There was something rather unusual about a piece I wrote in the Leicester Mercury last week and I had a nagging feeling we didn’t know the full story.
At its simplest, it was fairly straightforward. A teacher at a primary school had been referred to the professional body, the General Teaching Council, and found guilty of “serious professional incompetence”.
Those words were damning. The GTC’s judgement against Bernadette Gunn, of St John Fisher’s Catholic Primary School in Wigston, which it published in full on its website before it ever appeared in the Mercury, were stark. The hearing itself had been held behind closed doors so we had no way of hearing the evidence for and against.
In my first years as a journalist I was a general reporter and covered a lot of court cases. Many times, after reporting on people who had mown people down after getting in their cars high on drink or drugs or who had knifed their girlfriends or vandalised their old school, their friends or family would ring up: How could you write about my loved one in such awful terms, you don’t even know them, you’ve got no right.
The explanation that we did have a right, that all we were doing was reporting a court’s verdict and a fundamental of the British legal system is that justice has to be seen to be done, didn’t wash. I didn’t mind about that, their relatives were usually just as bad as they were.
The same sort of reaction came my way after we published last week’s story about the teacher. But there are clear differences and it only added to my feelings of discomfort.
“Many parents have expressed their sadness and anger at how she has been portrayed in the newspaper. This will have been devastating to a lady who has given so much to teaching for over 30 years… I feel this article was not balanced and was very damaging to Mrs Gunn’s reputation. The article was also very upsetting for many parents and children at the school.”
“The article was extremely hurtful”
“How very wonderful that your newspaper would choose to publicise the fact that Mrs Bernadette Gunn was ‘banned’ for being a ‘failing’ teacher”
“Did anybody working on the story for the newspaper take into account the circumstances surrounding the situation or indeed the feelings of Mrs. Gunn? The article was so sweeping and de-humanising.”
“Hopefully The Leicester Mercury confirmed the facts before leaping to destroy someone nearing the end of their career.”
The school, which I contacted for a comment before the original article was published, has also, I hear, written to parents criticising us for the report.
It would be entirely wrong to dismiss these comments. I think I would have similar opinions in their position.
But how many of these people complained to the General Teaching Council who made this ruling or the county council who brought the case against her?
There was clearly more to this judgement. On the one hand the GTC does not take such decisions lightly. In fact only four teachers were found guilty of professional incompetence in the whole of the past year. That impression has been backed up by facts about the issue I have found out since. Clearly because this decision was so unusual and made by a professional body meant that it was of public interest.
But having spoken to the parents who hold Mrs Gunn in such high regard, it is clear she was ill and her illness prevented her from carrying out some of her work. (And I hope the story in tomorrow’s paper, comprising their comments redresses the balance somewhat).
It can’t be nice having your life written about in such damning terms in the newspaper. On the other hand, I equally know that having been made aware of the judgement by the GTC, we couldn’t censor the information or pretend this wasn’t a decision deliberately made to be put in the public domain.
But on a personal level I feel extremely uneasy. I feel very sorry for the woman concerned. Particularly if it is true that an illness contributed to her so-called “incompetence”.
Is that really what disciplinary hearings were set up for?
While the vast majority of teachers I meet are committed and talented professionals, there are also a few – like in any industry – who are lazy and downright useless. I don’t know, because I haven’t seen the evidence, but I’m pretty sure Mrs Gunn wasn’t one of them.
I feel hurt by the accusations that I have helped destroy Mrs Gunn’s career and life. I feel uncomfortable that she should have been singled out in public when there were potentially other ways to remove her, if that’s what was needed. I feel sorry for her that after 30 years of obviously committed and successful teaching she finds herself all over the papers.
And if those feelings mean I’m not a good journalist then that’s something I’m guilty of.