The governors of a London academy, Holland Park school, initiated an investigation recently into anonymised allegations of a “toxic” working environment raised by 26 former teachers. The teachers wrote to the chair of the school’s governing board and to the government’s academy regulator, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), earlier in the summer, with detailed criticisms of the school’s head teacher and his senior team. Nine of the 26 signatories had been signed off work for stress, depression and anxiety, which they said was connected to the toxic working environment at the school.
This was not the first time teachers at the school had raised concerns. In 2019, a different group of 30 teachers contacted the ESFA. This led to an Ofsted monitoring visit to assess the leadership and safeguarding at the school. It is alleged that, during this visit, staff were made to submit paper questionnaires (rather than the Ofsted-preferred online questionnaires) about their experiences of senior management and that these questionnaires were read by senior management and any that were critical about the school were hidden from Ofsted.
The fact that the allegations were raised on an anonymous basis clearly posed challenges for the investigation. In our experience, anonymous complaints often raise the following types of challenge:
- Employers may, understandably, be cautious about engaging with anonymous complainants, especially if the way in which the complaint was raised offers no clue as to where it came from. For instance, an anonymous email from an unknown email account sent to the managing director of a company is likely to be more suspicious than a message on an internal anonymous company hotline. However, this does not mean the complaint should not be taken seriously and potentially investigated.
- Where you think that the complaint might have come from someone external to the company, we would advise against sharing details about any investigation into it, or any results of the investigation, unless the complainant reveals their identity.
- You may be able to contact the individual who made the complaint despite their anonymity - for example, where you have received an email which identifies the sender. It may be that they are willing to speak if you can enable them to do so on an anonymous basis. In this situation, you will almost certainly need to identify a suitably impartial person to run the investigation into the allegations. This could be someone in another group company or an external investigator. Ideally, you would want to be able to give the complainant assurances that they will not be named to the company (if they don’t want to be), and that retaliation will not be tolerated.
- If the complainant is not willing to provide further information, it would still be advisable to take steps to try to address the generic allegations at a more general level by way of a “cultural” investigation to identify any truths behind the allegations. You could, for example, appoint an investigator to speak to small groups of people about their experience of working at the company and follow up on any specific issues that come to light from this.
If you need advice on how to handle allegations about workplace culture or bullying, please speak to your usual Lewis Silkin contact or a member of our Investigations and Regulatory team.