‘Toxic’ culture at Scotland’s national deaf school

Donaldson's School in Linlithgow. Pic: Joey Kelly
Donaldson's School in Linlithgow. Pic: Joey Kelly
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SCOTLAND’S national deaf school is mired in a “toxic” culture of endemic bullying, lack of transparency and incompetence, senior staff have claimed.

Five key staff members are still waiting for final resolution of a collective grievance lodged with Donaldson’s School more than a year ago to highlight management failings and call for change.

One of those involved has warned the Linlithgow-based institution – Scotland’s national school for children who are deaf or have hearing difficulties – is in “crisis”.

It is understood no official hearings have taken place in relation to grievance statements provided by staff members and that complaints are still outstanding with no clear or immediate prospect of an outcome.

News of the grievances comes after a court case in January, when William Docherty, 42, a communications support worker at the school, was convicted of indecently assaulting a 16-year-old boy in 2009.

The school was heavily criticised by Sheriff Derek O’Carroll for not suspending Docherty until almost four years after the assault – despite receiving a report from the victim’s mother at the time.

An investigation into the school’s handling of the incident has resulted in the sacking of its chief executive, Janice MacNeill.

Leaders of the school’s board said employees involved in the grievance would receive letters providing an update and suggesting a date on which they could meet as a group.

But a source close to the situation told the Evening News that staff wanted to see rapid and robust action on their complaint, and stressed that the issues raised extended well beyond the conduct of individual members of staff.

They said: “The grievance and the issues surrounding it are still ongoing. This is about the wider governance of the school.

“It’s a toxic organisation – it’s in crisis and has been for quite some time. The staff want the grievance to be heard. We’re not interested in meetings.

“What has changed, other than the dismissal of one member of staff? There’s a sense that because Janice MacNeill has been dealt with, that’s problem solved, which is not the case.”

The Evening News has been told issues addressed in the grievance were first raised during an off-site meeting between concerned staff and the school board in spring last year, before submission of an official 
complaint.

Staff are said to have suffered workplace bullying that was “constant” and pernicious. This ranged from threats and unminuted meetings aimed at pressuring workers into toeing management’s line to heavy-handed, undermining behaviour which often targeted individuals perceived to be weaker.

It is also understood questions have emerged over a lack of communication between senior management and staff on key decisions, as well as the handling of funds raised and whether these have been spent as originally intended.

“Staff morale is at rock bottom – they are on their knees,” said the source, adding that, unless outstanding issues were fully addressed, the education of some of Scotland’s most vulnerable children would suffer.

“I must stress that I feel that the staff at Donaldson’s provide an excellent service and I feel strongly that with appropriate management and governance, the school could become the centre of excellence that it has long strived to be.”

School board chiefs have insisted they acted quickly to address the grievance.

A spokeswoman said: “When the grievance was lodged it received immediate attention and, as a result, a much more serious issue came to light, which has been well documented. Lawyers told us it must be investigated before we could progress with the first grievance. That process has now completed and one result of it is that the circumstances of the initial grievance are fundamentally changed.

“The board of Donaldson’s offered to meet these complainants individually to discuss the status of the grievance, but they refused. We have now written to them with an update and with a date to meet as a group.

“We believe a meeting is the best way to discuss an internal and personal matter rather than airing grievances publicly.”

johnpaul.holden@edinburghnews.com