Daniel Downes is a secondary school teacher in Buckinghamshire.
Yesterday the right-leaning newspapers were gripped by a frenzy over an article written by a young teacher in 2016 following the EU Referendum.
Headlines such as ‘Teacher says pupils are brainwashed into supporting Labour’ (Daily Mail) and ‘Teachers indoctrinating children to be left-wing’ (the Times) kept rolling in through the day as Calvin Robinson, the author, made media appearances supporting his claims.
Robinson had been a high-profile recruit to teaching, appearing in the Government’s “I Chose to Teach” campaign, and his sensational comments made on the Conservatives for Liberty website took off, fulfilling many of the age-old stereotypes of the Marxist staff room.
The inspiration behind Robinson’s article had been the age divide during the EU referendum. Looking to find answers to the complex questions about why young people voted for ‘Remain’ in such high numbers, he concludes that it is the socialist teachers that have carefully prepared students (or ‘groomed’ as he states) to be left-leaning.
He talks of ‘disgusting’ comments and interactions that he has seen between teachers and pupils, of staff bodies that are utterly intolerant to his world view, and of a focus on tolerance that has blighted students’ ability to think.
Does this analysis of teaching in 2017 ring true? Certainly not by any experiences that I have had as a teacher.
Firstly, the staff bodies of a great number of academies are not the bastions of Marxism that they used to be. I have worked in a number of academies and have found that the staff have been much broader in political outlook than my own teachers before them.
It would be no surprise to me to learn that London, where Robinson is a Computer Science teacher, is an anomaly. It would likewise be difficult to deny that there are probably more Labour voters than Conservative voters that make up teaching staffing. But in most schools strike actions are down, union activity is wilting, and debate more open.
As academies changed expectations that teachers have of their workloads and a new wave of younger teachers have come through, the number of ‘Tories’ who are teachers has been increasing.
There is more truth to the claim that the aim for universal ‘tolerance’ has damaged students’ learning experiences, but again I fear his conclusions are incorrect. As a classical liberal, I’d like nothing more than to see educational institutions embrace true tolerance: a freedom of mind and expression that allowed students to explore the most complex problems that the world faces.
It is in fact a lack of tolerance that is the problem. In its place stands a social agenda centred around ‘progressivism’ that will not allow deviation from certain truths and beliefs that binds children’s minds. A true tolerance in schools would be a blessing, nothing could be more important in pursuit of academic excellence than that.
Who might be responsible for this restriction on expression in schools? The new Teaching Standards released in September 2012 (under the tenure of Michael Gove) included the responsibility to ‘not undermine fundamental British Values’. At what point are values being undermined? Would a debate held at a school about the virtues of democracy against other models of government be considered sacrilege? Does questioning the validity of a value thus undermine it?
It is this standard that underpins the need for tolerance and the restrictions of how debate can be structured within an academic context; it is not teachers that pandered to the progressive agenda, but a Conservative Secretary of State.
The same section of the Teaching Standards, Part Two, states that teachers are not able to discuss ideas that may exploit students when they are vulnerable. If you were to read Robinson’s article, this is the section that he believes is being contravened by teachers engaging in biased political discussion with their students.
I find it devastating that we can have so little faith in the next generation that we believe that they are vulnerable to any expression of political opinion. As teachers, we are responsible for raising future employees, naturally, but we are also growing the country’s future citizens.
We cannot be content to have them sheltered from any form of discussion on the basis that you cannot control the make-up of a staff body. It is simply not the case, anywhere, that children raised under one ideology will stick with it; the stories of religious apostates speak to that.
If we are to assume that children can be indoctrinated, then it means that we have failed fundamentally to teach students how to think, rather than what to think.
Robinson’s assumption that the youth vote went to Remain and then to Labour because of teacher bias simply does not ring true. For 18-24-year-olds, home ownership is all but impossible. They voted to Remain in the European Union and, as yet, have not been convinced that Brexot will work in their interests. To absolve Conservative Party leaders of responsibility for losing the youth vote completely ignores the continuously emerging picture of a nation divided more by age than by class.
It is the responsibility of school leaders to ensure that their teachers are encouraging students to think freely, and unlock their imagination and intellect. In individual cases where this is not the case it must be challenged and criticised.
It makes no sense to me that teachers, professionals of ambition for young people, of social mobility, and of critical thinking, should vote more for Labour than for the Tories. But these sensational stereotypes will keep us locked in the past, to no-one’s benefit.