Joe Nutt: We need a Damascene moment that takes the politics out of teaching

12th August 2013 at 18:35
Joe Nutt, educational consultant, researcher and author, writes:
The first staffroom I entered as a trainee secondary school teacher in 1980 stank of cigarette smoke and was decorated liberally with political posters and leaflets, uniformly Marxist in tone. The head of my department wore a navy blue duffel coat in the classroom without any hint of embarrassment. I was mocked by staff for wearing a tie and the head teacher locked himself away in his study every lunch hour with a handful of senior cronies to play bridge and was not, under any circumstances, to be disturbed. But I was disturbed, disturbed by the political assumptions prevalent everywhere I turned.
Today I recognise I was actually an unusual interloper at the time, not just because I was studying at a Russell Group university but because I had never belonged to a political party and saw no reason why politics should ever enter my job teaching English.
More than thirty years later I still think that way. More than thirty years later I see the same staffroom literature plastered on notice boards, only now I also think its time something serious was done about it.
Russell Group graduates may no longer be the rarity they once were in state school staffrooms but the prevalence of politicised teachers, professionals who believe their role is not just to teach maths, geography, Spanish or English but to imbue the children they teach with their personal political views, is worse than it ever was and the entire UK school system is crippled and stifled by it.
You don’t have to consider the routinely aggressive way teachers respond to education ministers whatever their political shade or inclination. Estelle Morris was treated every bit as disrespectfully as Michael Gove now is. Spend just a few minutes browsing the comments under any UK educational news story online and you will see precisely what I mean. The curriculum and the profession are rotten with it. What other profession demonstrates such a profound lack of political objectivity as teaching?
These people don’t just wear their politics on their sleeves, they twirl it above their heads like a cheerleader’s baton before ramming it sideways down your throat. Can you imagine solicitors, accountants, on the till at a supermarket or even advertising executives behaving in such a uniformly authoritarian way? I have worked in business [as an educational consultant] for a long time now and cannot think of a single colleague whose political views I could confidently predict.
And that, I believe, is where the issue lies. Teachers, especially secondary, subject specialist teachers are supposed to know. They are supposed to acquire a certain level of subject expertise and knowledge before they can confidently tell others what they know, but it is a perilously short step from there to telling everyone. The classroom gives you authority, it gives you influence if only over a small, captive audience. Which is why the best teachers never, ever share their political views with the children they teach. Why, in fact, what they do is side step and divert any effort by children to try and discover their political, or indeed any other views, because they know their job is not to voice theirs: but to show the children they teach how to voice their own.
This is also why that awful gobbet of jargon, “pupil voice” is such an excruciating paradox, because far from being the neutral, eclectic clarion call it pretends to, it is in fact just another in a long line of initiatives seeking conformity to the dominant politically correct thinking so many teachers share when they should be encouraging independence and originality.
I believe the entire teaching training industry is facing a collectively Damascene moment and unless it embeds the notion of the apolitical teacher at the heart of all its training, change or reform of the UK education system will continue to be strangled as often as not in the womb, by a profession that has lost any sense of its proper place in a society where doctors, bin men and yes, even bankers seem to know theirs. 
And if you are one of those teachers, you will almost certainly already have found a way to write me off as politically motivated. But before you do, try this little thought experiment. Imagine your thirteen year old child is currently being taught history by a teacher like you, one who thinks it is not just acceptable, but professionally clever to voice their political views in a classroom full of teenagers. Now imagine that history teacher holds political views you abhor, views every bit as disturbingly extreme as they are sincerely held…still want them to teach your child? Neither do I.


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