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The price of speaking out
A headteacher shares his experience of blowing the whistle on the child safeguarding implications of the UK's Covid interventions.
Broken Custodians will run occasional articles from guest writers.
The author of this article is Mike Fairclough, a headteacher who blew the whistle on what he felt were serious safeguarding concerns about the impact of Covid interventions on children. Though whistleblowers are in principle protected by the law, he has been repeatedly smeared and victimised for voicing his concerns. Here he tells his story.
There is a great deal of discussion in the media about free speech and censorship. What are we allowed to talk about and who has the authority to silence us? Particularly in the wake of the pandemic — a period which saw increased anxiety about the consequences of expressing our opinions or even asking questions about the government’s response to Covid — but also around issues such as sex education in schools and identity politics, the closing down of debate has created a damaging culture of self-censorship. Worryingly, this has influenced many adults to put their own self-preservation ahead of the needs of children.
As the headteacher of a UK junior school, and a parent of four children, I saw it as my moral duty to speak out about my concerns regarding the catastrophic harms that the pandemic policy was doing to my pupils — from school closures and remote learning, masks, cancellations of children’s sports and lives, and then of course the drive to vaccinate children against Covid.
My approach has always been to weigh the benefits of these interventions against the known risks and safeguarding flags. As regards the Covid vaccines, my assessment was simply that we shouldn't apply a medical intervention to children unless there is a clear benefit and a proven safety record — a view which until 2020 would have been seen not only as a reasonable position, consistent with medical ethics, but a position against which to argue would have been considered extreme. It was clear early on that for healthy children there was minimal risk from the virus and therefore no, or only very minimal, clinical benefit from the vaccine; and critically there was, and is still, no long term safety data.
So it was my honestly held view as a parent and headteacher that the roll-out to children constituted a potentially serious safeguarding issue, and that I was legally as well as morally obliged to voice my concerns about this. People who work in education are obliged to attend annual safeguarding training which informs us that we must report all safeguarding concerns. Indeed, attempting to prevent unnecessary harm to children is a legal requirement within my profession. The professional who turns a blind eye to abuse is held equally accountable, even if not directly enacting the harm themselves. Silence is never an option.
However, my experience of becoming a whistleblower on these safeguarding issues — lockdowns and masks as much as vaccines — is one of relentless attacks and smears both online and in the press, frequently being mis-labelled as an “anti-vaxxer”, and enduring multiple attempts to silence me.
My employer has supported three investigations into my conduct, following whistleblowing complaints relating to views I had expressed about child safeguarding. Indeed, the most recent unfounded allegation involved the complainants reporting me to the Department for Education’s Counter Extremism team as well as to Ofsted. Results of an FOI request reveal that I have also been monitored by the UK Counter Disinformation Unit.
Although I have been cleared of any wrong-doing on all occasions, following independent investigations, these attacks have inevitably taken their toll on me. My nineteen year career as a headteacher has been overwhelmingly successful up until this point. My employer, Ofsted and the DfE have always supported my educational innovations and celebrated the achievements of the school prior to this time. However, I am now perceived as an extremist and a trouble maker, despite being cleared of the radical allegations against me. I have also been told by former colleagues that I deserve to be punished and should never have spoken out. It appears that any criticism of the government in relation to its pandemic response and its effects on children is seen as a form of blasphemy by devout followers of the orthodox Covid consensus.
Some of those colleagues believe I was wrong to even question the vaccine roll-out to children because, they tell me, children needed to be vaccinated in order to protect vulnerable adults. I go to sleep thinking about the situation, I dream about it and then wake up in the morning worrying about it again. As a result, my health has suffered in ways which I have never before experienced. I have lost weight, have a constant knot in the pit of my stomach and feel agitated and low much of the time. My personal relationships have also suffered and it feels like every aspect of my life has taken a hit. All because I did my job by blowing the whistle about my safeguarding concerns for the children in my care. This is something which I should be protected for doing, not attacked for, provided I have acted in good faith. I don’t regret speaking out but I won’t pretend that it has been an easy ride.
Along the way I have received support from many people, including fellow headteachers and others within my profession, albeit almost always in private messages and secretive whispers. These people have thanked me for voicing my opinions but said that they have been too fearful to speak out themselves. Sometimes they have pointed to the attacks which I have faced as the reason for their silence. I have been grateful for their encouragement but I feel it’s now important for everyone to find their voice. If we see a safeguarding concern regarding children’s health and wellbeing we have a moral obligation to report it. I will emphasise again, it is also a legal duty within the education profession to do this.
In the shadow of this pandemic I believe we all now need to empower ourselves, and each other, to speak up and speak out, rather than simply leaving it to others to fight our corner. Nowhere is this need more urgent than in the context of safeguarding for children.
As a career educator I have a strongly held philosophical belief in the importance of critical thinking and in freedom of speech. I challenge orthodoxies when I encounter them and then publicly share my thoughts, always careful to maintain respect for other people’s differing views and trying always to remain open to changing my existing opinions.
I don’t suggest this is a new idea: educators and thinkers have adopted this approach to life for millennia, with philosophers such as Socrates using this method of thinking and communicating since the time of ancient Greece. And yet, though we like to think that we live in an advanced and progressive liberal democracy, we now find that challenging orthodoxies has become one of the greatest taboos. Critical thinking is frequently assigned to the realms of the conspiracy theorist and pointing out the obvious can become a punishable offence with sanctions delivered both by zealous authorities and by our fellow citizens.
There is an increasing number of people who now say that they opposed many of the government’s pandemic responses but didn’t make their views public at the time. Individuals who had recognised the potential harms caused by lockdowns, masks or the vaccine mandates but stayed silent. The minority who did speak openly about their concerns were often attacked, which no doubt will have played a part in others’ self-censorship. But, if more people had publicly voiced their concerns, I’m sure we could have collectively prevented at least some of the unnecessary harms unleashed on us, and on our children.
This is why it is so important that we create a cultural landscape within which different opinions can be freely expressed. And I believe that we each have a significant role to play in bringing this about. Speaking our truth about controversial or sensitive subjects and ending this culture of self-censorship and fear. If we don’t do this, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past few years. Watching in silence at harms taking place around us instead of standing up and speaking our truth. Critical thinking and free speech are not dangerous. They are what free and democratic societies are built upon. Fight for them and they — and we — will flourish. Leave it to others and we risk losing our hard won civic freedoms forever: a future for our children which none of us want to see.