Education & Family

Teachers' union warns of dangers of online 'abuse'

Two boys type on a laptop computer
Image caption Research suggests 15% of teachers have experienced cyberbullying from parents or pupils

More and more teachers are getting abused online - and it is parents, not just pupils doing the bullying.

The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) is telling its members to be more willing to take on the adult bullies.

It has told BBC Radio 5 live that members should be more prepared to take action if parents have made potentially libellous comments on websites.

But when does parents voicing legitimate concerns turn into something more serious such as "cyberbullying" or defamation? One parent who has posted comments said she had little choice because her concerns were not being listened to.


The NAHT says it receives calls every week from teachers who believe they have been "cyberbullied" - and the majority of complaints are about parents using the web to criticise teachers or a school's leadership.

In 2009, research by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Teacher Support Network suggested 15% of teachers had experienced cyberbullying.

More than a third of them said it had reduced their confidence and self-esteem.

'Have to make a stand'

Last year, Sam used her Facebook page to write about the behaviour policy at her childrens' school. "I tried to make an appointment to see the headmistress about my son being bullied. I was told I couldn't see the headmistress, and when I went to the school she wasn't there.

"For three days, I vented my anger and my spleen on my Facebook page. I wanted other parents to know what was going on.

"If they had come to speak to me and make those appointments I wouldn't have had to use the internet to get my point across. No-one at the school was listening.

"I knew I wasn't alone. For the first two weeks, others didn't want to rock the boat - but they were sending me private messages telling me that their child was being bullied."

Sam got a letter from the school warning her of legal action if her comments became libellous. She says she is now happier with the way the head teacher is dealing with allegations of bullying at the school - which is why she does not want to name it in print.

But she is glad she took the action she did: "I wanted people to know how angry I was. If I feel something is wrong, I will say it. You have to make a stand."

'Immense harm'

Russell Hobby, NAHT General Secretary, says: "Parents have a right to express their views and complaints should be heard; schools can only benefit from constructive feedback. Too often, though, social networking sites are a medium for the unreasonable and the unprincipled, and have a momentum out of all proportion to reality.

"The lack of accountability or moderation can whip up a cycle of abuse and sustained intimidation, causing immense harm."

Mr Hobby wants websites to respond more quickly to reports of abuse and make it easier to report the abuse in the first place.

His association has now updated its guidance for teachers who think they have a problem.

It tells them how to contact the various websites if they have been targeted and gives tips on how newly qualified teachers should manage personal accounts. It is also encouraging headteachers to have clear rules on social network sites.

A head teacher's experience

Nardeep Sharma, head at Colne Community College in Brightlingsea, Essex, agrees that heads need clear rules. A pupil who he excluded set up a web page calling for him to be sacked.

The page reportedly said: 'If you have an issue with Nardeep Sharma then voice it here! We have a right to free speach!" It got attention in the national press.

Although the 15 year-old was arrested under the Public Order Act 1986, no charges were brought.

Nardeep says: "The governors here were keen to make sure it didn't happen again. Our behaviour policy clearly states that any abusive campaign against a member of staff would result in permanent exclusion.

"I'd encourage other schools to do the same."

Social media

Facebook is one of the sites where parents are known to have posted comments.

A spokesperson said: "These online discussions are a reflection of those happening offline.

"But while you can't report a conversation outside the school gates or easily stop a person sending abusive, anonymous e-mails, Facebook have worked hard to develop reporting mechanisms that enable people to report offensive content they are concerned about.

"Having the tools to report content in this way gives people more control over what is said about them on Facebook than over the wider web where few such controls exist."