Mothers and silence are generally not considered to be words that go together but the expression “Mum’s the Word” has the meaning of “Don’t tell anyone”. The world in which we live today is a world of silence and secrecy (sometimes disguised as ‘Confidentiality’) in the midst of much noise (music, publicity) and information. “Don’t tell anyone” underlies the pernicious ‘Code of Silence’ that is prevalent not just in our schools but also in our society; too many of us live by the ‘Code of Silence’, even to the extent that we do not even want to speak about the ‘Code of Silence’. The same people who are quick to speak when a referee makes a decision against their team are silent when it comes not just to decisions the referee makes in favour of their team but more importantly when it comes to issues that really matter – sexual abuse, bullying, injustice, corruption and others.

Juniors are warned by Seniors not to tell parents or teachers of the treatment they receive so they remain silent; pupils are told by teachers not to tell other pupils, teachers or parents of things that happen so they remain silent. Parents are warned by authorities not to complain while authorities are warned by parents not to take action. “Don’t tell anyone”. So people remain silent and suffer further horrific abuse or mistreatment. They are scared to speak for fear of retribution, of not being believed, of being mocked, of being told they are soft. Not only are they scared but they are also scarred, not only by the experience but also by the silence, deeply and painfully.

It is as the Commander of the Australian Army, David Morrison, commented when there were serious discipline issues within his forces, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. The standard we walk past without saying (or doing) anything is what we are all left with. The person who knows something wrong has happened but who does nothing is as guilty as the person who has done the wrong deed. As Edmund Burke famously said, “Evil prevails when good men do nothing.” If we are not for, we are against. The time has come therefore for us to raise the standard in our schools and in our country, to remove the ‘Code of Silence’, in two major ways.

Firstly we must teach our children to speak up, all the more so when someone says “Don’t tell anyone”. They need to know that if no-one speaks up, if the ‘Code’ is extended, then at least three crucial things happen. Firstly, the ‘wrong’ will continue (and probably will come back to bite them eventually). Secondly, it will waste valuable time and resources of those investigating which could be much better utilised. Thirdly, it drains the energy, emotion and commitment of those having to deal with the silence which in the long run will impact negatively on the whole of that society. Those who stick to a ‘Code of Silence’ are thus themselves guilty of major, and perhaps even greater, offences.

However, they also need to know how to speak up. Ideally they need to know to speak to the person concerned, directly and respectfully, privately and quietly. If that does not succeed, they need to speak to the person concerned in the same manner but with a witness; if that also fails to produce a change, they need to advise the person they will take the matter to the relevant authorities.

At the same time though, secondly, we must help them to speak up. All too often, children will not speak up because people do not help them to do so. So we as a community need to do that in a number of ways. We need to be silent to allow them to speak – and by being silent we must do what is an anagram of ‘silent’ – listen. And just as the person speaking up needs to speak in the right manner so we need to listen in the right manner; we really need to listen directly and respectfully, privately and quietly. We need to believe them and not dismiss their report, not least as it will have required a huge amount of courage to speak up. We must encourage them to speak up on all aspects. We must reward those who do speak up, especially those who own up to something they have done. We must support them, stand by them (physically and emotionally) and protect them.

Martin Luther King Junior said that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” To that end, we should replace the ‘Code of Silence’ (which is actually only a ‘Code of Selective Silence’) with a Code of Honour (not a Code of Favour or Humour) where pupils are honour-bound to speak up for what is right. We must not keep mum on this!