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'Teachers, don't give in to political tribalism'

From grammar schools to GCSE resits, teachers should be critical of Tory AND Labour education policy, writes Andrew Otty

A a time of tribal politics, teachers must stand up for citizens' right to claim the middle ground, writes Andrew Otty

From grammar schools to GCSE resits, teachers should be critical of Tory AND Labour education policy, writes Andrew Otty

I always thought that the point of an adversarial parliament was to reach a synthesis: a nuanced idea that was stronger than either side’s starting position.

Now it seems that taking a side is seen as the end point, both in Parliament and among the public, and our society is splitting apart in the headlong divergence towards tribal polarisation. I guess it’s up to us teachers to set an example.

As a respected profession, with undoubted influence over the young minds in our care, it’s our responsibility to model balance and make the case for the centre ground.

It’s easy to jeer along and contribute to the political pantomime in 21st-century comfort.

'The dangers of joining an ideological gang'

Signalling party allegiance on social media is a quick way to forge a simplistic identity and to feel a sense of belonging, in the same way that, as teens, we may have worn Ramones pin badges or Tip-exed Nirvana song titles on to our rucksacks.

For many adults, including a small number of teachers, lining up unthinkingly under one flag or other is a convenient proxy for actually having an identity or critical thought.

But those of us who remember the 20th century, or at least the modern bits of our GCSE history, are well aware of the dangers of joining an ideological gang.

This week there was a rush to condemn the Conservative government’s allocation of £50 million to expand grammar schools.

'Old rehearsed positions'

All those opposed to Tory policy quickly dusted off the old rehearsed positions, and the tribes lined up on both sides. Those in favour of grammars wouldn’t be listening and those against were already long-converted.

I retain a distant affection for the grammar schools where my teaching career began, and where I undeniably saw good things happening for those few who made it through their doors – but my overriding loyalty is to social justice.

In my region, the grammar school awarded funding for expansion is the most exclusive and most selective of them all. The Department for Education would have been hard-pressed to find one that did less for social mobility.

'A £50m break for the upper-middle class'

In fact, it literally wouldn’t have been able to. The successful school has just 5 per cent disadvantaged students; the most abysmally-low figure of all grammars in the area. Elsewhere in the same county, a city grammar school with 23 per cent disadvantaged students was not successful in its bid.

It’s actually shameless because, even if you believe that grammars can support social mobility, that’s not what this is intended for.

This is a £50 million break for the upper-middle class, so they can save on seven years’ worth of private-school fees and treat themselves to a Porsche instead.

And it’s those who do believe in grammars, rightly or wrongly, who need to be shown that; so we need to get together in the middle ground somewhere to have the conversation.

'Rapturous applause'

While we’re there, let’s talk about the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, too. At the recent Association of Colleges national conference, she announced that a Labour government would scrap the GCSE resit policy that currently gives the disproportionately disadvantaged post-16 students without a C or 4 grade, mostly in FE colleges, another chance at the facilitating qualifications for English and maths.

I suspect she was met with the rapturous applause she was courting from the college-group CEOs, education consultants, lobbyists, tech reps and retiree armchair generals in the audience. I would love to compare the average salary of those applauding Rayner’s pledge to scrap the resit policy with the average salary of those without a grade C/4 in my subject.

'The Jeremy Clarkson educational philosophy'

A report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies last week suggests that women without the grade in GCSE English plateau far, far below UK average income.

Although men fare slightly better, the income gap between those with and those without the grade only gets wider as they get older.

Unfortunately, Rayner shares her educational philosophy with Jeremy Clarkson; proud to have come as far as she has without many qualifications, and, therefore, blissfully convinced that nobody else needs them either.

I am far more impressed by the people I know who have emerged from extremely challenging backgrounds with educational achievements that put their privileged peers to shame.

'Higher aspirations would benefit everyone'

I’m tired of the populist inverted snobbery that has put an angry Oompa Loompa in the White House and that would triumphantly put someone even less qualified into the position of leading education in our country.

I’d dare those perverse voters to get on a plane where the pilot so proudly announces their complete lack of competence. A headteacher of one of those grammars I worked at used to say that “a rising tide lifts all ships”, meaning, I think, that higher aspirations and expectations would benefit everyone.

It’s a philosophy that should unite every teacher in a common mission, but all I see right now, to extend his metaphor, is the Tories throwing money into an isolated rock pool with their backs turned on the ocean. Out on the resit lifeboats, I see Angela Rayner gleefully kicking poor children overboard.

Both are opportunistic and unforgivable, but we teachers need to have the courage to step away from our tribes and model integrity by condemning both equally.

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity Shine

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