Wilfred Owen wrote Dulce et Decorum Est during a recovery period in a hospital in Scotland. He was laid up with physical injuries that could be treated. His psychological ones fevered on. I was explaining this to a class of Year 8s who I was covering a lesson for. The lack of solemnity and near reverence for the text was murmuring in the background and frustration was simmering, ever so lightly, as a few more tangible murmurs were rising from the back row.
I laughed to myself. One or two of the kids noticed my aberrant behaviour.nudged each other and shared an inquisitorial eyebrow.
“What are you laughing at, sir?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Tell us, sir,” came a chorus from the murmurers.
My white flag of okay went up and I relented.
I was thinking about how sad it was for Owen and other soldiers like him, who escaped the battlefield for a period of time, to recover from their physical injuries only for them to be forced to return to the front. All that release from the nightmares, merely postponed. It’s like that with teachers who come back from anxiety or stress.
Since David Cameron returned the Conservatives to power with his spectacular vision of a Big Society, the general feeling of us all being in it together was bolstered with another that sought to blame sections of society for its downfall. Teachers, so long praised for their efforts in bringing about a new educational revolution, were now cast as the enemy within. We had been taking the nation’s coin and not paying it back in kind. The terrible trilogy of Tony Blair’s Education, Education, Education, now formed the trio of lashes that Michael Gove used to punish a profession that was underperforming whilst being overpaid. When the rest of the nation was at the doors of the workhouse, teachers were flaunting their newly found lefty lottery wins on foreign holidays and flashy cars. The positive perception of these professional educators was about to undergo a very negative makeover.
During the course of their first years in office, regardless of the limiting factors of the Lib Dems, the Tory hierarchy loosed their rabid terrier on the teachers. The right wing press joined in with a number of articles designed to undermine the public’s belief in the educational system. In truth, it’s easy to loathe a teacher so it took very little to bring about the change. It started to be noticeable at parents’ evenings with a number of them turning up armed with accusations about the school’s inability to educate their offspring.
The subsequent years mobilised the public’s ability to hold schools and teachers to account. You see, we had made promises and the parents had not.
The age of marketing had already settled upon educational institutes, turning both primaries and secondaries into slick looking brochures filled with smiling children and their glowing instructors. Teaching and learning became learning and teaching. All-weather posters announced that they were officially outstanding. Competition was encouraged between schools in the same town with the better ones getting the pick of the crop at recruitment time. Pen manufacturers were introduced into a golden age of expansion with the introduction of multi-coloured pens to encourage deep learning through deeper marking. Inspirational speakers were hired to tell jokes, inspire and then get rich quick. The global economy determined that local aspirations were raised to match those of South Korea, Japan and Vulcan. Monitoring, managing and bullying became the norm in relentless drive for improvement. And, guess what? Ofsted was now the friend of the workingman but not teachers; they had too many holidays to consider themselves workers.
The battle lines had been drawn and the first salvoes fired. Gove’s blitzkrieg had begun in earnest and the war was with us.
I don’t like trench warfare. It’s the mud with the rats and the fleas and the Tories; the last ones replaced the Hun. Now, if that was all that was to be faced in the line of fire it would have been difficult but not impossible. Being outnumbered or at an insurmountable disadvantage has a liberating effect. What’s not to lose if you have already lost before you start? Once more unto the breach and clog up the hole with your teacherly dead. Once more to laugh in the face of defeat, and once more to be defeated; honourably. The problem was not the enemy or the vermin that you encountered, but the growing numbers of fifth columnists.
I remember the miner’s strike in the eighties as a sound lesson in civil war. I had recently left the Metropolitan Police as a result of their rather fascistic approach to race relations. Just in time, I remember thinking. Thatcher, our last truly great leader (hope the irony sticks) who had already barged into a boy ship of sea cadets and sent them scuttling to a watery grave, was now setting her sights on the enemy within. Coal was in its last days but the Iron Lady wanted to apply euthanasia. Fortunately, the good people of Britain had not been bathed in the waters of Mammon and many of them decided to make a stand. Being from a coal community, I felt an ideological draw to their cause which was bound to be a tragic one, one that could be fought for with pride and honour. Incidentally, the closest I came to combat was a refusal to shake the hand of Michael Heseltine on the BBC; my moment of rebellious fame was left on the floor of the cutting room. Nevertheless, the strike did teach me one invaluable lesson and that was that there were traitors and turncoats among us.
If the miners’ strike made immediately evident the scale of class, community and work disloyalty, the long-drawn out conflict between teachers and Gove revealed itself more insidiously.
Teachers had become a new class of university-educated professionals who enjoyed a major increase in salary and status under the previous Labour government. Their fortunes could be measured by the houses they bought, the cars they drove and the sustainability of tans that were not purchased at the leisure-centre and foreign breaks. Teachers had become big-time consumers and that overt consumption needed to be financed.
Now the foundations had already been well established before Labour left office. Fast-tracking and academy establishing had seen several stars rise to the fore. Super Heads were introduced into the educational landscape along with motivational speakers, alchemistic academics, dubious consultants and a school of ravenous bottom-feeders who were prepared to devour anything in their path on their journeys towards the very surface. There are many teachers who recognise the accidental achievers. These are those who find it so difficult to survive in the classroom that they have come pre-prepared with an exit and upwards plan.
It works like this: Spend up to eighteen months in the classroom, gain a promotion to head of department, spend up to a year there stiffing out and then ejecting merely satisfactory colleagues, gain another promotion into senior leadership, appear to be ultra efficient within something like SEN, safeguarding or data and then become a Head of your very own school. From there it is a case of reapplying the formula by recruiting other wankers like yourself who are fully prepared to sell their grandmothers down the river for an extra leadership point. The really excellent wankers move on into demi-god status with kingdoms of academies, non-qualified educators and a plethora of politicians to perpetuate their greatness. Without any other driving force behind people like this (beyond the fake altruism) and their affiliation to the ethics of education, it was a simple step to collaborate with the supposed oppressors.
They are among us, but we are too nice, too civilised or too scared to expose them for what they are. Grandmother, what big teeth you have!
What remains of Michael Gove must be laughing all the way to his discreet sessions of strict discipline.
“It was them all along. They did it for me. They did not need much but they were voracious for advancement. It was the teachers what did it. And they are still doing it.”
I was in an assembly this morning in which one of this new breed was extolling the virtues of believing the dream. With the aid of a Powerpoint, video footage of the Olympics and X Factor (Susan Boyle) she was able to convince herself that any dream could be achieved. Look at Susan Boyle; the kids were, and I felt uncomfortable. The assembly ended with the senior member of staff reeling off a succession of triples, thrusting her fist in the air like Henry V and playing some inspirational get down with the kids song as we all left the hall. It is this quality fertiliser that is securing the future for the next generations. I wanted to whoop and clap all my way back to the classroom. That was until I realised that a rather disturbing group of Year 7s would be waiting to be educated.
I heard the sounds of machinegun fire as I climbed the stairs.