Anyone within education knows of the challenges: the workload, the scrutiny, the expectations and trying to juggle a budget that forces the difficult decision between providing staff with jobs (not redundancies) or providing the children with the resources they need to get those all-important RESULTS, RESULTS, RESULTS.
But after almost 2 decades in education and more than half of those at senior leadership level, there is one growing trend that is making my blood boil and my eyes twitch. The growing practice and acceptance of Quiet Firing. Opposite to quiet quitting, it is the act of nudging an employee out of the workplace; giving them less support and neglecting them to the point that they just give up and leave.
If that is not bad enough, sadly it gets worse because instead of “nudging” which sounds a more passive action, there is active squeezing through creating unreasonable pressure within the working environment to ‘encourage’ a resignation to be tendered ‘voluntarily’ by a member of staff no longer able to bear the stress or hostile conditions. Once only heard of in rare instances when academisation was a “new thing” in the UK school system, it is now rife within schools across England irrespective of academy or local authority status. It is a form of constructive dismal (an illegal practical) that manages to guise itself as “support” making it virtually impossible to prove otherwise – thus making it a tool of choice to rid teachers and leaders from schools when someone decides they are not wanted.
In any industry there are good bosses and bad bosses: education is no different in this respect. But never has there been such unprecedented numbers of teachers leaving for reasons other than retirement. You only need to look at the membership numbers in social media groups dedicated to “Leaving Teaching” to realise that around a 5th of educational professionals have joined, and the numbers are rising to such an extent, even the DfE have noticed! Protected by anonymity within a safe forum, the stories are united by themes of unfair treatment, underhand tactics, “support” plans, impossible workloads and being put under stress significant enough to impede mental and physical health. Teachers being left with confidence in tatters, dreading work, living in fear, and ultimately feeling there’s no other way out of the hell that has become their life except by leaving the profession.
And don’t for a minute think the problem doesn’t exist for school leaders! There is a joke shared by headteachers that the role has become a “football manager” post. If you do not get RESULTS within a couple of years, expect to be booted out – but without the multi-million-pound pay-out! These are highly skilled professionals with years of experience within the industry – often with outstanding track records – being put on “support” plans, deliberately having increased targets and unsustainable pressure being applied in tactical “quiet firing” maneuvers until once-confident leaders are left broken by the very career they dedicated their lives to. It is an experience shared by too many of our nation’s great headteachers but until this culture is stopped, our schools will continue to lose many more.
We all accept that performance reviews should be conducted to ensure the best outcomes for children. We also know that genuine under-performance does need to be addressed. So, how can you tell the difference between a real support plan and the underhand tactics of “quiet firing’?
Essentially, as it is not an action of actively sacking someone (which requires real evidence and a legal HR process), the underhand tactics can take many forms. The common identifiers are embodied in the attempt to deliberately lower self-esteem, knock confidence, create unrealistic workload to cause burn-out or unbearable stress and make the work environment so toxic that the employee just leaves as quickly and as quietly as possible.
More subtle than blatant workplace bullying (if you have evidence of workplace bullying, get legal advice immediately), continuous criticism is designed to be that constant drip of a tap feeding you with negative remarks about your performance. It will often be disguised as “feedback” but whereas feedback will have a balance review of things you did well and constructive feedback on what you can improve on, continuous criticism will seek to pick out every micro-thing you do for negative feedback, undermine any achievement you may have and fail to acknowledge positive success in your performance and progress.
It is designed to lower confidence and make you second-guess your own abilities to do the job in the hope you will “make the right decision” and “recognise the job is not for you” so you quit quickly.
If you decide to “up your game” and work even harder, the tactics alter slightly by applying prolonged pressure with the criticism because it is not possible to sustain a high level of performance working every hour under the sun under constant scrutiny – either performance will drop (bingo – there’s evidence now for capability) or you will burnout and quit.
This can be used in conjunction with any other tactic and is an attempt to “formalise” a process to frighten you into the belief that you’ll lose your job through “capability” and will never work in education again. The “kiss goodbye to your career” scaremongering tactic.
Again, this makes it hard to prove “constructive dismissal” when it guises itself as being supportive and following procedure. And of course, there are real support plans out there that are fully appropriate to have been implemented, so it all “muddies the water” when it comes to identifying the tactical move.
The clue is in the title – support. If the plan is not supportive to help you address concerns raised, it is worth taking a closer look. It’s also worth noting that a bad support plan may not be a tactic – there are leaders who simply aren’t very good at writing one! Below is a rough guide for what to look out for – but if in doubt, seek advice from your union, HR department or professional services such as ACAS.
|A support plan||A tactical plan|
|Fair targets with measurable steps to achieve successfully.||Vague targets, impossible targets, ever-moving targets.|
|Goals set are within your control to achieve.||Goals set may be beyond your control, an example being “other staff feedback…. ”|
|Support is clearly identified which will help you – and it is given.||Support is vague, a tick-box, looks good but won’t help, or written down but not given|
|Time-frames are clear and reasonable.||Time-frames are unreasonable.|
|Outcomes for success are explicit and measurable – no doubt as to when met.||Outcomes vague, too broad, not measurable, open to interpretation, or a moving goalpost.|
It is designed to keep you under significant, unbearable pressure so that you can no longer cope with the stress and leave.
It is also designed to scare you into thinking if you don’t quit “before the formal stage” then your career will be over. You may even be encouraged to consider your future, your references, or anything else that evokes this fear-factor. You could be told as explicitly as “things are only going to get worse!”
This is real playground behaviour from “professionals” who should know better. It’s another subtle form of bullying behaviour. You may find yourself being left out of meetings, off emails or not being told information that is shared widely with others. Other tactics include not acknowledging your existence – no conversation, no eye-contact. Leaving you off key things like book-looks, appraisal reviews, subject leader time, staff events, and anything else to make you feel “invisible”.
Sometimes there will be a twist to this tactic. You may find other people around you being singled out for praise, recognition, promotions, etc, and you are never selected (but hand on heart know you deserve to be).
It is designed to make you feel unwanted and invisible, so you “get the message” that you are not part of the school plans for the future. It is a “get the hint” tactic so you look for another role elsewhere and ultimately leave.
This is a particularly sneaky tactic within a toxic school environment, where someone will manipulate, lie and undermine you in a way to make you doubt your abilities, your self-belief and ultimately doubt your right to be in the role within that school. It is a form of abuse that is highly destructive, resulting in mental distress, physical health issues and job loss – sometimes to the extent where a person can no longer work again. It has a catastrophic impact on your self-esteem and far-reaching impact in other areas of your life. It is a tactic that can be used exclusively or with other tactics and is an extremely malicious misuse of power. However, it is a tactic that is not exclusively used by a senior figure of authority, it can be used by groups of staff (a clique) to maliciously undermine someone with seniority.
Tactics include crossing boundaries, saying one thing in person then denying it over email, rallying people to oppose your ideas behind your back, constant criticism, feeding you with lies about how other people in the workforce feel about your skills / personality, dismissing or diminishing your work, not communicating essential information, continually changing expectations, making promises and then denying them, saying they’re working on something but doing the opposite behind the scenes, taking credit for your work, and so on.
It is designed to make you doubt your worth (and sanity) across every level of your life. It serves to undermine you at every step to make your working life intolerable and so toxic that you quit your job. The nature of this spiteful and unscrupulous tactic means that the poison-makers will stop at nothing – and even not relinquish its grip until long after you’ve left.
So, there you have the grim truth of just some of the underhand tactics being used to deploy Quiet Firing in our UK schools.
This post will be one of a series of articles in the Mapleleaf Vision blog to support highly-skilled teachers and school leaders who have faced – or currently are facing – this unwelcome trend rampaging through our education system.
No one has to take the journey alone. Everyone deserves the chance to find work they love.
If this resonates with you, please reach out and message me.