A long newsy letter arrived in the RPS household today from an old friend. She’s not a person for the internet favouring instead the old-fashioned virtues of a card, and envelope and a stamp. She’s that sort of person. Solid, conscientious and thoroughly decent. She was, until recently, a public servant.
The news of her job change surprised us. She had worked in the reception class of a small rural school as a teaching assistant. A job she loved. And that’s where we met. Mrs RPS and she were colleagues and then friends before we moved away.
Our friend explained that she had left the classroom because she had finally lost patience with being shouted at by the staff member she was working for. Summoned to see the Headteacher the next day she was told that she hadn’t been pulling her weight for ages and wasn’t up to the job.
Surprised and upset at this news and with her confidence shot to pieces our friend told us she felt she had to resign. She is hoping to find cleaning work.
Our friend is an easy-going and unsophisticated person. She’s diffident and lacks self-confidence. She loves her family and she loved working with the children in school. She is now jobless and worried. Her husband is a driver and has been in and out of work over the last few years.
The more I re-read her card and thought about her story the more perplexed I got. I thought about her virtues and identified one more that probably explains her current predicament. She’s a soft target.
Without trying too hard there are obvious flaws in the school’s processes. Did the shouting behaviour ever get picked up and addressed? If not why not? Was it bullying? Was the meeting with the Head part of a disciplinary process? If it was was this drawn to our friend’s notice? Was she given the chance to be accompanied? Was a formal record kept of the meeting? Had any of her ‘failings’ been identified and discussed with her before? Had she been given the chance to remedy any performance issues? What other feedback on her performance was available and acted on? (A recent Ofsted raised no issues with her performance.)
Knowing the personalities involved this whiffs a little to me of an expedient use of a ‘one-off’ incident to get some cost out of the school budget.
Now we’re trying to help our friend. It hadn’t occurred to her that anyone other than her was in the wrong. She’s that type of person.
But this episode set me thinking about all the other public sector managers out there who will be under pressure and face all sorts of temptations to be ‘macho’. Losing staff by some means or other is going to be a major part of meeting the budget constraints that have now been set.
The trouble with getting this stuff wrong is not only that it is unjust. It can also be costly. The public purse can ill-afford lots of constructive dismissal claims. Sadly, for all of us, there will be some ill-advised (usually unadvised) managers who will get these decisions wrong.