Refusing To Be Bought: a critical response to the Tories' education proposals

Leaked documents reveal the Tories' plans to offer teachers a massive pay rise and more power—but at what cost?

My whole short teaching career has been under a Tory government, and I have never known a world in which it has been possible to see the Department for Education as anything other than a hostile enemy. Whenever there is a cabinet reshuffle, I Google the new Education Secretary; if they seem indifferent towards teachers, or if they at least pay lip service to the notion of education as a public good, they count as a “benign” one. The bar is that low. So I am not accustomed to hearing good news from DfE announcements. But even with all this preparation, I read yesterday’s leaked education policy document and felt a physical punch in the gut.

It’s not that there was anything in it I haven’t already seen. We have known for a while that policies and practices specifically designed to appeal to a far-right audience have been creeping into the educational mainstream. The Gove reforms of 2014, which had even the generally centrist and small-c conservative teaching profession shaking their heads, were pitched as a corrective for New Labour’s perceived wrongs: what had been ‘soft’ and ‘skills-based’ would become ‘hard’, ‘rigorous’, ‘knowledge-focused’. Why does ‘skills’ mean ‘soft’ and ‘knowledge’ mean ‘hard’? What do ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ even mean anyway? These questions immediately arise unless you are versed in Govian doctrine, where these things are self-explanatory virtues. The new, ‘hard’ GCSEs, with their huge quantities of rote-learned content and virtually inaccessible top grades, have reportedly led to a spike in mental illness among young people, and driven teachers from the profession—but they are ‘high quality’ and ‘rigorous’, so what does that matter? It has been evident for a whole that the DfE does not mind damaging children’s health if it allows them to craft far-right-friendly headlines—indeed, that they are playing to an audience who might actually see this as a good thing.

This trend has also been evident in the DfE’s attitude towards so-called “behaviour”. I put the term in quotes because, as used within the DfE’s universe and certain sections of the teaching profession, “behaviour” means specifically “bad” or “violent” behaviour by students within the classroom. There is a perception—unsupported by evidence, but propagated enthusiastically by prominent figures within and close to the DfE—that there is a “behaviour epidemic” in British schools at the moment. The statistics telling us that the current younger generation are less prone to drug and alcohol misuse and altogether more cautious in their behaviour than their older siblings and parents do not appear to count for much. Anecdotal horror stories about teachers bullied and threatened by students abound. The root cause is always the same: implied permissiveness and laxity in the past, probably New Labour’s fault. But not to worry, because a brave new future is coming—the future of “zero tolerance”. Zero tolerance schools are exactly what they sound like. They explicitly demand and celebrate compliance, and punish non-compliance whatever its cause may be. Schools like Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, which forces its students to make eye contact with the teacher at all times and whose headteacher suggested that vomiting students keep a sick bucket next to them in the classroom. Or schools like the Michaela Community School, where children whose parents had not been able to pay their school dinner money were kept in ‘lunch isolation’ away from their peers. Both these schools have been explicitly praised by the DfE—they are both rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted—and last week Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, tweeted his congratulations to the Michaela school on its GCSE results. Michaela was the only school he congratulated individually.

So these currents have been swelling for a while, and it has been an open secret that the DfE favours schools and educators who can embody this “traditional”, highly compliance-focused mindset. What I had not expected, perhaps naïvely, is that they would act so boldly to enforce this vision on all schools, all at once. According to the Guardian, the leaked proposals have the following to say on school ‘discipline’:

This government backs headteachers to improve behaviour and will support them to create safe and disciplined school environments.

The word ‘create’, of course, implies that such safe environments do not already exist, furthering the narrative that schools are places of chaos which urgently need headteacher-enforced martial law. In terms of the specific forms that might take, there are a few more specific ideas:

We will back heads to use powers to promote good behaviour including sanctions and rewards; using reasonable force; to search and confiscate items from pupils (including mobile phones); impose same-day detentions; suspend and expel pupils; ban mobiles [sic] phones.

There is a mix here of the potentially chilling and the misleading. Of course, the most immediately alarming thing is that phrase “reasonable force”. What does it mean? Is this supposed to be a hint at a return to corporal punishment? It doesn’t feel completely impossible. And yet even if it doesn’t mean bringing back canes and rulers—and I want to hope that the Tories will not in the end commit themselves to the inevitable legal battle they would face in actually trying to do that—it is still profoundly misleading and frightening. Even if we take “reasonable” in the most generous way possible, “we will back teachers to use reasonable force” implies that teachers are not being backed to do this currently. This is absolutely false. In cases where force is absolutely necessary to prevent immediate physical harm, we can intervene physically. If a student is about to jump off a building we can pull them back; if they’re about to throw a brick we can grab it. Indeed, in the context of children with special educational needs and disabilities, the right to use force is in fact being over-used, with children sustaining physical injuries from inappropriate restraint, and perpetrators facing no accountability. But those awkward truths don’t fit the narrative of a wild and disrespectful younger generation who are making schools into their own violent fiefdoms. Much better to suggest that Johnson’s Tories are the only ones who are defending the rights of teachers to uphold public safety.

The same can be said of all the other proposals in the list. Schools can already impose same-day detentions; there is nothing stopping them doing this. They can and do confiscate phones. They can, and do, already suspend and expel pupils in ever-larger numbers—the leaked report itself acknowledges this. So why assert all these things? Because, if you haven’t been near a school in a while and you’re predisposed to hating young people and/or public education, you might easily assume that they’re things teachers are being unjustly prevented from doing by hand-wringing liberals, with the Tories the only hope of liberation. Perhaps to distract the electorate from the multiple clusterfucks they have undeniably caused in the past few years, they have created an imaginary chaos and then presented themselves as the only solution to it.

But even if they’re deceiving their voters about the impact of their proposed changes by proposing things which are already happening, this document—and its leak before a possible General Election—is immensely worrying. As much rhetoric as policy substance, it is dangerous combination which will have real consequences. Schools are free to set their own behaviour policies, but this document provides an explicit endorsement for the most draconian of those policies, empowering schools like Michaela and Great Yarmouth Charter, while at the same time making it easier for academy chains to take over schools perceived as “failing”. As the report itself acknowledges, explicitly encouraging exclusion will have a disproportionate effect on certain groups, most notably Black boys and children with SEND, who are already far more likely to be excluded. This acknowledgement, together with a proposal of increased funding for “alternative provision schools for excluded children”, seems like an explicit green light for ever-increasing educational segregation.

It’s fair to say I’m frightened by everything in the proposals, but the part which truly seals in my terror is the part I haven’t mentioned yet—the pay rise. Teacher pay has been all but static for years, has fallen well behind inflation, and is in some areas driving teachers into poverty. Teaching unions have been clamouring for a pay rise—a proper, funded, true-to-inflation pay rise—for over a decade. In July it was announced we’d been given a tiny, totally unfunded rise, knocking school budgets into chaos. But here, in this proposal, is a totally unexpected pay leap out of the blue. Apparently they will raise teachers’ starting salaries to £30,000 by 2022. For context, in the 2018/19 academic year, a newly-qualified teacher outside of London took home £23,719. That’s an enormous jump, unprecedented in the last few decades. As well as pay rises for teachers, the proposals also promise additional per-pupil funding for schools. You don’t have to be a political analyst to work out the intention here: it’s a deal-sweetener, designed to take the wind out of the sails of the teaching unions’ biggest message for the past decade: that the Tories are underfunding education. It’s a crudely obvious attempt to create ideological buy-in—or at the very least, purchase our apolitical passivity, which many in the teaching profession are already fairly proficient at.

But it’s more than a bribe. What’s the implication of giving teachers an enormous pay rise in the same stroke as “empowering” us to enforce stricter discipline? It’s a clear message: we can’t claim that we’re undervalued any longer. We are going to be valued as we ‘deserve’, finally. And what we ‘deserve’, according to these measures, is superiority and power over the communities we serve. Tying the pay rise to harsher discipline is a clear statement of what the Tories want teachers to be: a kind of police force with textbooks, imposing discipline from above, using our superior knowledge and qualifications to impart a rigid explicit curriculum as much about subject content as about compliance. It’s not simply an attempt to buy us off: it’s an ideological statement about what a teacher is in relation to her community, and what this government values in the practice of teaching.

The problem of teachers’ detachment from our communities, of our sometimes damaging sense of superiority, is already well-documented. Teaching is overwhelmingly middle-class and predominantly white, leading to exactly the problems you would expect with those power dynamics. Children of colour, disabled children, and working-class children - and of course children within various intersections of those three - are the ones who suffer most. Racist incidents in schools go un-noticed and unchecked by white teachers convinced of their own post-racial liberal goodness. Parents of disabled children face prejudice and contempt when trying to get adequate education for their children. These things are already happening; they happened under New Labour, and over the past decade they have gradually got worse as stretched budgets provide cover for prejudice and ego-clutching. But if the gap between teachers and the communities we serve has been allowed to grow gradually wider, these measures wrench it open and fill it with barbed wire. Yes, say the Tories, you are better than the kids you teach. You deserve more money. And you deserve more power. You’re above them, and that’s how it should be. There will be teachers who are susceptible to this. The teaching profession as a whole, attached as it is to the notion of teacher as downtrodden hero, is extremely susceptible to this.

So while of course I’ll be hoping that “reasonable force” is a cynical headline-generating trick rather than a real proposal for the return of corporal punishment, these proposals are already immensely violent either way. It was already hard, but it has just got much harder to fight racism, class prejudice, and disablism from within the school system. What began a few years ago as a far-right fringe narrative is now mainstream election policy. What we need more than ever are teachers who are not afraid to talk about ideology and structural power imbalances, who are not afraid to look critically at our own roles within oppressive systems. We need teachers who are not afraid to be explicitly left-wing, to call explicitly for radical redistributions of power and enact them in our daily practice. We must show solidarity with the communities we work in, recognise that theirs is the only ‘backing’ we need, and refuse to be bought.


M Tetrapod (@pancake_puns)

M is a practicing teacher and a researcher whose work focuses on the philosophy and politics of education.