint as specified in the school’s own complaint procedure. A location is arranged, but I do not hear anything else about the exact details of the meeting. The day before the meeting arrives and I am travelling back home. I check my email on arrival at the airport. It is now late afternoon. There is nothing from the ballet school about the following day’s proceedings.
I arrive home. It is now early evening, and an email arrives. The meeting with the governors has had to be cancelled. No explanation is offered. The person at the school organising this part of our complaint asks me to phone her first thing in the morning. My first words to her the following day are: is this some kind of joke?
The school’s lawyers have stopped the meeting from happening. The governor responsible for safe-guarding has been advised that she is not to attend. She is no longer impartial. Without my knowledge, she is already implicated in our complaint as - in connection with a completely different safe-guarding issue - she has already been sent the details of our complaint. Therefore, they do not have a quorate number of impartial governors who are willing or able to sit on our complaint panel. I am beyond astonished at this incompetence. This is clearly a ballet school run by characters from an Ealing Comedy, or characters from the Carry On Films, or the Chuckle Brothers, or any other bumbling clowns you care to imagine.
I contact the LADO and explain what has happened. She is just as astonished as me and very concerned that we are to have a panel which does not include a child safe-guarding expert because their only governor trained above ‘level 2’ has been legally prohibited from attending. For the first time I hear exasperation in this person’s voice. She agrees with me that it is a terrible situation, but confesses that there is nothing that anyone can do. Our child has now been away from school for months. We are still paying school fees, but sending him to different ballet classes at our own cost, and I am teaching him the academic subjects myself. No one at the school seems to be in any hurry to resolve this situation. They have been incapable of carrying out their own procedures in the time frame described in their own policy documents. And the situation is about to get even worse.
In the time that it takes them to organise the new hearing, a frantic exchange of emails flies between me and the school. This is owing to the pack of documents that they have issued to the original governors - one of whom no longer has anything to do with the process, but she has received these confidential documents anyway. These documents are full of errors, omissions and suppositions. Documents have been reordered to make a nonsense of the narrative; my responses have been included, but not the emails or letters that I am responding to; there are comments made about our son by various members of staff who have nothing to do with our complaint. The school’s notes from various meetings are incomplete, and my additions and corrections to their highly unreliable note-taking have been left out. The overall effect of this documentation is that I look like a petty helicopter parent with a grudge rather than someone fighting against institutional bullying. With the advice of the ICO (Information Commissioners Office), I have all these packs returned to the Ballet School and pulped with a written guarantee from the school that this has indeed happened.
It takes considerable effort to get the next information pack that is sent out to reflect the case accurately. I am made to ask and plead for every amendment that I need. The pattern becomes monotonous: I ask for a change; they refuse. They then clearly consult their lawyers; and the change is made anyway. I seem to remember three drafts of the documentation being produced before a final one is distributed. On some pages there are more black lines redacting content than there are of lines of typing. The final document still contains the unexplained counter-allegation about our son confiding in the Ballet Teacher - despite me asking at least fifteen times for it to be explained or removed; and the pack discloses all our personal information: address, phone numbers and email addresses. How ironic that after everything they have done; the one concrete offence that I can prove they have committed is breaking the data protection act.
In the meantime, they have also rewritten my complaint: an attempt to condense the complaint into a précis trivialises it through inaccuracies, misunderstandings and badly written English. Rewriting this document takes me two hours. It would have been quicker to write it from the beginning. I am furious.
If you ever find yourself in this position, I would recommend escalating the complaint as quickly as possible so that you get to a meeting with the governors. I found them to be approachable, civil, relatively intelligent. But most importantly, I found them to be willing to listen. Being listened to after such a long and complicated dispute provided its own form of healing.
The meeting began tempestuously. This sort of meeting is regulated by government requirements and in my opinion these were not being met. First, they kept referring to this meeting as ‘informal’ in their letters and emails. The government regulations clearly state that a meeting with the governors occurs when all ‘informal’ routes have been exhausted. Eventually they conceded that it was a formal meeting. There were microphones everywhere and a woman sitting behind a bank of screens transcribing every word. It would have been a strange set up for an informal meeting - also, as I pointed out to them, I had ironed a shirt and put on a tie; not something I would do for something informal.. They were also insisting on keeping the various parties in the dispute separate - we were to be interviewed separately - something that I considered completely counterproductive. I produced the government rules, and told them that they were not being followed. I was sent out of the room while they deliberated. I returned to be told that the regulations were a matter of interpretation, and they would be continuing with separate meetings.
I then wanted to examine the impartiality of member of the panel who was not a governor. It turned out that he received free tickets to performances on several occasions throughout the year, so I questioned how impartial he really was. I have since looked him up and on one website he claims that he does indeed have governance over the school, as he is a counsel member of a related organisation. Finally I wanted to know who was responsible for the puerile reduction of my complaint - ridden with errors - that I had spent so long correcting. The person chairing the meeting (not the Chair of Governors, who is clearly unable to get her hands dirty) admitted that it she had done it, and it was an attempt to make the complaint clearer. She conceded that now, having seen my revisions, I might see it as an attempt to subvert the process, and she understood how angry it must have made me. She assured me again that this had not been her intention.
I had a choice at this point. I could have shut the process down with just reason, but how would this benefit our son? I decided that it was better to go through with the process even though I felt that it was being severely mismanaged. So I voiced my concern that we didn’t have a safe-guarding expert on the panel - something the LADO described as deeply worrying - and agreed to continue.
The event was largely uneventful. It was exhausting for all, and at times almost comical. I would be asked questions and then leave the room while the director of the school and his staff member responsible for safe-guarding would then come in and face the panel. From reading the transcript I was sent, I think I can assume that they didn’t behave particularly well: evasive, truculent, indignant. They then had to go and sit in their room - separate from mine - while the panel explained to me what they had said. It would have saved so much time if we had just been in the same room having the same conversation, rather than - like coquettish lovers in the nineteenth century - using the governing body of a ballet school as our go-between. I showed my anger only once. The director of the school was insisting that the dispute was about our son’s right to stay at the school. This had been his tactic on several occasions - to try and divert the argument from being about a child recovering from sickness experiencing abuse from teachers by making it appear as if we are fighting for his right to remain - an odd thing to try bearing in mind that he hadn’t actually ever failed an assessment or ever been asked to leave. My anger was caused by the time being wasted. If the director and I had been in the same room together, this hopeless displacement activity would have been avoided.
He refused to answer any questions about the counter- allegation, as he believed it had been redacted from the documents. So this accusation remains unresolved even today.
I am afraid that I one point I laughed openly. The governing body passed on the director’s demand - in all seriousness - that if our son was to return to school, I would have to start ‘behaving myself’. By the end of the discussion they agreed, despite themselves, that this was a preposterous request as I had done absolutely nothing wrong. I told them that if fighting for the rights of children meant that I was not behaving myself, then I would definitely not be amending my behaviour.
The most mystifying thing for me was their lack of regard for some evidence that I had brought in. I brought in an email from the LADO confirming that the safe-guarding lead had acted on a complaint without their authority. She had responded to the twerking and ‘you are sexy’ complaints by reporting that no agency intervention was necessary, but she had only spoken to the LADO about it after making this statement. The LADO had emailed me confirming this to be the case. I produced the documents. The complaint panel remained disinterested. This still amazes me. I bring in empirical proof of child safe-guarding malpractice and they pretend that I’ve become invisible.
At the end of the meeting something very odd happened. The panel congratulated me. First the chair of the meeting congratulated me on the way I had presented my case - my paperwork was extensive: I’d prepared a time line cross-referenced with proof of the events referenced. She asked if I had ever considered working in the legal profession! I might have confused this remark with an invitation - was she considering offering me a job? Then the 'independent' panel member congratulated me too ... this time on my conduct: at always remaining so polite and calm. I am assuming that this is in juxtaposition with the way their own staff behaved. He then quipped that as there was so much paperwork that I might like to consider writing a book! I retorted that I’d need to get it past the lawyers. He then went red and whispered that he was perhaps joking. The entire process lasted over six hours.
That evening we were meeting friends for pizza. I felt a shadow of my former self - hollow and drained. My pizza arrived with the wrong topping and cold. I ate it anyway. Everyone commented on how unlike me it was not to complain. I had just had enough complaining for one day.
Before he went to bed, our son said to me, ‘Thank you, Daddy for everything that you have done for me, today.’
No child should ever have to thank their parent for defending them in the face of institutional bullying. My heart broke.
Next time is the final ‘Exit Stage Left’ - so I’ll tie up all the loose ends and reveal some very big surprises.