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'People who disagree with powerful people are demonised – this needs to stop'

I criticised the government's new 'face of teaching' last week, and felt the force of a Twitter backlash – but all I wanted was an informed, courteous and rational debate, writes one celebrated educationalist

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I criticised the government's new 'face of teaching' last week, and felt the force of a Twitter backlash – but all I wanted was an informed, courteous and rational debate, writes one celebrated educationalist

Last week, I criticised the new “face of teaching” in the government's recruitment drive – IT teacher Calvin Robinson – for claiming that all teachers are lefties, forcing their views onto their pupils and effectively brainwashing them.

Unsurprisingly there was a Twitter backlash. Describing Mr Robinson as making a gross and unfounded generalisation, I was accused of hypocritically generalising in my turn.

I can take criticism: it’s how social media operates. I was just pleading for reasoned comment and sensible debate, as well as restating my belief that the overwhelming majority of teachers do a thorough and professional job and, despite the many reasons they may have at present for disliking the Conservative government, have no desire to brainwash their pupils. If that was indeed a generalisation, I’m afraid I stand by it, and by my rejection of such denigration of a proud profession.

There’s a history of political machineries singling out particular bodies for vilification.

Way back in early 1990, I attended my first conference on a “future of education” theme: at the time, I’d been appointed to headship, but wasn’t yet in post.

The day was chaired by a then junior education minister, nowadays a senior member of the cabinet. In his opening remarks, he asserted: "Educationalists have been systematically lowering standards for decades." I was gobsmacked to hear an MP speak in those terms, but he clearly felt himself among friends: I twigged (too late) that the event was a right-wing caucus. I was young and naïve back then.

Did power encourage such chutzpah? Margaret Thatcher was still prime minister, the Tories felt fireproof and there was a move among ministers to “take on” the professions and break their power. A few years later I recall Ken Clarke, who moved from education to health secretary, vowing the medical profession’s to destroy the medics’ “secret garden”.

Liberal with a little 'l'

OK, the objects of these particular criticisms are Tories. But my long career as a head spans 27 years – including 11 years spent on the council of ASCL, representing school leaders.

Dealing with the Blair government wasn't all plain sailing following its 1997 landslide. Successive (and rapidly-changing) education secretaries – kept “on-message” by what Tes’s great satirical commentator Ted Wragg dubbed “Tony Zoffis” – were keen to talk as long as no one crossed them. Dare to disagree, and the mood turned petulant, the door slammed shut.

Mr Blair’s administration wasn’t above generalisation. Not about teachers, perhaps. But its spin doctors loathed the BBC for its “establishment bias” and, following the Iraq WMD affair and the “dodgy dossier”, put such pressure on BBC governors that they lost both their nerve and their director general, Greg Dyke.

Worthily exposing humbug and incompetence (though hopeless on its own salary structure), the BBC is currently succeeding in upsetting both Left and Right (including Donald Trump): perhaps it’s doing its job correctly, then.

I’m no lefty, nor a Tory. Essentially a centrist, I guess I’m a “small l” liberal (it’s not cool to be that nowadays). A decade ago, Mr Blair and Mr Cameron were fighting for votes over the middle ground: now that’s abandoned in favour of extremes. 

As a result, I belong to that lonely bunch who, choosing a leader for the country in June (though the ballot paper furnishes no such option), would have preferred a box to tick saying "none of the above".

Back to last week’s blog. All I was asking for was an end to the gratuitous demonising of particular groups with whom powerful people disagree. Instead, I was begging for the kind of informed, courteous and rational debate that the best teachers demand of their pupils.

It’s not too much to ask. Is it?

Dr Bernard Trafford was until last week headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne. He is also a former chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

To read more columns, view his back catalogue

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