1 June 2014

If you read or watched the news last week, you’re probably already aware of the debate sparked by a student pranking a teacher with a paper plate and some whipped cream. If you use Twitter, you’re probably also already aware that a number of people disagreed with my decision to defend Jacob and give him a second chance. I’d like to explain that decision.

When the story broke, I was in Disney Land with Gail and the girls, Steven – a long standing member of the UKFast team – and his family. I’d set a challenge to encourage some banter and competition between the guys and girls on the floor and, as he’s done so many times before, Steven raised his game and won, joining us in Paris for a weekend. Looking back, it seems strange somehow to have been there when we found out how a custard pie, something that wouldn’t have been out of place amongst the cartoon humour and silliness around us, had landed a young man in such trouble with the police and arguably most of the country.

At the same time the story came to light, I had just written a little note to Steven, along with a Buzz Lightyear toy for his son. I’d wanted to thank him for such a memorable weekend and remind him of the first day we met in Manchester, twelve years ago, a meeting that I instantly knew was significant. Call me emotional, call me idealistic, but I met Steven for a reason all those years ago. It made me ask myself why this young lad had come up on my radar. Have you ever found yourself in a situation like that where something that could have easily slipped through the net stuck there instead? In my experience, these things feel important for a reason, so I rang Jacob up to hear his side of the story, talk to his father and invite him in for an interview.

This is not to say that what he did was right; far from it. I don’t think it was right and I think he took things a step too far. Whilst it was on a prank day so you’d expect pranks to take place (it was only a little earlier in the day that he was soaked by a teacher with a water pistol) but in my view, there is definitely a line of respect that shouldn’t be crossed and Jacob crossed it, albeit unwittingly.

Having said that, I think the school has messed up too. At the time, I felt it was preposterous that the police had been involved. Having two large establishments – the school (and hundreds of teachers across the country) – and the police force coming down on him at once made Jacob the underdog. From my perspective, I felt that if the school had disowned him then he would need somebody to stand by his side. I’m lucky to have some great relationships with people, one of whom is a teacher called Mr Durrant. He was my rugby coach and English Lit teacher. You could argue he needed the patience of a saint to deal with me, but he encouraged me to do running and find ways to burn my energy and I’m still friends with him now. He was the guy who gave me a second chance.

Chatting to Jacob, I felt like he should be given one too. It was clear that he was pretty ashamed of the whole thing. I know how he felt as I got into plenty of trouble at school growing up and I really hated that moment when your parents got to know about it – the sinking feeling of knowing you’d disappointed them. I was also reminded of an incident at my school where a boy had his parents called in for something and, tragically, hung himself the next day. People don’t realise the sense of pressure children feel from schools and parents. I think that Jacob just needs to be given a break and a chance to prove he’s a better person.

I also took a phone call from the father in law of the teacher Jacob pranked and I listened to his side of the story. He was concerned that Jacob was being rewarded and given a job when actually he’s done something that’s wrong. Whilst my heart goes goes out her and her family, as there’s no doubt that what happened was humiliating, there is thankfully no injury and she’s unharmed. Yes, it was wrong but had it been kept within the school, they could have disciplined him properly. They could have been judge and jury and set a really good example for the other pupils. By bringing in the police force, they’ve lost control of it and, in my opinion, they’ve overreacted. The police didn’t believe Jacob’s actions could be called assault and suggested restorative justice, so they’re recommending the teacher sit down with the pupil and explain why he’s made her feel so bad. Personally, I think this is a great idea.

I do believe that the school has some responsibility over this though, as they’ve had this prank day for years. They’ve clearly not set the guidelines out of what is acceptable and what isn’t. Plus, they  have a track record of getting this wrong. Last year, students overstepped the mark so badly that a prank caused extreme embarrassment to all the teachers. After that incident they should have set the limits. In a sense, it’s almost like Jacob is being punished for the previous year’s mess up.

Nobody wants teachers to be in a vulnerable position, but they are at the moment, especially with the incident that happened in Leeds that led to the death of a teacher. What kind of world are we living in when a teacher can’t turn her back on her class and know that she or he is safe? Yes, it’s a problem that needs dealing with but not in this way. We’ve got to be careful we don’t punish an innocent person when there are serious crimes being committed and we need to put measures in place to make schools safe places to be. We should be talking about how we protect people, both students and teachers. We don’t want to be like America where people are able to attack others but we also don’t want it to be like a prison. We have incredible schooling in this country and we need to keep stepping it up to compete with the rest of the world, but we’re not going to unless people work together to create a harmonious environment.

Ultimately, I have no regrets helping Jacob out. Even if it doesn’t work out, he will be influenced by being with our company. I think the point with this is that everything happens for a reason. I’m a great believer in trying to find the good in every situation. Some of the greatest relationships start from the toughest beginnings. What would be possible if Jacob and his teacher sat down and had a discussion about what happened? I’d be happy to facilitate it and I know he would like to say sorry to her, face to face.

It’s also important to make clear that the opportunity to join our sales team is not a golden ticket. It’s not for everyone and not everyone makes it. Training is almost military right from the outset with people trained in communication, negotiation and customer service, and how important working together and collaborating is. It’s a tough road ahead, not an easy ride. I’ve also heard rumour that one of our trainers, a former teacher, is planning to surprise Jacob with a custard pie during the induction process – payback on behalf of teachers across the country!

From my perspective, I always like to try and find good in every situation. It’s been important to me to be able to write this blog post as Twitter is good for so many things but sometimes 140 characters just isn’t enough to explain something as complicated as this. So thank you to everyone who has been supportive and to those who still believe in my wacky ways. It might not always seem like it but there’s (usually) method behind my madness. Jacob, I look forward to having you on our team. I hope you’re ready for the challenge.

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