'In these uncertain times, teachers must encourage common sense and humanity in pupils'

As educators, we musn't reinforce the impression of a "smug liberal elite" who always claim to know best, writes one leading headteacher

Bernard Trafford

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On 9 November 1989, I was appointed to my first headship.

That evening, after the chair of governors had shaken my hand, we were at home celebrating with friends and family. Nonetheless, we turned on the television for the BBC Nine O’Clock News to see the Berlin Wall coming down: it was that important.

They were heady days. We watched the Soviet Communist Bloc collapse. It wasn't all easy, and there was some bloodshed. But countries where freedom of expression and human rights had been long suppressed started to breathe again. People in Eastern Europe were free and eagerly embraced a positive, democratic future.

It was a thrilling time to be moving into a leadership role. As a head, I was committed to an open style of management (not the norm back then).

In the following years, I developed my ideas on giving not only teachers a voice, but students, too. These were relatively early days for school councils, somewhat ahead of the curve.

It fitted the zeitgeist: the walls of communist oppression were coming down, even if (by contrast) the national curriculum, inspection and league tables were starting to get their claws into schools and to invade the lives of teachers.

Now, 27 years later, on the same date, America has elected Donald Trump to be its next President.

I’m not a Trump fan, and have many concerns about his presidency, but please don't think I fear a new wave of oppression from that quarter.

Nonetheless, all those years ago we saw walls come down, but now it seems new barriers are being erected. It will be interesting to see whether Mr Trump carries out his threat to build one on the border with Mexico. There is already an infamous wall in Israel, and has been for some time. And while there are no physical walls separating us from Vladimir Putin's Russia, that country's relations with the West are frosty; his stance is bellicose and his political opponents are cowed.

Back home, the Brexit vote implies the creation of barriers between the UK and Europe, though the Channel obviates any need for a wall. Brexiteers will howl with anger at that last statement, claiming that the UK will be open to all the world – though not (obviously) to economic migrants or refugees.

'We must tell our pupils to counter injustice'

It appears that young American voters supported Clinton and the Democrats, whereas older (and probably wealthier) ones elected Trump.

The British young felt similarly disenfranchised by the Brexit vote. Meanwhile, people of my age and liberal disposition are currently vilified, for unspecific reasons, as smug and unpatriotic.

After this 9 November, I’m looking forward not to a new job, but to a new phase of my life: I shall retire next summer.

I won't pretend that there’s no sense of impending relief from the burden of headship after 27 years, but I’m not feeling the heady optimism I felt in 1989 and 1990, when the world was apparently hurtling towards a better future.

I can't see where the world, my world, is going. The rhetoric around Brexit was about “getting our country back” or "making Britain great again”: the Trump mantra was similar.

It’s all nonsense, of course: no one has diminished or stolen our countries.

So what will we tell our young people, our pupils? It’s not our role to preach, and certainly not to reinforce that impression of a "smug liberal elite" who always claim to know best. We should encourage our pupils to do three things.

First, never accept the claims, promises or blandishments of politicians at face value, but examine them carefully.

Second, never accept the denigration or demonisation of particular sections of society.

Third, when you see injustice, be vocal and determined in naming it and countering it.

If we can do that as educators, we won't go too far wrong. Common sense and humanity can rule, whatever the complexion of government or the particular ideology of its leaders.

There’s a postscript to my recollection of 1989. I was an internal appointment to headship, something that can arouse strong feelings. A disapproving colleague had been heard to say, “It’s absurd. They’ll never appoint Bernard. The Berlin Wall will come down first!”

He was wrong: but only by three hours.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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