I have sympathy for Toby Young, the journalist and director of the New Schools Network. Not because I have a political axe to grind, but because I know precisely what it feels like when thousands of people you have never met, who know nothing whatsoever about you, or your work, are clambering on top of each other, like zombies piling up in some apocalyptic movie, baying for blood and praying for you to lose your job.
Just stop and think about that for a moment. Imagine how you would feel if hordes of unknown, unseen faces were demanding you summarily get the sack from the job you currently do, without any knowledge of your career history, or an opportunity for you to express your view. Most not even knowing, or caring, who employs you.
When I found myself in the eye of a social media storm some time ago, for attacking the quality of much young-adult fiction, I smiled it all off as best I could and, like a slick Californian management guru, even tried to turn it into an opportunity. My favourite insult was cockwomble. There was no shortage: angry librarians can get quite creative, linguistically. But how I wish the young woman who spat cockwomble out so thoughtlessly could have seen the smile on my face when I read it, sitting on a train out of Waterloo.
At the same time as fibre optic cables were glowing white with demands that Toby Young lose his job, they were also radiating demands that Justine Greening, the then education minister, keep hers. That so few people in the education world appeared to notice or connect these two things concerns me deeply.
I’ve written repeatedly about depoliticising education and I have read many dismissive rebuttals of that idea. Unsurprisingly, the criticism tends to bubble up from the thinktank sector: a world far more covertly political than it would like to admit and a nursery for professional politicians.
Last week, I heard an articulate and balanced radio discussion in which health professionals were making pleas to take the NHS out of the hands of party politicians. Increasingly, professionals with no party political allegiance believe that education and health, these two huge areas of national government activity, are dreadfully ill-served by the shifting, unprofessional uncertainties of ephemeral governments. Governments that, more and more noticeably in recent decades, are peopled not by public servants but by private prejudices.
If you belong to a political party, pay a membership fee, and have “Socialist”, “Tory” or maybe even “Lib Dem” emblazoned on your Twitter account, that’s fine by me. I’m a good old-fashioned, Brian Clough type of democrat who believes that democracy might not be the best political system in the world, but it’s certainly in the top one. But please don’t lie to yourself, your colleagues, those you teach and the rest of the world by pretending you have no political allegiance, when what really drives your entire involvement in education is politics, not educating children.
There are many people like me working in education, people who despair at the way objective, balanced, professional views and experience are so often dismissed or sidelined by political individuals spewing hollow platitudes about professionalism. But, regardless of how many of us there are, we stand no chance of changing things unless the sector as a whole is far more honest with itself. And as the film industry has just demonstrated dramatically, this kind of whole-scale honesty isn’t engendered by changing into a little black dress on a red carpet, emblazoning a few words across the front of a T-shirt or holding hands with an activist.
Education, from preschool right through to university, is almost completely dominated by one political viewpoint and party. Whether you go to YouGov or Ipsos Mori for the data, the party political voting preferences exhibited by teachers and lecturers are unequivocal and so deeply entrenched, they’re largely invisible to those who hold them.
It’s that invisibility I’d like to expose for the fraud it is. I didn’t swallow “the personal is political” claptrap first time round. Decades later it remains an appallingly trite slogan, about as selfless and substantial as a graffiti tag scrawled on Victorian brickwork. It is entirely possible for a professional teacher to pursue a career that embeds knowledge and skills in those they teach, alongside freedom of thought. And that’s what they must do.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more columns by Joe, view his back catalogue