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'Hunt's oath is a symbol of his drive to increase teacher professionalism'

John Blake, history teacher, writer and Labour member, writes: 

On Sunday morning, Tristram Hunt suggested he wanted to add a new ritual to the world of education, the swearing of a Hippocratic Oath for teachers. Responses to this idea came in three flavours: outrage, mockery and bafflement.

The first need not take up too much time: say absolutely anything in educational policy discourse and some part of edu-Twitter will explode. The mockery, while funnier, is also fairly predictable: teachers are a cynical folk and deadpan humour helps while away the hours. The bafflement is more a problem, because it seemed both more common and shared by many sensible people: why an oath? Why now? What was it designed to achieve?

Perhaps my own response to the oath idea is shaped by my Catholic upbringing: I’ve always liked ritual. Even now, years after my faith lapsed, I find something comforting in the steady rhythm of the Mass. I think ritual is immensely valuable in other walks of life: from time-to-time and most often at liminal moments, a community is required to publicly affirm its values, ethos and purpose, offering a chance to bind people together or at least to provide a moment of common reflection. Oaths are a ritual of public affirmation, not necessary (after all, Parliament could simply make lying in court a crime with no need to swear before testifying) but commonly understood, and for that reason powerful.

However, there is a danger that this looks like a gimmick. The vagaries of a political opposition’s relationship with the media, coupled with lack of access to the full civil service, can lead to ideas appearing in public shorn of their wider policy context. But there is definitely one here: Hunt has been a consistent advocate of greater professionalism, and this oath is clearly meant of a piece with his views on the necessity of a Royal College, professional revalidation and continued development. Together, these can form a prism to view education anew, and allow teachers to challenge workload problems, oppose pressure on to breach the coursework rubric and much else.

Hunt has been consistent that he wishes to underpin, not undermine, teacher professionalism and the oath is a symbol of, not a substitute for, that wider debate about the future of our profession.


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