'Nothing demonstrates adult failure to support the young more than the widespread and naïve belief that politics has a place in school life'
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World at One the morning of the referendum result, historian Simon Schama could barely contain his anger. But what made me sit up was that he made a special point of expressing his sympathy for the young who, he argued, had been let down, shabbily treated and were dismayed and disappointed at the Leave result. His proved to be anything but a lone voice.
Both my daughters’ social-media channels crackled and fizzed disbelief all morning, living testament to that reality. All kinds of schoolchildren in the UK expressed all kinds of emotional reactions to the Leave vote, including feelings of dismay, fear and anxiety. These were captured and disseminated widely by the media, and by teachers and school leaders in the days after the result.
And every school teacher and headteacher in the country who did so and, worse, who thought it was important that their pupils were “engaged in the debate” and believed it appropriate to organise special events beforehand, should be hanging their head in shame. Because nothing more clearly demonstrates adult failure to support and enable the young to adapt to the adult world than the widespread and naïve belief that politics has a place in school life, anywhere other than in a classroom full of pupils studying politics.
Blind to its own intolerance
I have written before about how absurdly politicised the profession is: so much so that it is visibly blind to its own intolerance and prejudice. In the build-up to the referendum, the immediate response to the result, and in the febrile antidemocratic sour grapes that burst in every direction in the immediate aftermath, teachers and school leaders were noisy and visible. There was the odd polite defence from a teacher courageous enough to admit they voted Leave, but nothing could be more indicative of the intolerance and prejudice that singles the profession out than the way so many stretched their right to express an opinion to a right to impose it on the young.
I vividly recall telling an audience at the Festival of Education in 2014, who were bleating in amazement at proposed changes coming from a newly elected Conservative minister, that since they had let their personal politics guide their professional behaviour for years, then they deserved everything they were likely to get from a professional politician. I will never forget the sea of puzzled faces I had forced to face up to an ugly truth, it was like confronting a room full of Dorian Grays, staring disbelievingly at their own twisted portrait.
If you indulge your own personal politics, and impose your personal views on the children you teach, you are betraying them and the educational culture you represent. Your job is not to think for them; it’s to teach them to think for themselves. Yet, in the period surrounding the referendum, the educational media was choked with educational leaders incapable of demonstrating the objectivity inherent in the job they are employed to do.
Betrayal of trust
Also on Radio 4, within days of the result, the author AL Kennedy delivered possibly the best thing I have ever heard come out of a radio. In her Point of View, she said: “I know what happens when communication fails. What happens when every level of a nation’s educational system has been in politicised flux for decade,” before going on to capture with glorious accuracy “what happens when the difficult human courteous art of communication is no longer valued or cultivated. You already know what happens: you’re living in it. There isn’t silence: there is meaningless din.”
That teachers and school leaders contributed so eagerly to this meaningless din is not just a tragedy, it’s a betrayal of the trust children and parents place in them. It’s time schools completely reassessed the role they have allowed politics to play in them. All those manipulative school parliaments and school councils, those staged debates on issues in the news, or charity events carefully chosen to suit someone’s political agenda, need to disappear for good. Education is not, as so many lobbyists would have you believe, some kind of ethical crusade against social disadvantage. Just because they feel good believing that doesn’t make it true. Children have a right to find their own way with the help of objective, knowledgeable, skilled teachers.
Dorian Gray in denial
When I was a tutor with Teach First, this issue particularly exercised my tutees. They were acutely aware, from their own recent experience of the classroom, how common this problem was. They all had stories to tell about the teachers who used the classroom as their private little hustings, or ones who wouldn't hesitate to blame any failing of the school’s on central government or Ofsted. We even role-played that common situation where a clever child does their level best to force you into expressing an opinion. It’s not difficult to respond to questions with questions of your own, or to offer children a range of third-party views you specifically lay no claim to.
And, if you are a Dorian Gray still in denial, but you’ve managed somehow to get this far without resorting to Facebook vitriol, then here is the perfect illustration of why such solipsistic meddling has to stop.
The widespread appearance of the argument after the referendum – from Simon Schama and others – that somehow the young vote had greater validity, purely on the grounds that they had more to lose over time, did nothing but worsen their pain. Do I really have to remind anyone buying into this insidious attack on democracy that, whether you are 18 or 118, your vote is equal in every possible respect to everyone else’s? Perhaps you’d prefer to value an individual vote according to sex, skin colour…or national identity?
I am in no doubt that less hurt would have been caused had all those so eager to preach their views to schoolchildren instead taught them the meaning and importance of universal suffrage.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author