Politicians get a taste of shaming medicine

12th June 2009 at 01:00
Now they have experienced the humiliation of being named, they might be less ready to point the finger at schools

So now we know what it was like to live in the Middle Ages. There may not be stocks on the village green or a ducking stool swung out over a nearby river. But the media frenzy over MPs' expenses reveals the same collective instinct for public humiliation. It's what the 19th-century reforming politician Thomas Macaulay characterised as the British public "in one of its periodic fits of morality".

Then there's been the spectacle of a Prime Minister tethered to a stake like some lumbering, wounded bear while goaded and taunted by the people around him.

All of this, plus gains by the British National Party in the European parliamentary elections, means things feel suddenly different. It's a bit like that moment in the 1970s BBC television drama series Survivors where people opened the door of their bunker and found - eyes blinking against the smouldering, post-nuclear landscape - that everything had changed.

So what does it all mean for those of us who work in the public services and, specifically, in education?

Many of us will have found the grubby torrent of revelations about MPs' expenses deeply distasteful. The contempt felt by many members of the public perhaps helps to explain those European election results. It would be nice to think that they were in part a protest vote rather than a genuine reflection of voters' real views, although that is probably a sentimental view.

But if, as educators, we felt disturbed about the expenses scandal, my guess is that it wasn't only at the news of what some MPs were up to. It was also at the way the news was revealed. The daily drip-feed of names had the effect of making the public assume that all MPs were at it, that all were culpable. Well, they weren't: it was only some of them. But the poisonous underlying message is that public service itself is grubby and untrustworthy.

Ultimately, that could prove to be a very damaging perception. Those of us working in the public services know that black-and-white value judgments are rarely illuminating, that trial by newspaper is hardly fair, and that an unseemly momentum is building across Britain that may actually end up unravelling much that is good about our public life.

More than those working in many professions, teachers know the corrosive power of the media to undermine the public trust in institutions and people who - while they may be flawed - are ultimately working for the public good.

It's what the Archbishop of Canterbury was saying when he weighed in a fortnight ago, writing in The Times that "the continuing systematic humiliation of politicians itself threatens to carry a heavy price in terms of our ability to salvage some confidence in our democracy".

After all, we've seen for ourselves the effects of media witch-hunts. The Association of School and College Leaders calculates that dozens of headteachers lose their jobs each year following negative reporting of Ofsted verdicts.

Similarly, last year, on the day that the National Challenge schools were named and shamed by the press, I happened to be on a train and recognised a senior official at the Department for Children, Schools and Families. I asked him about the 30 per cent top-grade GCSE measure, which seemed to me a madcap and arbitrary benchmark that took little account of a school's actual circumstances.

"Well, you have to draw a line in the sand somewhere," he said.

But those heads and teachers working in those schools faced a media storm, which for many hasn't disappeared. One school I know was named as failing by the local newspaper and received a bashful phone call from one of its partner primaries. They wouldn't be attending the planned sports day after all because they were worried about what their parents might think. They didn't want to be tainted. We see the same with the Baby P case where the assumption now is that all social workers are inept.

Perhaps one unexpectedly welcome consequence of the expenses scandal might be a warning to our political masters and mistresses of the dangers of naming and shaming. Those headteachers sacked by squeamish governing bodies who lose their nerve following a disappointing Ofsted inspections; those teachers suspended while a malicious accusation is investigated - all such scenarios are a lesson to politicians of the fragile professional mortality of people in public life.

A puncturing of confidence, egged on by a press ever keen to whip up a scandal, can leave us all - teachers, heads, as well as MPs - fatally undermined.

One lesson of the Westminster turbulence that we might usefully pass on to our pupils is that kneejerk moral judgments are rarely helpful. Not all MPs have their snouts stuck deep in the public trough, just as not all social workers are idiots, not all bankers are baddies, and not all teachers are idle or incompetent.

After all, the last thing we need is for our young people to lose all faith in the importance of public life. More than ever before - given the problems our planet faces - we need our brightest and most optimistic youngsters to consider a career in politics, education, public administration or social care. We need them in jobs that - for all their lack of glamour and heavy accountability - can make a real difference to other people's lives.

At the end of Eleven Minutes Late, his new book about the railways in Britain, Matthew Engel writes: "It is not the politicians who are responsible for the mess. It is us, because we let them do it."

If we want better politicians, then we, the people, have a part to play. Let's resist applauding the cheap spectacle of public humiliation. Some traditions - like bear-baiting - belong firmly in the past.

Geoff Barton, Headteacher, King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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