INTIMIDATION comes in many forms. Sicily’s Cosa Nostra are less disposed to deposit a horse’s head in your bed than Hollywood would have us believe, but they will politely inquire as to whether you have fire insurance.
In Russia, coercion can be less veiled. Eighteen months ago a funeral wreath with a threatening message was sent to the home of an investigative journalist and a goat’s head in a basket was left outside his newsroom.
Forms of coercion in Britain can be no less menacing. A bullet or two dropped through the letter box is much favoured. An educational version of this tactic is now on its way for primary school head teachers who decide to accept government advice and open their schools for a few of their children on June 1.
They are to be named and shamed by the National Education Union (NEU). The joint general secretary of the union, Kevin Courtney, has made union tactics clear:
Mr Courtney said that as part of an ‘escalation procedure’, the NEU would ‘threaten’ to name and shame on social media head teachers who it believed were ‘putting lives at risk’.
In other words: ‘That’s a nice school you’ve got there, headteacher. By the looks of it, you’ve got a successful career going, too. Be a shame if parents and pupils and even the media got the wrong idea about you. All that hard work you’ve put in! We can make sure that doesn’t happen. Don’t take the risk. A fire can hit at any time. Stay well! Support the NEU and remember our slogan – Shaping the Future!’
Have I over-stated the case? Hardly! There is nothing new about intimidation within the teaching profession. It explains why teachers, generally, keep quiet when they witness deficiency and failure all around them. In my own experience many stressed-out teachers regard the current lockdown as a welcome break from the classroom battlefront but, of course, dare not admit it publicly.
Putting one’s head above the parapet in teaching is no more advisable than it is in so many areas of public service. Supposed whistle-blowing protection means little in practice. Livelihoods can still be blighted or destroyed.
I should know! A colleague and I lost our teaching jobs at Lewes Priory comprehensive school in East Sussex in 1989 for speaking out about the lowering of standards in exams. We dared to question the academic integrity of what was then the new all-ability GCSE History exam which replaced the old grammar school exam, GCE O-Level. Ironically, the O-Level is still produced in England but only for overseas candidates such as our educational betters in Singapore, where it is the main national exam for 16-year-olds.
When my department raised issues about the new exam with the school’s governing body we were accused in writing of ‘insubordination and mutiny’ and informed that our ‘sackings’ had been discussed ‘in the presence of county officer’. The ‘order of the boot’ came into operation within a year. We were told we had not been dismissed but redeployed. My colleague, with a doctorate in history and described as an outstanding teacher by one of his former pupils, breakfast TV host Piers Morgan, was never again employed in a permanent teaching role.
I was placed in internal exile in Bognor Regis to retrain as a primary school teacher. There was no job at the end of it and, consequently, I moved into the sanctuary of private schooling. In due course, I became a successful head teacher. As it turned out I enjoyed teaching younger children as much as older pupils.
The Lewes story is a highly sensitive one in educational circles. Unknown forces at Wikipedia, for example, immediately took down references to the House of Lords debate on the fate of the Lewes teachers that were put on to the Campaign for Real Education entry. The reason given was that the Hansard record of a parliamentary debate in which Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dem and cross-bench opinions were exchanged was inadmissible since it gave a one-sided [sic] perspective.
It comes to something when educational enforcers can expunge the parliamentary record of those who do not toe the line. The tentacles of the educational establishment stretch a long way. In the end I succeeded in persuading Wikipedia ‘editors’ to accept a footnote link to Hansard but only to verify that technically the teachers were not ‘sacked’ but redeployed.
Those seeking evidence of how discordant voices in the profession are silenced can read the debate here. Lord Peston, Labour leader in the Lords, who speaks in the debate, is the father of TV’s Robert Peston.
The National Education Union’s threat to name and shame those it regards as ‘off-message’ reveals how the ‘Blob’ operates and how it has long operated. If it cannot be beaten it can, at least, be shamed. By threatening headteachers, union leaders are acting like Mafia bosses. The Lewes story, widely publicised at the time, still serves as a reminder of what happens to those who do not toe the line.