Even though I no longer teach, I’ve visited hundreds of schools – big and small, primary and secondary, state and private, urban, inner-city, suburban and village, Victorian and brand new. I don’t need to mention the rapid ongoing change that affects the curriculum and the labels; it’s difficult for me now to keep up. But there are aspects to life in school that haven’t changed since the Seventies when I began teaching in Newham. They’re fundamental values, and were values before the word British was slotted in. They underpin assemblies and policies and for many teachers they’re more important than assessments of any kind. But in the last week it’s occurred to me that in the world, there are leaders whose actions are inconsistent with the values we teach in schools.
I read that in the Unites States, anxiety among children has risen since Trump was elected. Adults too, of course. Some of these children see themselves as potential victims of Trump legislation because of their race, religion, sexuality or gender. Here too, post-Brexit, hate crimes have increased against various groups, including the disabled, as a result of campaign rhetoric by Trump’s biggest fan, Farage. Now Brexit seems to be throwing us into the hands that held our Prime Minister’s. It seems likely to me that even for white, male, heterosexual pupils from comfortable backgrounds in South-East England, the News must be deeply disturbing.
Just as a divorce shatters assumptions children make about their world, and reshapes it, Trump’s policies tear down the foundations of human interaction or behaviour built in school. They’re completely inconsistent with the rules as schools teach them. So what exactly are children supposed to make of everything they hear from the ‘leader of the free world’ – especially when they see that picture of Theresa May holding his hand as if she’s perfectly fine with those policies that contradict human decency as schools present it?
Let’s be specific.
In school, a boy who boasts about grabbing pussy or treating girls like shit will not be made Head Boy. Teachers will see enlightening him about equality as an essential part of his learning, and will want to see evidence that he has learned respect for the females around him.
If a student makes racist comments, school policy will dictate that a record is made of these incidents. Parents may be informed. Racism will rule him out as a potential Head Boy because schools will be looking for someone to inspire and unite: a kind of ambassador respected by all.
Schools teach world religions with equal respect and explore common ground between faiths. Anyone deriding any particular religion, in or outside lessons, will not be made Head Boy. If a student excludes Muslims, for example, from any club, team or event, his ban will be lifted by the school. The student concerned will not be made Head Boy.
No one who disrespects the Science teachers and Science books, and heckles in Science lessons because somehow, with no professional expertise, he believes he knows better than they do, will be made Head Boy. Neither will anyone who trashes the school environment.
In schools teachers help children to resolve conflicts peacefully. Hurting another child, or threatening to do so, is not allowed. Neither is provocative taunting. Anyone who habitually hurts or threatens another pupil is considered a bully, and the school’s bullying policy will outline a process with the aim of changing this behaviour and developing empathy. Anyone advocating violence in order to extract information or force compliance will not be made Head Boy.
Of course schools are not about to bin their rules or rewrite their behaviour policies because of the edicts of a President with no humanity or wisdom. But I suspect that in addition to causing anxiety among young people, his actions will make the work of teachers adhering to what they know to be fair increasingly hard. As a result, Caroline Lucas proposed a bill to make PSHE lessons statutory and I think she’s right. But it’s also a good time to remember, when many of us within and outside the teaching profession are critical of pressurised, data-led education and a squeezing out of creativity, that schools represent decency. The values they uphold about how we treat our fellow humans align with justice. They’re teaching our children human rights.
As adults, we have to defend those human rights for the sake of our children, and resist those whose values are not fit for school.