The Tories’ Use of ‘Red Scares’ in Teaching

privatisaOne tactic that Conservatives have frequently used against the teaching profession is to create ‘Red Scares’ about ‘loony left’ political indoctrination in schools. This generally takes the form of one or more of the Right-wing newspapers publishing a supposed expose of how the teachers in a particular area are attempting to indoctrinate their vulnerable charges with radical Left, anti-racist or gay or feminist propaganda. Under Thatcher in the 1980s there was a controversy over the inclusion of Peace Studies in the curriculum in some schools. The Conservatives also passed the notorious Clause 28, which attempted to stop schools from promoting homosexuality. In one of her speeches, Mrs Thatcher also attacked ‘anti-racist mathematics’ introduced by ‘Fabians’ and ‘champagne socialists’. The Express ran a story about teachers in Yorkshire teaching explicitly Communist propaganda. The Evening Post in Bristol followed a similar line about a Communist pamphlet that had been circulated amongst the pupils by staff in one of the city’s schools. Most notoriously, teachers in Lambeth and Brent in London were supposed to have altered the nursery rhyme ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’ to ‘Ba Ba Green Sheep’ to remove the rhyme’s racist content. It’s been revealed since as an urban legend, though I’ve met a number of people, who came from the boroughs, who remember being taught it. These stories then get expanded into an attack on teachers as a whole. From being separate incidents in particular areas, they are then presented as being representative of all of the profession.

It has also been used to attack the funding and control of education by local councils. In the 1970s schools were financed and controlled by the Local Education Authority, which were also responsible for maintaining standards. Under successive Conservative administrations, their role has been radically reduced. This has partly been done as part of the Conservatives’ ideological commitment to the free market. The idea has been that if schools become independent from local authority control, and are able to control their own budgets, competition between schools will result in higher standards. They also claimed it would give parents greater choice in education by allowing them a variety of different schools from which to choose. It has also been promoted as a way of freeing schools from the influence of ‘loony left’ local government officers intent on promoting their ideological agenda in education.

Now some of these fears aren’t unreasonable. Before the introduction of the National Curriculum the subjects taught and the materials used could differ greatly between schools. This could be difficult for children moving between schools, such as when they moved house. Educational standards in some schools could be low due to the extremely radical political views of the staff. The most notorious of these was a school in London where the staff subscribed to an extreme form of the view that children should be encouraged to learn only what they want to learn in their own time. In this school, children simply weren’t taught at all, but encouraged to go and play under the view that this would develop their creativity. When someone told one of the teaching staff that the pupils there couldn’t read, he remarked ‘Well, neither could they in the Middle Ages, but they built cathedrals.’ Eventually the scandal became so great that there was an official inquiry and the teachers dismissed, never to teach schoolchildren again. It was partly due to this and similar, less extreme cases that the Conservatives introduced the National Curriculum. The question of how much children should be taught about sex and at what age is also a very good, and extremely important question, especially as children are becoming increasingly exposed to explicitly sexual material at younger and younger ages. In some areas, the Thatcherite Conservatives have lost the debate. Many schools now run projects for Black History week in October, as a way of correcting what they see as the White bias in the history curriculum and tackling low educational performance amongst many Black pupils. More traditional Conservatives have complained that Clause 28 has for some time been a dead letter. As Cameron himself has now backed gay marriage, it is unlikely that it will be revived although the issue has caused sharp division with his party.

It is not true, however, that teachers as a whole are intent on using their position to indoctrinate, rather than educate, their students. Indeed, current legislation explicitly prevents them from doing so. The law states that they may not promote a particular political ideology or religion, except in faith schools. If the teacher’s own religious or political views are raised during teaching in class, they cannot present their views as objective fact. They may only say that they personally believe them.

In any case, from my experience most teachers aren’t members of the hard Left. They include people with a wide range of very different views across the political spectrum. Some are Left-wing, others Conservative, some Liberal, and many aren’t terribly interested in politics at all. Most teachers have entered the profession, not because they see it as a platform for advancing a particular ideology or cause, but simply because they want to stand in front of a blackboard and teach their subject or subjects. Privately they have their own beliefs, and may, and often are, concerned about government policies and the way this affects their job and the educational achievements of their pupils. In front of their class, however, the vast majority of them are rightly very careful about what they say.

The question of whether Thatcher’s reforms have really benefited the educational system, and provided parents with genuine choice is a separate issue, and one which I hope to tackle later. In this blog post I merely want to rebut the use of scare tactics over radical teachers by the Conservatives to attack the teaching profession as a whole, and promote their own policies of an increased workload, reduction of pay and conditions, and privatisation. With a very few, notable exception, teachers simply want to teach – Maths, English, science, whatever. They aren’t interested in turning the next generation of schoolchildren into wild-eyed Che Guevara-style revolutionaries, intent on destroying the bourgeois order. Unfortunately, it is all too often ignored. I’m aware that the examples I’ve used have come from thirty years ago back in Maggie Thatcher’s administration. These were the most extreme instances of the tactic, which I particularly remember. Nevertheless, it is still being used, both here and across the Atlantic. I’ve seen it used in Conservative blogs against teachers in America and Canada. I’ve no doubt that if the Conservatives meet with further opposition from the teachers and their unions, it will be used once more against them over here. That this image of teachers is largely untrue and unrepresentative of them as a profession really needs to be remembered and brought to public attention, the next time the Mail or the Express runs a story about ‘Loony Left’ teachers pushing Communism or trying to turn them all gay.

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