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.