Thursday, February 20, 2014

No reply from Nigel yet!

I do appreciate Nigel Farage has probably had a busy week what with elections and all but sadly I haven't had a response to my open letter.

Meanwhile, here is a very nice letter - not to me but to the good people of Merton written by Councillor Jeff Hanna, published in the Wimbledon Guardian

Letter to the Editor: Merton teacher should be allowed to tweet as much as she wants

May I add my voice to the condemnation of UKIP Councillor Richard Hilton’s complaint against Jackie Schneider for her relatively innocuous tweets.
Coun Hilton may or may not like what Ms Schneider tweets, but for him to make them a matter of formal complaint to the two Merton schools where she teaches undermines the principle of free speech for which this country is rightly renowned, and is an abuse of his position as a councillor.
It is longer than I care to remember that I first became involved in local politics, whilst a teacher employed in Merton.
The then Conservative Secretary of State for Education had just confirmed that teachers should not be politically restricted.
I remain grateful for that instance of common sense, giving me the freedom to criticise much else that the Conservatives have done in the intervening years.
Whilst Ms Schneider is not herself politically active in that sense, her contributions enrich debate on all sorts of subjects, from UKIP narrow-mindedness to the rather more important happenings on the Archers.

She, and all of Merton’s teachers and all the staff employed in our schools, deserve reassurance that they will not be taken to task for participating in public debate, because of vexatious complaints from a bully-boy UKIP councillor.
Having asked the Director of Children’s Services to keep me informed on how the complaint was being dealt with, I was delighted to be told that Ms Schneider has sensibly been informed by both schools that neither will be taking any action.
Ms Schneider may tweet to her heart’s content and Coun Hilton may take a running jump.

Finally, whilst writing, may I express my appreciation for the dedication and commitment of the staff in all our schools, who are achieving ever better results for our children, and whose successes were rightly celebrated by the cross-party Merton committee that I have the honour to chair, at its February meeting.
Related links

Councillor Jeff Hanna;  Chairman of the Children and Young People Scrutiny Panel, London Borough of Merton

I am very grateful to the councillor for stating his views publicly.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Open letter to Nigel Farage - Free speech for teachers?

Dear Nigel,

I have been a teacher for 24 years and earlier this month, for the first time ever, someone complained about me. The complaint did not come from a child or parent. It wasnt made by a colleague or a manager. It was made by a local UKIP politician, Councillor Richard Hilton, with whom I had been arguing at a public meeting.

I believe that the complaint, which has since been dismissed, was a cynical attempt to suppress my free speech, using the council complaints process to try to bully me into silence. And like they say, you have to stand up to bullies. So I'm going to tell the story here, in the hope that by exposing Councillor Hilton's nasty behaviour it will make it harder for him to bully others in future.

I did not seek a fight with the UKIP councillor. UKIP decided to hold a local public meeting at the end of my road and put a leaflet through my letterbox inviting me to it. I am not a supporter of UKIP and am deeply worried about some of the arguments I have heard them make against immigrants. I decided therefore it was important to go along and listen to their views for myself. I reasoned that it was likely some of my neighbours would go along and I wanted to be able to put an alternative view if UKIP speakers did attempt to scapegoat immigrant groups. 

When I arrived there was a lone person outside the hall handing out leaflets opposing UKIP views and about 50 people inside.

I took a seat and listened to the speakers. I am an avid user of twitter so decided that I would live tweet the proceedings. (I have collected all my tweets from the meeting and put them here).

The first speaker kicked off with a joke about the lone protestor. He held up the leaflet and asked the audience to note that there was no name or organisation on it. He said this showed that people who attacked UKIP were cowardly and anonymous - scared to speak out under their own name, perhaps because they were extremists or outsiders.

I listened politely to all the speakers whilst tweeting a selection of their comments and my own observations. For example, early on in the meeting one of the UKIP speakers expressed outrage at  the amount of money spent on translation services by Merton council, to approving noises from the audience. I tweeted: "58 white people in a UKIP meeting complaining about costs of translation services to the council.

When the chair asked for questions from the floor I put my hand up to speak. I began by introducing myself by name. Given the speaker's earlier characterisation of UKIP critics I wanted to point out that, far from being an outsider, I was indeed very local having grown up in Mitcham, was married to someone from the area and lived just down the road. My children went to the local state schools and I have taught for the last 24 years in primary schools in the borough. I said very specifically that I wasn't speaking on behalf of anyone else, but was expressing my personal views.

I explained that, like them, I was frustrated by the lack of housing and jobs but, unlike them, I did not believe that blaming the poorest and most vulnerable in our society such as refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants was the answer. I suggested that it would be more effective to campaign to build more social housing and to stop big companies taking advantage of benefit claimants forced to work for nothing. I asked why UKIP wanted the NHS to be privatised when many of us in the room were working to save our local hospital, St Helier. I asked why they were in favour of tax cuts for the richest and why they didn't want to make companies such as Amazon and Starbucks pay their fair share of taxes. I finished by making a plea for a tolerant, multicultural society and said that at school everyone worked together really well.

As you can imagine this was not popular with the panel of UKIP speakers or some sections of the audience and I was shouted at. However this was all quite well mannered and no more lively than an average edition of BBC Question Time.

In response to my support for a harmonious multicultural society, Richard Hilton listed crimes that he saidAsian" men committed such as honour killings and sexual grooming of children. I called out what about Jimmy Saville?to show the lunacy of trying to paint child abuse as the problem of any one racial group.

One of the speakers blamed recent immigration for the pressure on school places and again I pointed out that the council had sold off at least 3 schools in the last 15 years.

A number of people became very agitated about the supposed dangers posed by groups of immigrants and I was horrified to hear UKIP MEP Gerald Batten describe recent Roma and Bulgarian immigrants as "alcoholics, drug addicts, vagrants", to cheers from the audience.

I tweeted "imagine being in a room with 50 UKIP supporters foaming at the mouth about immigration #mylot".

As the meeting progressed Hilton tweeted me directly to ask why I "defended honour killings". I replied that I did not and that I wouldnt even dignify the crime as honourkillings as there was no honour in murder.

At the end of the meeting UKIP Councillor Suzanne Evans summed up. She publicly thanked me by name for coming along as it had allowed them to explain their positions and to show that they were happy to take part in democratic debate (quite ironic as it later turned out).

I didnt rush off at the end of the meeting. I spoke to a couple of UKIP sympathisers who were keen to share their views and again I was thanked for coming along.

Richard Hilton, however, did not take the opportunity to challenge my views face to face. Instead, after the meeting he complained about me to my employer, Merton Council - sending a barrage of emails to senior council executives - and to the local newspaper, the Wimbledon Guardian.

The first line of attack was for Hilton to declare that my tweet:

"58 white people at a UKIP meeting complaining about the cost of translation services"

was offensive because the colour of people in the room was irrelevant. But he didn't leave it there - he said that, because I mentioned skin colour, I must have "the politics of the BNP". An offensive, if ludicrous, claim which he repeated on twitter and to the local press.

More outrageously, Hilton said I was unfit to be a teacher because, he claimed, I could not be trusted to deal with child protection issues. His justification? The fact that I responded to Hilton's attempts to smear Asian men as perpetrators of "honour killings" and child grooming by shouting out "what about Jimmy Saville?". I had tweeted:

"Rather proud of my "Jimmy Saville" heckle as councillor is moaning about honour killings".

It is outrageous that Hilton used my comments out of context to make serious allegations about my fitness to be a teacher. Child protection really is a serious matter, and complaints on this subject should certainly not be raised spuriously, as ammunition to hit out at someone you disagree with.

It was irritating the next day to be taken away from my lesson preparation to discuss this with my headteacher, but it was no big deal. The complaints were clearly ludicrous and, after an investigation, it was clear that nothing I had done was contentious. But of course the school had to follow the correct complaints procedure so it did take up quite a bit of time.

It was slightly alarming to be featured in the local paper under the headline "Primary teacher accused of sending offensive tweets" (not least because of the truly scary picture the paper found of me to use!) However any fears I had that people might believe Hilton's wild accusations were soon allayed by the many, many messages of support I received.

So why am I bothering to write about the whole affair it in such great detail? Because I believe that Councillor Hilton's bullying behaviour threatens free speech and could put off teachers and other council employees from getting involved in local politics.

Very few people take an an active part in local democracy apart from professional politicians. I have spent lots of time persuading colleagues and neighbours to get involved in local issues. We built a brilliant parent network that helped transform school meals in the borough. And neighbours came together to defend a playing field which we stopped the council from selling off. In both cases the campaigns were initially vigorously opposed by groups of Councillors.

I can just imagine the impact on these grass roots, community activities if those involved feared that expressing their views and standing up to Councillors could lead to them being attacked personally, at work and in the press.

I dont know if this is official UKIP policy but it is incredibly worrying if political parties want to shut down discussion in this way.

I love being a teacher and I understand that this brings certain responsibilities. But that doesnt mean I can't express my views publicly on matters that I care about, as long as they are not offensive or illegal or breach a confidentiality. I know that lots of teachers agonise about using social media and some choose to be anonymous. I don't choose to be anonymous. 

I dont agree with Councillor Hiltons politics and I abhor some of the things he has said about immigrants. But I have not run to his bosses or shareholders at British Telecom to complain about him.

However I do think his bullying attacks on me fall short of the behaviour I expect from a councillor. And it seems he has a track record here: several other Merton Councillors, from more than one political party, have privately told me that they too have been on the receiving end of his bullying.

This is not a complaint about UKIP. I completely support their right to hold public meetings as long as they remain within the law. You have every right to challenge my views both in person and on Twitter. 

However, I believe that the complaints Councillor Hilton made against me were malicious and deliberately intended to shut me up. Worse still, they could also put off others from speaking out. That is why I am speaking out - free speech is precious and we should guard it well.

 I have thought long and hard about posting this. It would be easier to simply bury my head and hope that Councillor Hilton leaves me alone in the future. I can't do that though. I think it is important to speak out. It is entirely up to you Nigel how you deal with Councillor Hilton but I know democracy will never flourish when people like me who speak "inconvenient truths" are bullied.


Jackie Schneider