Whatever the election result, teachers are the losers

We're caught in the electoral equivalent of Groundhog Day. There will be no prizes at the end, says David James

Teachers are caught in a Groundhog Day

The election result is, as yet, a known unknown. But my prediction is that, for teachers, nobody will win. 

We will all lose. There will be no prizes at the end of this most dismal of campaigns. Trophies will be snatched, shields melted down and silverware smelted to ward off the coming darkness. 


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If it were a school prom, Thursday's election would be abandoned because of lack of interest, with everyone preferring to stay in and stare at the wall. The yearbook would be blank – all faces removed from fear of shame by association. 

If it were a speech day, it would be a windswept, washed-out event where the raindrops dripping into your flat prosecco were salted by the tears that sprang from the first sight of an old dawn, and the memories of the hope we once had. 

Groundhog Day

We know that, on Friday, we will wake up, every one of us Bill Murray in Groundhog Day: the sheets unmoved, our bodies frozen, only to hear, instead of Sonny and Cher singing, Boris and Jeremy intoning dirges in the dark about Brexit. We got them, babe, all right.

Even if we drove off a cliff (which, given the political alternatives, looks like the act of a sane and rational electorate) it would start again, for ever and ever, amen. 

Images drag out before our eyes, like some hideous caricature of The Generation Game’s conveyer belt: “A fondue set, a cuddly toy, a child asleep on a hospital floor…” They move before our dead eyes, and we can’t summon the energy to tell them to stop, because our voices have been ruined by years of argument and despair. 

Fingers, exhausted by tweeting, twitch over channel buttons, but each one offers the same news from nowhere and is endless. And we hate ourselves for being too deadened by what passes for normality today to care, to resurrect our old, more moral beings. 

Who would have thought, when that referendum was called, that a simple cross in a box could release so much chaos into the world? It is the butterfly effect made political, only it has the wings of a vulture and the beauty of a beast. 

Trifles light as air

It would be understandable for state school teachers to be interested in the wealth of promises that both parties have given them since the election was called. But who, except activists blinded by belief, thinks that they will get anything tangible? 

To quote Iago (somebody who would be seen as a professional diplomat by today’s standards), “Trifles light as air are…confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ.” 

Well, manifesto pledges are even lighter than air. We can be promised a beach but given a grain of sand. And teachers, Blakean in their ability to build castles from such meagre materials, will labour on, conservative as ever in their hopes for meaningful change. 

I have yet to meet a teacher (except for those shades who exist on social media, those husks with a litany of symbols by their anonymised handles, who seem to have time in their days to blog and tweet more protected than female white rhinos) who wants a National Education Service, or who looks forward to new regulators, or who believes in Tory plans for “further investment”. Trust, long broken, looks impossible to repair. 

A long, hard look in the mirror

For those of us working in the independent sector, the temptation, should Boris Johnson be seen driving to Buckingham Palace in the December gloaming, is that we celebrate an escape from the clutches of those who really hate us. 

We would be wrong to do so. The Tories are no longer our supporters, nor can they be trusted with the future of these world-class schools.

Furthermore, the voices that grew in force through the @AbolishEton campaign – as well as respected writers, such as David Kynaston – articulated something old and familiar, which is not going to go away. We would be unwise to think our sector was safe.

The independent sector should look hard into the mirror, whatever the election result, and ask what more it can do to address the issues many feel it has not done enough to solve.

How can it become more accessible to those who cannot hope to afford its fees? What partnerships can be established that can transform many more lives in state schools, as well as pupil referral units, and other organisations that are struggling to help and protect our most vulnerable young people? How can it use its resources and its considerable ability for innovation to find answers in an age that, more than ever, seeks them from any place, now that our leaders are lost? 

We have, increasingly in this divided country, a moral obligation to increase our efforts to seek progressive change.

David James is deputy head (academic) of an independent school in the South of England. He tweets @drdavidajames

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