Speaking out !
If you’ve been following the news you will probably have heard of the case of Dan Kaszeta, the world-recognised expert in defence who was invited and later had the invitation to speak rescinded at a chemical weapons demilitarisation conference in May this year. If you haven’t you can read about his case here.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with education, but what happened to Dan is actually part of a much wider picture, and it happened to me too, and to my co-author Aaron Bradbury and to several other experts who have since come forward to tell their stories.
You can read more about this here
But today I wanted to write about what happened ( in brief) and why I decided to speak out. Because it wasn’t an easy decision.
I am a freelance consultant, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid. I am also a single parent, the person who pays the mortgage, puts food in the fridge and is probably going to fund at least 1 child through university. Like everyone, my income is important to me, and my income rests entirely on my reputation. If it is destroyed, I have no income.
I don’t wish to sound over dramatic, but that’s just how it is. I’m certainly not pretending to be poor, although the impact of the pandemic and 11 months of remote only work, while I cared for my dying husband, have certainly impacted my bank balance in a less-than-positive way. But I’m doing ok. My diary is full, and I like it that way. So why have I chosen to speak openly about what’s happened to me and my colleagues when it could involve me losing substantial amounts of work?
Because it matters.
In January 2023 I was contacted by two groups who were bidding to become one of the DFEs stronger practice hubs, a programme set up by the DFE, funded by the taxpayer to support staff working with children in the Early Years one was successful, one was not. The successful one then asked if I would be willing to speak at their launch event which would take place on a Friday and Saturday in early March, alongside my co-author Aaron Bradbury. I didn’t need the work, my diary has been full since I returned to full-time work in September 2022 after taking a couple of months working remotely to enable me to sort out all the practical side of bereavement. But I liked the idea of the hubs, I liked the ethos of the people who were running the hub, Early Years is very much my specialism, and I wanted to help out, so I did some rejigging of my diary, so Aaron and I agreed to speak.
On the Tuesday evening before we were due to speak on Friday, I received a message from Aaron saying that a spokesperson for the National Children’s Bureau, who oversee the hubs, had spoken to the Hub lead and said that the DFE were not happy with their choice of speakers and the conference would need to be cancelled, the hub leader asked why and was told we were deemed unsuitable, to cut a long story short there was a lot of toing and froing between the NCB, the DFE and the hub leader, who stood her ground. She was told we would only be allowed to speak remotely, again she refused, pointing out that it wouldn’t be fair to expect childminders, nursery workers, and leaders to give up their Saturday to come to a conference in a venue only to watch a screen. She was then told that a slide in our presentation would need to be removed, the slide referred to a non-statutory document produced by the Early Years sector, Birth to 5 Matters. Aaron and I were asked if we were willing to remove the slide. We refused.
By the time we heard about these conversations it was late in the evening, and there were only 2 days to go before the conference. It was Tuesday evening and we would be traveling on Thursday afternoon. The first thing we did on the following morning was seek legal advice and then wrote to the DFE and NCB asking for clarification.
To cut a long story short we were eventually allowed to speak, the person from the NCB who had said that the conference would have to be cancelled attended and the conference was a great success with excellent feedback.
But we wanted to know why we had been deemed unsuitable. So, we scheduled a meeting with the DFE, this took some time as we are all busy but eventually, we were granted a Teams meeting. It became apparent that someone had raised the issue of us being critical of the government, and in particular “unkind” about a non-statutory government document with the DFE, and they had suggested we were unsuitable to speak. I asked for evidence of this public criticism, and alleged “unkindness” but none was forthcoming, the DFE representatives were at pains to point out that they would not be revealing who had accused me of being unkind to the document on Twitter. I was somewhat bewildered. I didn’t know it was possible to be unkind to a document.
It’s very difficult to defend yourself when you don’t know what you’re actually being accused of, and the accuser hides behind anonymity, but I pride myself on not tweeting anything that I wouldn’t want anyone who employs me (many people who do follow me on Twitter) my children or my 87-year-old mum to see, so I keep things pretty kind! That's not to say I'm a saint, I can be robust and sarcastic, but I always try to be kind.
At this point, I felt there was no point in continuing with the conversation, so I left the meeting and submitted a subject access request to the DFE to find out what information they held on me. The response shows that they could not find any evidence of me being critical on Twitter of the document they accused me of criticising.
The request to “do some digging on Ruth Swales” (sic) was met with the response “ Can’t find anything specific from Ruth that brings the department into disrepute. Favour Birth to 5 Matters and promote that quite a lot via Twitter and at different speaking events but I can’t see anywhere that they have discredited Development Matters” – well that’s because I hadn’t.
This was dated on the 23rd of February 2023 and the event was in March 2023, but the Hub lead was still told I was unsuitable to speak. So even though they couldn’t find evidence of what I was being accused of (anonymously) I was still deemed unsuitable. That’s really not ok.
Apart from anything else, the statement that I favour one document over others at speaking events is total nonsense. I spoke publicly at over 100 events last year unless a DFE representative was at every single one, (they weren’t) they can’t possibly know what I say at every event. If they had bothered to attend even a handful of events, they would discover that I actually promote a measured approach, stating that both have their uses, both are non-statutory and staff should use what they find useful from either, both or neither.
Interestingly, Aaron’s subject access request is worded in exactly the same way with regard to Development Matters and Birth to 5 Matters, which indicates that they have taken a blanket approach to investigating us. Aaron is my co-author, we agree on many things, we also disagree on others (mainly his musical tastes which are questionable) but we are not one person, surely if information is going to be used to blacklist someone it should be accurate with evidence to back it up? Otherwise, we are in danger of living in a dictatorship.
Surely we should have a right of reply? Well, it turns out we have, because Dan has pursued this matter and received an apology, and Aaron and I are now working with Dan’s legal team, because we’re not prepared to just let this go. Our livelihoods might already have been damaged ( I had a conference which I was told was not going ahead so they cancelled my booking, but I later discovered that it had gone ahead, I don't know if this has happened on other occasions) but there are bigger things at stake. I may not like the things that other people have to say, but I defend their right to say them, unless they are sharing hate speech or things that are harmful to others. The unfounded accusation of my criticism towards a non-statutory government document should not be enough to mean that I can now not speak at or take up a voluntary role supporting a stronger practice hub, denying them support, expertise and connections with many professionals around the world, all because someone anonymous has made an unfounded accusation.
A freedom of information request from Jon Dickens at Schools week asking how many speakers had been cancelled and for what reason to the DFE revealed that;
"The Department is unable to confirm whether it holds the information you have requested because it estimates that the cost of determining whether it holds the information would exceed the cost threshold applicable to central Government. This is £600 and represents the estimated cost of one person spending 3½ working days in determining whether the Department holds the information."
This appears to indicate that there isn’t a list of those vetted or a systematic approach to the vetting of speakers, in fact, my whole subject access request shows that the process seems very ad hoc.
Interestingly, since I went public about this, I know many other educators have submitted SARs and found that the Government has been monitoring their tweets, even though they have no intention of ever working for the DFE. This is not only very worrying (see Karam’s article wrt Sue Cowley) but must be incredibly time-consuming and costly. At a time when schools are being told there is no money to fully fund a teacher pay rise, this feels particularly wasteful.
In the last few days the government has withdrawn their documentation which was used to attempt to silence Dan, I am awaiting a response from the DFE as to whether this will mean that we are deemed suitable to work with the hubs again, although my diary is already full for next year. So far it seems speaking out hasn’t affected my work too badly, but it has shone a light on some very unusual practices and I think it’s shocked a lot of people.
I am grateful to Dan and his legal team for their support and encouragement, I am also indebted to Edward Lucas, who took the time to listen when I told him what had happened and took great care to make sure the wording of his story reflected my experiences. To Karam Balles and Warwick Mansell, both of whom have pursued this story relentlessly.
I spoke out because many people are not in the same position as I am. I am fairly well established in my role, I have work in my diary booked until 2025, I have a handful of days not accounted for in the next academic year and if a few people cancel on me because of this, then I’ll just fill those days with other people who are on my waiting list. Not everyone is in that position. So I spoke out not just for myself, but for anyone who isn’t in the same position as me. I also spoke out for my daughters’ sake.
When you become a parent the weight of responsibility is huge. You’re acutely aware that you’re a role model for your children. When you become a single parent that responsibility seems even more amplified. Pete, my husband was a kind and honourable man. I have lost count of the number of times I saw him step up when others were bystanders, helping out total strangers, speaking up for what was right, and standing up against bullying behaviour when he knew there would probably be a personal cost to him (he was right, but he did it anyway). We both tried to model that for our children – always do what is right, even if it’s scary. Say sorry if you make a mistake, speak up for those who can't speak for themselves, speak out against injustice. So it was a no-brainer for me really. I needed to step up to show them that when something isn’t right, you stand up, you speak out, and you keep speaking out until justice is done. It’s been a tough few months, on the back of a pretty tough couple of years, but I’m made of fairly tough stuff and I’m tenacious. So I’m speaking out, and I’m grateful to everyone else who feels able to do so. Because together we can make sure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else.