Teachers are facing a barrage of questions about Brexit. They can’t stay quiet
“Miss, are you going to vote Ukip?” I was standing in front of my teenage maths students in the run up to the last general election. The school was in a Conservative safe seat. In our mock election the Tories had come first, with Ukip second. I knew the student well and I knew the question was asked out of curiosity rather than as an attempt to derail my lesson.
Without thinking I laughed – a spontaneous belly laugh that surprised some of my students. I explained it made no sense for me to vote Ukip, and that as the granddaughter of Caribbean migrants it was possible I wouldn’t even be standing in front of them if Ukip had been in power, given the party’s views around immigration.
I didn’t say who I would be voting for, nor did I ridicule my students and their families for their political choices. My comments, though, could have fallen foul of new government guidance, which states that “all staff have a responsibility to ensure that they act appropriately in terms of their behaviour, the views they express (in particular political views)”.
Warning teachers against expressing political views carries a whiff of censorship. And those who call for political opinions to be stifled tend to oppose only the expression of views that conflict with their own.
At the moment, teachers will be facing a barrage of questions about Brexit. Pupils will want to know what their teachers’ views are. Should there be another referendum? Were we lied to? These are issues that directly affect the lives of pupils and their families. Why shouldn’t teachers tell them what they think?
Education is always political. In 1997, Tony Blair came to power proclaiming his priorities were “Education, education, education”. Almost two decades later, schools’ increased accountability is driven by data and by the marketisation of the system through academies. It has all been based on political ideology, traced back to Blair but pumped up on steroids by Michael Gove.
The government now requires teachers to be instruments of the state, to “actively promote” British values via the Prevent strategy. DfE guidance suggests we do this through our curriculum. So what is taught in schools is directly affected by a strategy that is deeply political.
I don’t know a single teacher who wants their students to be radicalised. But for the government to direct schools to promote the political agenda of the day, while asking teachers not to express their own views, seems hypocritical.
Historically some teachers’ unions have vociferously opposed governments. When I started teaching in 2004, we always seemed to be threatening to strike, and senior management weren’t even able to enforce a staff dress code because of the power of our union rep. I thought it was normal to go to work in jeans, trainers and a T-shirt.
School leaders, on the other hand, have traditionally been more neutral. That changed recently, in dramatic fashion. In the same month the DfE released its staff guidance on acting “appropriately”, 2,000 headteachersmarched on Downing Street to protest about the effect of school funding cuts.
Every teacher wants the best for their pupils. If that means opposing the government while it squeezes money from schools and makes patronising announcements about “little extras” while fumbling towards a confused Brexit, then so be it. The only people offended are those who want to uphold the status quo or whose wealth and privilege protect them from potentially momentous change and uncertainty.
At the moment we can all see that the status quo is having a negative effect. When politicians themselves are not acting appropriately, we cannot muffle our distaste.
• Iesha Small works at the thinktank LKMco and is a former teacher. Her book The Unexpected Leader will be published this year