The oath and the compass

It sounds like the title of a medieval thriller; the brotherhood of educators send their top monks out to roam the world having sworn to serve learning and they solve all sorts of intractable problems with the help of a golden compass which mysteriously steers people in the right direction. Philip Pullman or Umberto Eco could do a great treatment and film rights could follow.

Every aspiring Labour secretary of state for education has to have to have their ‘upsetting teachers’ moment. It seems to be a necessary ritual; make a lot of teachers angry to prove that you’re not in their pocket, then move on. But it helps when the chosen issue is one which actually matters and could substantially improve education. Unfortunately today’s suggestion by Tristram Hunt that we should seriously consider introducing a Singaporean-style oath for teachers will have difficulty passing that impact assessment.

These sorts of symbolic proposals are only of value if they connect with some genuine popular concerns. In this case, as with Michael Gove’s gift of a King James Bible to every school or the great search for ‘British values’ we are periodically asked to embark on, it feels pretty empty. The danger of such proposals is that they can breed cynicism and strengthen the ‘keep politics out of education’ case just when we most need the political will and action to create a better system.

Today’s story on the BBC website also quotes the shadow secretary of state as rightly criticising the ‘relentless structural change’ English education has been subjected to and the lack of accountability and transparency in the system while pledging to do little to unpick it. He also seems keen to distance himself from the ‘one size fits all school’ and is in favour of ‘a multiplicity of provision: academy chains, community schools and parent-led academies.’

Those Singaporean teachers are apparently also given a symbolic compass, presumably to remind them of their moral purpose and their direction of travel. We may scoff, but I think we are in need of such a compass here in England too. In our case, it is potential Labour voters who need to give the party they want to support a political compass to remind it of its core values and to apply them to education policy.

The politics of education in England seems to be stuck with a bipartisan consensus about the need for choice and diversity, in other words an acceptance of an essentially market based model where competition is still the default setting in the system. Labour has a selection of good policies but is not sending out a message consistent with its core ‘one nation’ message. The same is not true in health policy, where the party is leading a full frontal attack on marketization in the system.

So, what would a Labour political compass tell the party’s spokespeople to do?

  1. Emphasise that we need ‘one nation schools’ with a common status, with fair and comprehensive admissions (preferably up to 18). Only a genuinely comprehensive system can guarantee that choice and diversity works for all. Using the phrase ‘one size fits all’ in a derogatory way feels like an attack on the comprehensive ideal.
  2. Emphasise that we need a ‘one nation curriculum’ and say more about the excellent proposal of a National Bac for all, which incorporates all types of learning and skill development. The Tech Bac we hear so much about already exists. It needs to be a subset of the National Bac if we are to avoid a ‘two-nation’ qualification system and claims that it will transform the youth labour market are pure hyperbole.
  3. Emphasise that we need a ‘one nation system’ with clear democratic accountability for ensuring that schools work together to serve their communities and help each other improve. Anything less will allow the  rampant competition between providers and chains to gather pace and this will not achieve the goal of a functional and successful system which meets the needs of all young people.

And the oath? Well, I’m trying to steer clear of oaths as the firewall doesn’t like profanities.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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2 Responses to The oath and the compass

  1. David Pavett says:

    It would, in my view, be possible to imagine an oath swearing ceremony as a part of induction into a noble profession as an entirely positive ritual. That could happen if there was a general consensus about education, what schools are for and the good job that teachers are doing. That background is, unfortunately not the one that we have.

    There is a general undercurrent (at least) of negativity towards schools and teachers. In that negative context the rhetoric about how “outstanding teachers” can make a difference serves as a signal that a lot of teachers are not outstanding and are therefore part of the problem. The call for “a world class teacher in every classroom” has the effect of saying failings of our education system are not due to poor organisation, ill-conceived syllabuses, excessively changing objectives and lack of connection with local democracy. Forget all that, the message tells us, the solution is better teachers, its the teachers who are to blame for current failings. In these conditions a call for an oath of loyalty, which in other circumstances might be a positive gesture of recognition of a highly valued profession instead appears as just another way to undermine it. The proposal has, at best, been just another act of astonishing naivety by Tristram Hunt. At worst … well I don’t even want to go there.


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