Not by authority…please.

Thatcher's fingers

“Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.” Bertrand Russell

When Thatcher became education secretary in 1970, things would never be the same for teachers in England. She left the post in 1974, will the epithet ‘Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’ following her. As she was later to comment in her memoirs, “I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.”   In other words: if people are going to hate me, then it better be worth it.

Many would agree that this sentiment has defined Thatcher’s political career, and in particular has influenced attitudes to education ever since. People who cause the most turmoil in education are always motivated by that same steely conviction in their own ideas which leaves those will less conviction, but more knowledge, speechless.

Everyone has a view about education, and a view about teachers too. I hear it all the time. At a party I was once asked what I did for a living and when I told them, I was greeted with the words ‘Aach, I hate teachers,’ from a forthright man in the corner (who also thought he was very funny indeed). Nevertheless, my point is this: everyone has an opinion about teachers and schooling because everyone has their own stories to tell. I can only assume the man in the corner got what he deserved at school for being an irritating little loud mouth and he’s still grappling with the injustice of it all. The fact is, he was only highlighting the biggest problem for education: opinions.

As a primary science leader, I think a lot about the scientific approach to learning. Within the process of scientific enquiry, belief or principal is insignificant, while experimental evidence is supreme. You see, you can believe something all you like in science, but belief and knowledge are not the same thing at all. Belief is derived from trust and acceptance, yet knowledge comes from enquiry and then substantiation. It doesn’t matter who says it either, authentication is king. The authority of an individual is secondary to this. So long as decisions about education are made through the emotional feelings of ideological conviction, so long education will continue to be kicked around between each new sets of beliefs that are based on little more than faith.

If the right wing ‘believe’ teachers left to their own devices will only teach pottery and poetry, therefore need to be continually chased with a thorny stick yet the left ‘believe’ teachers are their cosy friends who are there to prevent the reproduction of embedded social strata and positions of power, where does that leave teachers? It leaves us trying to work in an ideological and dysfunctional battleground. The fact that Gove openly declared that we’re all Marxists who want to ruin everything is testimony to this.

Like this, politicians, and some so called educationalists I might add, frequently rely on purely mythical notions about the state of affairs. These figures of authority are the greatest enemies of education because they possess authority based largely upon position and conviction alone. Is the silence of the Labour party regarding Gove’s scorn a sign then that they are  handing over the gauntlet to the educational community who might possess actual knowledge regarding the situation? I hope so.

In truth, there are no big ideas in education. There are no conspiracies in the staff room.  The ‘attitude of teachers’ is a myth in itself.  I look to Russell again when he said, ‘do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.’  We must do away with opinions and political convictions in education once and for all and act as real educationalists interested in truth and enquiry. Those running education should be  consummate scientists, not idealists.

Thatcher might have said there was no alternative, but for education an alternative is there staring at us in the face. Working teachers must claim back the territory of education and use the evidence obtained through enquiry in the classroom to inform policy. Success for our children depends on success in the classroom. For as Russell said, ‘a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.’  Political conviction and that corrosive ‘political benefit’ are the death of progress.

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