The Culture of Fear 2.0

In 2011 I was detached from the Royal Air Force to serve in a Royal Artillery unit at Joint Operating Base BASTION in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.  The role of the unit was to protect BASTION against attacks from the Taliban, mainly using the professional insurgent’s weapon of choice, the 107mm rocket.

The 107 is a true weapon of terror.  It is unguided, generally remotely operated system and has a range of somewhere up to 10km.  This means the insurgent can site it, set a timer and be far away well before the appointed launch time.

Most of our equipment was automated; the command system took data from a range of sensors and decided whether anything it had detected fitted the ballistic profile of a known rocket type.  However the system had issues, mainly due to topography and the ever increasing size of the base – this meant there were areas that we not as well covered by surveillance systems and the command system could not automatically set of the rocket alarm.  When this happened we had a steely-eyed Royal Artillery operator in the “hot seat”, ready to manually initiate the alarm system at a second’s notice (the flight time of the 107 rocket at maximum range is around 19 seconds – this factor is very important.)

We had just had an exchange of personnel from the UK, and the young gunner on shift that morning was on his first shift on his own.  He saw something on his screen that he wasn’t happy about and made a split second decision to manually initiate the alarm system.  For those who haven’t had the privilege, the first part of this YouTube video contains the rocket alarm.  It is a chilling noise, designed to grab your attention before you grab your body armour and helmet and hide under something solid.

This particular morning I was eating my breakfast as the rocket alarm sounded.  Unlike most others in the dining hall my job wasn’t to sit under a table, but to get to the Operations Room and assist in confirming whether the attack was real, locate the source of the launch and aid in the evidence gathering process.

What I arrived to was a Culture of Fear.  The young soldier, through inexperience, had misinterpreted what he had seen on the screen.  In momentary panic he had sounded the alarm, as his training dictated.  What I saw was a young lad being torn a strip by someone not much older or more experienced for making a mistake.  For him the fear was real – he was being threatened with being returned immediately to the UK, in disgrace.  His “mistake” had cost important people time out of their busy schedules to hide under their desks.  Important people had their morning ablutions interrupted whilst they took cover.  This young man was touted as a disgrace to the Artillery, the British Army, the Country and his own mother.  I had to step in.

What he had done was make a judgement call based on the evidence he had to hand at the time.  He had less than 20 seconds to see something, process the information and make a decision.  He did it in 3 seconds.  Think of that for a moment in terms of your classroom.  You have a situation that is going to take 20 seconds to brew, but you can make a quick decision and deal with the consequences later.




Have you made your decision?  Not a long time, I’m sure you will agree.  What the soldier lacked was local knowledge.  All of his training had been carried out in a room in the UK, with no pressure from the outside world, nobody eating breakfast on the floor and no fear. When faced with a real issue, he reverted to his training and made a judgement call.  The first thing I did was to praise him for it.  Far better that he made the wrong call to set off the alarms rather than the rocket be real and him not set off the alarm.  This reverse logic helped him see how his mistake had been made, how he could have used the limited information available to him and make a better judgement in the future.  However, if the culture of fear had been allowed to prevail, the chap would have frozen in similar circumstances, scared to make the wrong decision and ending up making no decision.  You see, it’s much harder to make these calls when lives depend on you getting it right.  Fear of a decision will always come into play, human nature dictates that, especially in a true hierarchical structure.

So how does this apply to schools, especially in light of this tweet this evening from Dame Alison Peacock, newly appointed Chief Executive of the College of Teaching?

As leader of I aim to positively disrupt the current culture of fear in education

It has to be an aim to return trust to the classroom teacher.  In my ITT I constantly got told “if you’re not taking a risk then your outstanding lesson is out the window”.  Could this be aligned with a risk averse school, leading through fear and undue pressure on the staff?  Simply put, no, it cannot.  Teachers set the weather in their classrooms, regardless of what SLT want to see.  Policies only work so far; they don’t always legislate for the SEND child having an emotional breakdown in the middle of maths or the child who hasn’t slept for a week because of their parent’s marriage breakdown.  Fears have to be left at the classroom door and the teacher trusted to do what is right for their class at the time.

I positively endorse Dame Alison’s stance on this.  It is pay day tomorrow for me so I shall be joining the fledgling @CharteredColl as I firmly believe that we need to end the culture of fear, for whatever reason it exists in school right now.

Come and join me, we may get to learn something together…




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