Preston headteacher warns parents of legal consequences if WhatsApp chat used 'inappropriately'

A primary headteacher has warned parents he could seek legal advice if they use social media “inappropriately” against his school.

Tuesday, 29th January 2019, 8:47 pm
Updated Tuesday, 29th January 2019, 9:58 pm
New Longton All Saints CofE Primary School

James Maloney, who took charge of New Longton All Saints CofE last year, has written to families of pupils urging them to bring issues involving staff or pupils to him in person, rather than air them online.

The Post believes the letter was prompted by comments made in a WhatsApp group for parents.

“Posting messages with half-truths or rumours can be defamatory and potentially libellous,” writes Mr Maloney.

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And he goes on: “Anything you commit to writing can be forwarded to others and may result in school contacting the legal team for advice on how to proceed.”

Mr Maloney’s letter does not say what or who the derogatory remarks involved.

And he also says: “As with many things in life, there are those unfortunate times when social media may be used inappropriately.”

The head initially declined to comment when approached by the Post, other than to say: “We send letters to parents all the time.”

But later he issued a statement through Lancashire County Council in which he said: “I support the convenience of parents’ social media groups to share information relating to school activities.

“However, I feel that it is inappropriate to post potentially untrue and defamatory comments about teachers within these groups. I sent the letter to remind parents of this.

“I’m concerned about posts being inaccurate and the possible harmful impact of this on the individuals concerned and on the whole of the school community.”

Mr Maloney isn’t the first headteacher to confront parents about discussions on social media.

In 2017 the head of a school in Chirk, Wales, warned he would take “appropriate legal action” if negative and malicious comments continued to be posted on Facebook and other public platforms about the school and individual members of staff.

And the Association of School and College Leaders claims schools are being forced to trawl social media “to protect their reputations due to parents posting complaints online.”

As a result some heads are now asking mums and dads to agree how they will use social media as part of a relationship agreement when their child starts school.

Parents at the 200-pupil New Longton All Saints School are already required to sign a Home School Agreement.

And in his letter Mr Maloney points out that by doing so they have agreed to “support the school and its ethos” and “ensure early contact with the school to discuss matters which affect their child’s happiness, progress and behaviour.”

He says: “In order for us to set the best possible example to our pupils, we must request that you align with these expectations, rather than canvas opinion via message groups.

“Many of you are members of WhatsApp or other social media groups that connect parents in particular classes. Ideally the chats are useful places to share information.

"Most of the time these groups can be a great additional resource and an enjoyable place to be in. But, as with many things in life, there are those unfortunate times when it may be used inappropriately.”

The president of the National Association of Head Teachers, Preston-based Andy Mellor, backed Mr Maloney in contacting parents about misuse of social media.

“It is incumbent on school leaders who have a duty of care to make sure we protect our staff from verbal or physical assault,” he said. “And for me it is all in the same ball park.

“If a head teacher decides potential legal action might be necessary then I would defend that in order to protect staff.

“There is an issue here. Anything that undermines a teacher publicly means maintaining discipline in the classroom is harder. It makes it more difficult to teach.

“My message to parents who might think of posting something on social media is that you are not above the law. I would ask them to think carefully before they put something out, because it could come back and bite you.

“Unless you are prepared to defend your comments in a court of law you need to think carefully about what you write.

“I pick up stuff like this from members across the country all the time. I know there are heads who have taken legal action over this sort of thing and have been successful.

“If reputations are being destroyed by idle language then headteachers have a duty of care to their staff.”