Graphic images from 9/11 have long been the cause of controversy. Take for example the public backlash that followed the recent virtual reality app that puts users inside the World Trade Centre. Amongst other things, exposure to such images can affect the psychological and emotional stability of viewers. For instance, in a landmark paper David Phillips (1974) put forward the concept of ‘Werther effect’, which argued that the viewing of suicide leads to copycat suicides. However, after an English teacher at Heartlands Academy in Birmingham, showed 18 rated footage containing graphic images of human tragedy from 9/11 to a class of 11 year olds, I raised a concern only to find myself sacked 45 minutes later.
I raised the concern to my line manager and the head of my department at 8:30am on Wednesday 23rd September 2015. The head of department reassured me that I had done the right thing for raising the concern, and that there would be a formal investigation by speaking to the Head of the English department, and requesting a copy of the lesson plan from the teacher. Fourty-five minutes later I was called out from my first lesson and told that the school was no longer a place for me to work at, as I was uncomfortable with the curriculum. I was told that my contract was being terminated and that I needed to collect my belongings and leave the premises immediately. (Might I add here that I am a product of the very curriculum that I have been accused of being ‘uncomfortable’ with. I studied at a nearby Birmingham state school, and went on to study for my BA (Hons) at Magdalen College, Oxford University).
I was not given a disciplinary. I was not provided with a prior written notification for the meeting in which I was dismissed. I was not given the opportunity to bring someone into the meeting. The agency I secured the job through was unaware of the dismissal. Since the dismissal happened in the blink of an eye and I was not given the opportunity to respond, I wrote to the school despite my EduStaff consultant’s disapproval. In the email I expressed that I felt that my dismissal was an injustice and that the real problem – that 18 rated graphic footage was shown to 11 year olds – had not been resolved. I was shocked further when my consultant told me to forget about the ‘horrible experience’ and move on. He had put my details forward for a role at another local school. I insisted that if I had actually committed a serious offence, which gave grounds to being dismissed in such a way, I should never be allowed to work in another school again. He even went on to say that ‘people were let go from companies all of the time – my case was no different’ and refused to acknowledge that my concern was a valid child-safeguarding concern: “What safeguarding concern?” he asked me. As if the dismissal was not traumatizing enough, I was faced with my EduStaff consultant, justifying it. More than a month on, I still have not been provided a formal letter of my dismissal.
Today Labour revealed that over 17,000 children are in inadequate academy school than local authority schools. I can testify to this through my first hand experience. Heartlands Academy is an Ofsted rated ‘outsanding’ school and the viewing of 18 rated graphic footage was not the only child safeguarding concern that I had raised. I had worked with SEN (special educational needs) students at the school for seven working days, and dismissed on the eighth working day. On the morning of my second day at Heartlands, a child who said that he felt sick, was denied permission to go to the toilet (by the same teacher who played the 9/11 footage). Less than 30 seconds later, the poor child vomited all over his school uniform, and the classroom floor. A traumatic experience for your second week as a year 7 student, at a new secondary school. On the third day, I went into a Maths lesson not knowing I was dealing with an autistic child, which caused difficulties around behaviour management. On the fourth day, when I attempted to assist a child in a Maths lesson, the teacher mocked him in front of the class: “he can’t be bothered to do his work because he must have servants at home that do everything for him”. On the afternoon of the fourth day, I spoke with a senior member of the leadership team who was in charge of child safeguarding at the school with regards to my Masters research on the Trojan Horse Affair, which found that students experienced heightened levels of anxiety as a result of the turmoil caused. The member of staff’s response entailed “I actually hadn’t thought of the negative affect on the students.” The head of child safeguarding at an Ofsted ‘oustanding’ rated academy, did not think of the impact of the Trojan Horse Affair on students. Enough said.
I emailed Ofsted about my unfair dismissal. To my surprise their response letter was titled ‘no wider concerns’. This is an appalling conclusion from Ofsted given that they conducted inspections into E-ACT sponsored academy schools in 2014, of which one is Heartlands Academy. E-ACT was stripped off a third of their academies for which the Department for Education found new sponsors. I have written to Nicky Morgan twice, and have not had a response. I also emailed Simon Armitage asking him to comment on how he feels about his poem ‘Out of the Blue’ being taught in such a way, for which I was dismissed. His agent replied saying he is “unable to get involved”. I genuinely wanted to hear his thoughts, but now I suppose I’ll never find out.
I have now issued legal proceedings in the Employment Tribunal against Heartlands and EduStaff on four grounds: breach of contract, wrongful dismissal, whistleblowing, and discrimination. Under the whistleblowing laws, I made a protected disclosure regarding the health and safety of students, and yet I experienced detriment. I have to also ask the question, would I have experienced unfair dismissal had I been a white non-Muslim employee? The school denies all claims and says it will fight back.
My case fuels a spectrum of debates within the field of education such as those surrounding the PREVENT strategy, the robustness of OFSTED, and the effectiveness of academy schools, amongst others. As a nation we must ask ourselves: have we placed the responsibility of our children’s education into the hands of the right people?
On a more personal level, all my life I told myself that I could achieve anything I put my mind to, but sadly, I have lost faith in the system that promised me so much as a young girl from a BME background, that went to a state school in a disadvantaged area, was told that I would receive 5 rejections from UCAS from my sixth form careers advisor, but despite this, went on to study at Oxford. As a 23 year old recent grauduate, this was my first ever full-time permanent role, which I took on in order to finance my PhD studies (I was not one of the lucky 15% of PhD students to receive a scholarship). I may be the embodiment of the disadvantages experienced as a result of the intersection of race, religion, class, and gender, but I refuse to be the embodiment of silence.
I will move the mountains to acquire the justice I strongly feel I deserve.