Joe Walker explores the idea of being prepared to speak out against injustice – even when it could have negative consequences for you
This assembly challenges listeners to consider possibly scenarios where they should speak out, even if the cost of doing so seems high. It links to the story of a nurse who had been struck off the nursing register for secretly filming what she saw as failures in patient treatments on an NHS ward. The nurse has since won a national award for nursing.
8 Readers and one Leader
Reader 1: Today I saw someone in the playground pushing and shoving one of the little pupils. The kid was really upset. The one pushing him is a big solid guy. He didn’t need to be doing that. But no, I’ll not say anything about it. These things happen.
Reader 2: My mate told me that his parents do a fair bit of his schoolwork for him. Sometimes it’s a piece of work which could make the difference between him passing and failing the exam, so it isn’t fair at all. He could do it himself, but they want him to go to the best university. Shouldn’t I tell someone? No – it’s none of my business really.
Reader 3: A fellow member of staff was really giving a pupil a hard time in the corridor today – I know we all sometimes get a bit annoyed by things pupils do, but he had really lost it and was angry. The kid looked pretty shocked by it all. But no, I won’t be discussing it with anyone. I’ve got to work here you know.
Reader 4: My neighbour’s kid goes to the so-called best school in the area. But he shouldn’t be there. My neighbour has lied about where he lives. He’s using his Dad’s address to get his kid into the school – even though his Dad’s ninety three and the kid couldn’t possibly live there with him. Yes, I suppose I could report him… But I’m not going to.
Reader 5: We were doing a test today and the person sitting next to me had his mobile out under the desk half the time. He’s got one of these phones which could store the contents of a whole library on it, so he probably was cheating. The person supervising the exam didn’t even notice. Yes, I could have said something, but I’m not going to do that am I?
Reader 6: There was a bit of an incident in class today. The teacher asked us if we knew anything about it – no-ones going to say anything are they? He then gave us out bits of paper and we were supposed to write what we saw on them. I wrote that I didn’t see anything… even though I did. The teacher knows my handwriting doesn’t he?
Reader 7: There’s a guy in my class – you wouldn’t believe what he gets up to outside school. Half of it isn’t even legal I’m sure. No, I’m not saying anything to anyone about it. He’s probably only harming himself anyway, so what’s it got to do with me?
Reader 8: My next door neighbour’s parents are really horrible to her. You can hear them shouting at her all the time. Sometimes it’s really scary. My parents just turn the TV up louder. They tell me it’s none of our business. I’m not so sure…
Leader: Margaret Haywood had long wanted to be a nurse. Eventually she achieved her dream and had a varied and interesting career. At one point she was asked by the BBC to help make a programme investigating claims of neglect of patients in NHS hospitals. She agreed to go undercover – wearing a hidden camera – to document cases of neglect and abuse of patients by over-worked and sometimes apparently uncaring staff in ordinary NHS hospital wards. She filmed some very shocking scenes which aired on a Panorama programme in 2005. This was followed by a lot of debate across the country – and also the setting up of a phone line to allow other nurses to report similar bad situations. Thousands of calls, letters and emails came flooding in – reporting similar cases of lack of patient care across the country.
And what of Margaret? Many said that she was a hero in exposing the reality of some terrible situations. But the nursing authorities saw it differently. They felt that she had acted unprofessionally and had ignored an important rule of nursing – keeping the details of patients confidential. Haywood argued that in her opinion, reporting the awful neglect was, in this case, more important than patient confidentiality. However, the nursing council disagreed and finally she was struck off the nursing register.
There was widespread debate about what Margaret had done. Some supported her, others did not. Some said that she had been right to expose what was going on, because when people do this without the support of a TV programme and wide publicity they often suffer for it. Some argued that she had brought something out of the darkness and into the cold light of day. In acting as a whistle-blower – someone who reports something which they see going on and think is wrong – she had brought something to public attention at great cost to herself, but that she had been right to do so.
This month, Margaret won the Nursing Standard’s Patient’s Choice award at a star-studded ceremony in London. This was an award, voted for by the public, for the nurse who should be recognised for what she has done for patients. Margaret feels that it represents public recognition that she has done the right thing.
History is full of such whistle-blowers. In fact, you could argue that such people – in speaking out so publicly about the wrongs of their society – changed the course of history for the better. Maybe you’ll go and see the film ’A Christmas Carol’ soon. Charles Dickens, the author of the story, was a whistle-blower in Victorian society. He brought the plight of the poor and those suffering injustice out into the open for all to see. He challenged the powers that be of his day to question the way things were. William Wilberforce did the same about slavery. Elizabeth Fry did the same for the treatment of prisoners. Martin Luther King blew the whistle on the treatment of African Americans [can insert any locally relevant social reformers here] and so on.
These people all had something in common. They spoke out against injustice wherever they saw it. They knew that they might be taking on powerful people. They knew that they might be putting themselves at risk. They knew that many would be angry about what they did. But they all believed that what they were doing was right and so – they didn’t keep quiet. They spoke out and brought about change. Many did suffer for what they did, but they all made the world a better place.
Leader: The readers spoke about situations which many of you here today will recognise. Some may seem like quite minor issues and some more serious. You might well have been in one of these situations – or find yourself in one soon. What should you do? Firstly of course, you should be very careful about putting yourself into any situation of possible danger or threat. Some situations need very careful handling and will be far beyond your ability to cope with – but does that mean that there is nothing to be done? Telling teachers and adults doesn’t have to be seen as grassing or telling tales. Instead it can be seen as bringing what is hidden in the darkness into the light of day. There are phonelines and help organisations where you can speak in confidence about issues which are of concern to you [you might want to suggest any locally relevant organisations /phonelines etc]. There are ways to safely blow the whistle – bringing injustice and unfairness out into the open where it can wither in the bright light of what is right.
Perhaps we should think of the whistle-blowers not as tell-tales or grasses or sneaks [add local variant]…. But as brave heroes changing our world for the better. What do you think?
Here is a short meditation on today’s assembly:
Where there is injustice let me recognise itWhere I recognise it let me challenge itWhere I challenge it let me speak out about itLet me speak out for what is rightAnd make the world a better place[Amen]
This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2009
About the author: Joe Walker is Head of RE & Psychology at Liberton High School in Edinburgh. As well as being a well-known author he was winner of Secondary Teacher of the Year at the Scottish Education awards 2005.