Mark Lehain is the founder & former Principal of Bedford Free School.
Having worked in schools for the best part of twenty years, I’ve seen with my own eyes the incredible transformation in a child when they get a great education.
They become even more interested and interesting.
Their ability to appreciate the arts, humanities, sciences, and world around them grows.
They learn to truly think for themselves, and become the author of the novel of their own lives.
And while there is much more still to do to improve our schools further, we can be particularly proud of the progress made in recent years.
However, a while ago I started to wonder if the good things going on in schools would amount to little if other important parts of society were going backwards.
In particular, I’ve grown worried about what happens when pupils leave school and move into universities, workplaces, and elsewhere, where their ability to make the most of their education and express themselves has become increasingly constrained.
Across a huge range of issues, a weird kind of groupthink has become imposed. To hold views outside of those deemed acceptable is best considered bad form, and at worst career-ending.
Add in the heady mix of social media and a news industry hungry for the next outrage, and time and time again bizarre shamings and faux-scandals occur.
Alongside this, significant chunks of public life have been increasingly shaped by unrepresentative concerns, and become more and more disconnected from the majority of people.
I don’t even think it’s what anyone involved actually wanted.
But well-meaning initiatives to make society fairer are actually making things worse and dividing people further – and people have noticed.
This is why I’ve left education for now and set up the Campaign for Common Sense (CCS).
We will act as a rallying point for people who have had enough of walking on eggshells and want to be trusted to do the right thing.
Research that CCS commissioned shows how widespread concerns about things are.
Our polling found that over two-thirds of UK adults agreed with the statement “political correctness makes division in our country worse”.
It also found that seven in 10 (69 per cent) agreed that political correctness “divides society even more by pigeon-holing everyone.”
Four in five agreed that “there is a blame culture in this country that makes things worse” and a similar proportion agreed that “we need to restore some common sense in this country.”
Significantly, there is majority support for these statements regardless of age, sex, socioeconomic grouping, or political leanings.
People cannot dismiss these as simply the concerns of old white guys – they resonate with a majority of people from all parts of the country.
This is one of the reasons that I’m so optimistic that CCS can help to bring people together where in recent times debates have been angry and divisive.
Another is that people have told us that recent events make a focus on the common ground even more important.
The Coronavirus crisis has reminded us of what we can achieve when we all pull together. And it’s highlighted the priorities of ordinary people.
In polling we ran last week, more than eight in 10 (84 per cent) agreed that “coronavirus means we should focus on the things that bring us together rather than drive us apart.”
Also, eight in 10 (77 per cent) agreed that “coronavirus means we should focus more on common sense than political correctness – and seven in 10 (68 per cent) agreed that “the coronavirus crisis means we should be kinder when disagreeing with one another.”
I’m confident that we can build on the unity of recent months, and address some of the sensitive issues whose debates had been so divisive in the past.
I’m convinced that things can get better without forcing ideas onto people.
We just need to talk and trust more, and police words and actions less.
So if like us you believe that nobody has a monopoly on what is right and wrong, and that sensitive topics can be discussed frankly and without trading insults, please check out the Campaign for Common Sense and look at “Getting Along Again”, our first report.
Through common sense and fair play I hope we can create a nicer atmosphere for everyone to live, work and debate in as we try to move to the other side of the crisis we currently face.