Senior Head's Blog: Don't Accept the First Answer

I am sure that many of you will have been following the unfolding story about the Post Office, either in the news, or in the excellent ITV drama 'Mr Bates v The Post Office'.  The drama is introduced as being based on a true story, with some changes, but the ongoing investigations suggest that it does a great deal more than just capture the nature of what took place.  

Watching the story, it seems unbelievable that it has taken so long to reach any kind of resolution (not that we are there yet).  Jobs and homes lost, families torn apart, trust broken and communities struggling.  A similar story unfolding in hundreds of post offices across the country, but nobody succeeding in putting together the strands and recognising that the problem might have been caused by the technology.

Our instincts do not always take us in the right direction.  The starting point appeared to be that the system had to be infallible.  After all, it was costing a huge amount of money to install, and a lot of reputations had been staked on it.  When one person first doubted this, the conclusion was that there was no way that the technology could be to blame.  Then, as increasing numbers came forward with similar stories, the response appears to have been increasingly defensive.

At just the time that questions needed to be asked, they were shut down.  Just when the original conclusion needed to be tested, any challenge was closed off, and the party line was held to be infallible.  As most of us know (and having introduced ISAMs as our management information system recently, we have seen this), it is rare for technology to work perfectly first time, or all the time.  Bugs need to be fixed, glitches corrected, inputs changed.  

Despite this, the Post Office pressed ahead with prosecutions, and earlier this week, one of the investigators (one of whose prosecutions has just been overturned in the Scottish courts) stated that he still believed that the original prosecution had been correct.  Understandably, the widow of the postmaster who had gone to prison, and died without having his name cleared, found this particularly difficult to take.

To a greater or lesser extent, we all do this every day in our lives.  We make allowances for those we trust or like and we draw conclusions about those that we don't know.  These internal biases are often not recognised, and it is only when we take time to reflect and review that we can see past our original viewpoint.  I am not excusing the actions that were taken by some during this scandal, but it is not altogether surprising that we go with the flow, rather than challenging what everyone is telling us is true.  

It takes courage to stand up, and with regard to the Post Office, it took incredible persistence from Alan Bates (and others) to ensure that this did not become just another story.  There is still more to be done, of course, but we all probably need a bit more Alan Bates in us, where we don't accept the first answer that we get, but take time to check that we have got the whole story.

Chris Townsend
Head, Felsted School