'A tolerant society depends on how far teachers will defend freedom of speech – including Conservatives in the staffroom'

10th February 2018 at 18:03
The abusive treatment of teachers with mainstream but right-of-centre views by their staffroom colleagues is a very worrying trend

One day, Calvin Robinson – a successful teacher – made a big decision: he was going to reveal his allegiance to the Conservative Party.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. I wouldn’t say it left me scarred, but it certainly shaped my opinion of the profession,” he said. “I told people I was a Conservative in the staffroom one day. People were genuinely aghast. Jaws dropped. There was suddenly a weird vibe.”

When Calvin told me this, it sounded like his colleagues had responded to him as if he'd revealed a criminal past or that he’d killed his own cat. But, in essence, all Calvin had admitted to was membership of a moderate, centre-right party that has been in existence for the best part of two centuries.

Following his revelation, Calvin had to fight a battle to be accepted – and a battle to be left alone. During my interview with him, the word “bullied” came to my mind on more than one occasion, although he said he did not feel that was the case. Calvin received hate mail, tweets and emails calling him “a liar, Tory scum and a good slave trying to appease his masters”. The worst experience he had was when one member of staff felt so aggrieved over comments he'd made in The Telegraph about the profession that they lodged a formal complaint and tried to end his career.

“This colleague disagreed with my opinion so strongly, they were willing to file a formal complaint and attempt to tarnish my career prospects.

"Sharing your opinion can be dangerous,” he concluded.

When I read the story Calvin mentioned his colleague taking objection to, I found nothing in there to warrant the kind of vilification he seemed to receive. In fact, Calvin encouraged an apolitical vision of schooling, stating that “schools have to have policies where they are completely apolitical, or be open about their views but offer unbiased commentary”.

And Calvin isn’t the only one who has been subject to this sort of treatment. Last year, a history and RE teacher called Jonathan Porter published an article for the Tes where he pinned his colours to the Tory mast prior to the 2017 general election.

With the myriad problems currently present in our education system, it's fair to say that his view would never have been received well, but what was surprising was the vitriol with which fellow education professionals were willing to pour over a fellow teacher's political view. One headteacher tweeted, I quote, “Jonathan Porter, quite simply what a ****, out of touch attention-seeking plank. You are the first person ever banned from [this school]”. Many supported the headteacher, saying things like, “Well done for standing up for education, fully support you.” Others did condemn the remarks, but no apology has been forthcoming.

I wrote a blog at the time on this episode and emphasised my own centrist political pragmatism; I’ve voted for three different parties across the spectrum in the past three elections. I strongly believe in our obligation as educators to provide our young people with the facts, the methodology to interrogate the facts and the courage to form and express their own opinion based on the facts. In my view, every young person – and adult, for that matter – has the right to discover their own authentic self.

I was contacted by a teacher anonymously just last week, who shared another story: “After the last general election, I was labelled the 'only Tory in the school' because I'm not ashamed of my views or believe that I should hide them. I had teachers telling me I shouldn't be in teaching if I'm a Tory in front of a staffroom with parent helpers in, which was quite embarrassing!”

The teacher said that he was branded as “a 'capitalist' who wants to bleed the NHS and teaching dry”.

We as teachers surely can’t bow to the intense political division that seems to have engulfed this country. And no political divide has been as strong over the past two years than that of the Brexit referendum, and the fallout from the result.

Calvin voted leave, and said that he felt he had "perfectly understandable reasons" for doing so, but said that the idea of voting leave was "completely abhorrent" to many others in his staffroom.

“I was called into the headteacher’s office like a naughty student on the morning after the referendum," he said. "I was told explicitly not to mention the referendum under any circumstances, as 'a lot of staff are very upset about it, not to mention we have a lot of European students', completely ignorant of my reasons for voting leave. But the headteacher wasted no time in sending the petition round for a second referendum.”

It’s not just the pro-Brexit teachers who have been subject to this. I was contacted by a high-profile former headteacher who told me he’d also been treated badly over the issue.

“I was called in to a meeting with my chair of governors to be told that a parent had complained that I was tweeting anti-Brexit views in particular, and views that were not related to education. I was told that in the view of the chair and vice-chair of governors, I was guilty of breaching the code of conduct. I was therefore told that I needed to consider what I tweeted in future as this parent was actually speaking for a number of others in our school community.”

This former headteacher was living and working in an area that skews Conservative and voted in favour of Brexit. “I elected to simply agree not to tweet any more on anything. I was absolutely appalled that this had been allowed to happen, and that my governors (important to understand that this was just the chair and vice-chair) had decided that I was in the wrong. The matter never came to discussion at a governing body meeting despite my attempts to put it on the agenda.”

Although I’m not privy to the exact tweets that were objected to, this does, on face value, seem to be another example of freedom of speech being seriously curtailed to suit the views of popular local opinion.

The stories relayed in this article are astonishing, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. I have recently seen teachers express the view that we need to intervene when we don’t think views expressed are appropriate. Although perhaps not as blunt as direct abuse, we also surely have a duty to not to allow the subduing of contrary views to become the norm either. 

I find no better way to end this article than by echoing a sentiment attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

I very much hope this doesn’t become “I don’t agree with what you say, but I won’t dare say it because I don’t want to be labelled a racist, a bigot or – dare I say it? – a Conservative”.

The future of our young people, the future of a truly tolerant and liberal society, depends on how far we will go to defend freedom of speech and even freedom of thought. If we fail, we risk sending our children out to the extremes to find their answers. And those are places none of us can control.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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