'Why teachers should become politicians'

On the Isle of Wight, three of the general election candidates have trained as teachers – and the political debate is richer for it, writes one teacher

Yvonne Williams

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Joe Nutt’s article, When it comes to politics, teachers' number one responsibility is to nurture freedom of thought, advises teachers to "keep your political views locked away", advocating a political pedagogy that "encourage(s) children to think for themselves".

It is, indeed, an exciting anecdote that he offers, a model of courteous debate: "No-one bickered, no-one resorted to dogma or emotion, and, crucially, no-one took offence". And in the classroom situation, where teachers aim to teach tolerance in keeping with their professional standards, it should be the norm.

How should we tackle politics in the classroom to enrich the curriculum?

Cosy conversations about politics – the modelling of fair debate and free speech – are a good start, at the right age. But if our pupils are to be participants rather than just armchair critics, we also need to further an education in politics, as opposed to a political education. 

We should teach our pupils how to get under the predictable veneer of national manifestos. Mathematicians can check the costings of policies, and economists can critique the Brexit strategies. English and history teachers can hone their pupils’ skills of inference and analysis to expose the barely-acknowledged truths about what needs to change to improve the lives of our pupils. There is ample material for the analysis of rhetoric from parliamentary candidates of all political persuasions. Such material is excellent for those pupils studying Animal Farm, for instance. 

This is not "using teaching as the ideal way to implement...personal politics". It is about making pupils politically literate, able to fight their corner for themselves, their families and their communities.

Should teachers be political outside the classroom?

Recognising the boundaries in the classroom does not mean that teachers should not be political. The intervention (for want of a better word) of politicians in education has had lasting effects. Is it therefore so surprising that, in our region at least, teachers are making a bid for the parliamentary seat in order to right the wrongs that exist here – and, in the process, generate more publicly the debate that needs to be aired about local provision?

Ann Mroz’s editorial quite rightly lambasts national politicians for their unimaginative – and penny-pinching – approach to education. Perhaps at a national level, the major parties are running out of steam – and ideas. But here on the Isle of Wight, we are in the middle of a much richer debate. Dullards our local candidates are not; they have plenty to say about what the problems are. 

Putting local education on the manifesto and on the map

For too long, the Isle of Wight’s interests and its people have been neglected – and not necessarily because previous MPs were naturally neglectful. The sad truth is that mainstream parties don’t have space in their big-hitting nationally-focused agendas for small coastal communities like ours. 

The main contender’s publicly stated ambition is to ensure all local schools are rated Good or Outstanding in Ofsted inspections. It is a worthy but over-general aim with no promise of funding or support behind it – unimaginative, certainly, but not surprising from a candidate with no first-hand teaching experience.

How does classroom experience shape the manifesto promises of the local teacher-candidates?

Three of the local candidates have had recent experience in the classroom. All three seek to make those who have control of education accountable to the local community. 

The Labour candidate, who left his job as head of history in a south London comprehensive last year, speaks out about the consequences of excessive workload, cuts to textbook budgets and loss of support staff time. These are the issues which will appeal to the casualties of the system. But is publicly expressed sympathy enough to swing votes his way? Like so many of its rural counterparts, the island has been less well-funded than other areas. Would he be able to hold out for a more sizeable share against other bids from within his own party?

The Liberal Democrat, who recently finished his teacher training on the island, is equally critical of budget cuts, which he sees as causing demotivation of teachers and students, even pledging a direct investment of £27 million directly into local education. This is unusually specific and invites speculation about why that amount is so necessary.

The Green Party candidate, a serving teacher, is gaining in popularity. Her fresh approach is a contrast to the politics of the recent past. For the first time, we have someone deeply rooted in our community.

Her children go to school here. She delivered her manifesto from outside the gates of a formerly proud comprehensive that was a popular choice for island children before the reorganisation of our education system. Isle of Wight councillors are now calling for the Academy Trust in charge of this academy to be relieved of its responsibilities. What greater indictment can there be of a government flagship policy than such failure?

If one of these candidates were to win, might we be looking to form an island-centric policy to pull the fragmented education provision together? We would surely be stronger as a collaborative unit than as nano-strands of academy chains that have national rather than local agendas.   

If we want an MP to prioritise the island’s interests, should it be the Green Party candidate, who would almost certainly be in a very small minority at Westminster? Strangely, that might make her more independent, as there are no major national party loyalties to reconcile. Or is there more clout for the Labour or Liberal Democrat candidates as part of the main opposition?   

We have the excitement of speculation about what could happen if our fate were in the hands of a teacher MP. The problem is that although these candidates have education at the forefront of their experience, they are in danger of splitting the vote against the main contender, and could lose out because of that on polling day next month. In which case, all these arguments could well become academic.

Yvonne Williams is a teacher living on the Isle of Wight.  The views expressed here are her own.

For all the latest news, views and analysis in the run-up to polling day, visit our general election 2017 hub.

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Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the south of England

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