Teachers are mostly liberals. Including the conservative ones.

THIS POST HAS BEEN WRITTEN BY JOHN AHSTON (@j_asht)

I was interested by John Rendel’s recent post, in which he shared an insight into his ideological background, and his impressions of Tories:

“When you meet a senior Tory (and I encourage you to do so if it’s not too painful), you realise that they often believe what they believe simply because they have so little understanding of what is going on in the real world. Ironically, for that reason, I’m a big advocate for getting as many Tories into teaching in comprehensive schools as possible. Over time, Tory policy should adjust so that the progressive ideals we are fighting for today might just be realised in this decade rather than the next.”

Perhaps this comment about senior Conservatives is true—I haven’t really spent enough time talking to them about serious issues to be able to say with confidence. I do however know a few conservatives in education. I thought I might reply to John’s post with another point of view.

John mentioned the liberal aims of education:

“Teachers are mostly liberals. Teaching exists to empower children through their growing capability and ultimately to set them free.  While valuing education might be consistent with many political ideologies, it is only Social Liberalism for which universal, quality education is such foundational bedrock.”

I often think about the way in which education might set people free. To me, it seems not to be merely a question of opening up career paths, but also of enriching personal lives with the practical wisdom that comes from literature (for example) and the positive liberty that comes from a deep understanding of human societies and the world we live in. I’m sure I am not saying anything controversial: we all want people to have a good choice of occupation, a rich empathy with other humans and a deep understanding of humanity with its social and political structures.

I’m sure everyone will also agree with Marcus Aurelius, Lao Tzu, Leonardo da Vinci, etc. etc. when they say, in different words but with the same sentiment, “one can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of of oneself”. We all want people to be able to for example, be more successful mothers and fathers by controlling their anger, be richer and more content by knowing when their desires are being manipulated by advertising, and be able to resist crippling addictions. These things make us freer.

So far, so trite. Here’s where it gets controversial. Although my experience of teaching is limited to just two years, I am convinced that although we all would agree with these aims, many of us unwittingly undermine them.

I won’t go into detail on which policies and practices I think are self-defeating. If you’re already reading education blogs then you probably know exactly what I’m talking about, but some of what I have in mind is explained in Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools.

The problem is that the very reason that these bad ideas persist is because they seem Toryish. Teaching books by dead white men, insisting on the memorisation of information, strictness over empathy—these all sound like the enthusiasms of the quintessential mean-spirited Tory. Why do some cognitive scientists, school leaders and teachers believe in their effectiveness? Isn’t it obvious? Because they’re Tories.

I’m not a Tory; I’m a card-carrying Lib Dem. Some of those who share my beliefs about education are Corbyn-supporters.

Doing what feels liberal in the classroom often undermines liberal aims. It is not enough to have for us to have our hearts in the right place; we need to have our heads in the right place too—and the heart often sends the head down the wrong path.

Perhaps John had something else in mind (like grammar schools, which would not further liberal aims) and would agree with me on a lot of pedagogical points. So apologies, John, if this reply has missed the mark.

But this seems like a good opportunity to make a plea that we avoid unwarranted partisanship and stay clear-eyed about which methods and schools are genuinely advancing our socially liberal aims. We can learn from conservative teachers (and labour teachers) and the last thing we should do is ignore their voices because we assume they come from a place of callousness or ignorance. Teaching is not the right place to coalesce around political ideologies. Even Conservative teachers are mostly liberals in their educational aims. Defining ourselves against them might prove to be a disservice to those we want to help.

Mr Rendel Sucks

This is a guest post written by John Rendel, CEO and Founder of the African secondary school network – PEAS.

“Mr Rendel sucks **** and licks *****.” I try not to read reviews and I rarely ask for feedback, but this one had been written with black marker pen.

On the front of her mini-whiteboard, Lyla had provided the correct solution to a problem I’d set my year 8 maths class. On the back, she’d added her view of my early attempts at inspiring the kids of Camberwell. She was sitting near the front of the class and so, as I nervously looked out at them, I knew that whatever she had written must be very, very funny.

I’d started teaching via Teach First to ‘make a difference while keeping my options open’. Lessons like that one made me question whether I might have better luck changing the world via some other route. Thankfully, as time went by, my lessons improved. Bit by bit, I began to feel not only that I was making a difference but that, as a teacher, I was in a position of extraordinary privilege. It was never easy. As GPs like to diagnose it, I was TATT (tired all the time) and yet, every day I was able – in some small way – to help a child in my class go on to live a bigger and hopefully happier life.

For children like Lyla, who’ve experienced tough relationships from a young age, new positive relationships represent a risk. Often they will push away those they fear they might come to value in order to reduce the pain of a harder separation later on. In the months that followed that incident something wonderful happened. Lyla grew to respect and value my commitment to her learning and my refusal to take her anger personally. After two years with her Lyla had risen to the top of the class. When, in 2005, I let them know I was leaving teaching (to launch the PEAS school network in Africa) she wrote the kindest of notes.

Teachers are mostly liberals. Teaching exists to empower children through their growing capability and ultimately to set them free.  While valuing education might be consistent with many political ideologies, it is only Social Liberalism for which universal, quality education is such foundational bedrock. I’m not sure how Lyla’s life has panned out but I hope that she is in some way more ‘free’ than she might otherwise have been.

Growing up the son of the former Lib-Dem MP for Newbury, David Rendel, I hope I can be forgiven for tribal Liberalism. If we had had a family motto, it might have read ‘fairness and rationality’ or whatever those are in Latin perhaps. Encouraged to question everything and yet somehow convinced (almost in vitro) of the virtues of Social Liberalism. My brothers and I went to pretty good local comprehensive schools but spent a lot of time and most of each holiday with cousins and family friends attending public schools. As a result, it was immediately apparent that education wasn’t distributed fairly and that that unfairness underpinned injustice everywhere. Even within the schools I attended, many of the most important learning opportunities – like residential school trips –  were limited to those whose parents could meet the cost. Committing my life to tackling educational disadvantage was, therefore, the simplest route for me to live out the values of my father who I grew up idolising.

Newbury had been a Tory seat for something like 80 years before my father won it in a by-election in 1993. I still remember the majority. Twenty two thousand and fifty five. The previous year, at the age of 11, I had started to help out with the campaigns. Back then, I was mainly tasked with keeping up the spirits of the least mobile OAPS and deployed alongside them to fold and stuff leaflets. Famously, 1992 was the election in which everyone was convinced Labour would win and we were sure that the Lib Dems would make good gains against the Tories. Having read all the literature, I had come to understand that voting Tory indicated either stupidity or evil. I felt confident there were insufficient numbers of either group to defeat the progressive parties so when we lost, I was heart-broken and spent half the night crying. I cried for my father who had been effectively been turned down for a job by a panel of 80,000. But also because I had begun to understand for the first time that the world was a lot more selfish, more myopic and more scared than I had grown up to believe. Because I remain an eternal optimist, I can see now that the Lib-Dems played a key role through that period. Even when the world isn’t ready for the latest progressive thinking, yesterday’s liberal ideas have usually become today’s mainstream policy. The challenge is that by the time an idea is mainstream, Liberals have moved on to something even more radical. Our role seems to be to drive the policy agenda for the next decade while allowing Labour and the Tories to fight over who gets to enact the policy people have adjusted to today.

Not long after I left home, my parents downsized to a tiny hamlet outside Newbury. In parliament from 2001 my father had supported the ban on fox-hunting. As a fly-fisherman, I was conflicted. On the one hand, fox-hunting did seem unnecessarily cruel. On the other, it brought communities together and got people to engage with and enjoy the countryside. Banning anything takes away at least some of our freedom to make independent moral choices. Ultimately, the liberty and rights of the fox were up against personal freedom. Where investing in education was a no-brainer for a liberal, banning fox-hunting was anything but. The issue was particularly difficult when you remained a meat-eater. These days, eating meat is hardly more necessary than hunting for fun. While fox-hunting may be cruel it is cruel for a matter of minutes where modern agriculture can be cruel across an animal’s lifetime.

Anyway, one day in late spring, during the election in 2005, a large group from the countryside alliance had gathered outside my parents’ cottage to blow hunting horns and generally try to scare him and the family. Dad, who had an uncanny ability to argue both sides of any debate better than his opponent, went outside and discussed his position with them and had remained there for over two hours. While I doubt he convinced anyone, I’m sure the huntsmen came to respect him for facing up to their anger. Sadly, after finally losing his seat that year, he was trolled by supporter of the hunt. As we continued to sift through his papers a year after his death, we found one note which said something like, ‘I’m so glad you lost and I hope it makes you very, very unhappy’. When the backdrop of family life includes stories like that it is hard not to see the world of politics through a ‘them and us’ lens.

As the years have passed (I’ve even met two or three nice Tories since then), I’ve become a little less tribal and a little more Socratic – wisest is he who knows he knows nothing etc. Having said that, it still seems to me that when they are in power, Tories tend to make choices which make most people’s lives smaller and less free. Most frustratingly they do so in the name of personal liberty. Indeed, I’ve come to understand modern Western politics as an eternal battle over how best to define liberty itself and having done that, how best to ensure it is distributed fairly. Reading Mill, Rawls, and Amartya Sen, I spent my university years trying to work that question out.

One final thought. When you meet a senior Tory (and I encourage you to do so if it’s not too painful), you realise that they often believe what they believe simply because they have so little understanding of what is going on in the real world. Ironically, for that reason, I’m a big advocate for getting as many Tories into teaching in comprehensive schools as possible. Over time, Tory policy should adjust so that the progressive ideals we are fighting for today might just be realised in this decade rather than the next.