Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Friday 29 May 2020

'O judgement, thou art fled to brutish beasts...'

Oh dear! I promised the Spouse I would stop thinking about the Dominic Cummings affair (I was getting very grumpy; I hate seeing anyone bullied, particularly where a young child is involved) yet here I am sitting down to write about it - tangentially, at least.

For anyone who has spent time in teaching, there's something very familiar about the way certain journalists are behaving. While I agree that the broadcast media have a duty to question the actions of those in power, there comes a time when their continued aggressive persistance starts to look more than a little juvenile: "Yes, Laura, I am well aware that Dominic jumped the lunch queue and no, that does not mean everyone else can do it too."

Over the past decades, over and above the demands of the curriculum, there are three things about which I have tried to teach all of my pupils: Occam's Razor, Utilitarianism and the Tragedy of the Commons (with a dash of Socrates thrown in).  The idea is to give them a toolkit with which they can approach and objectively analyse whatever life throws at them.

Having a framework of this kind is particularly beneficial for those pupils who, while capable and intelligent, find themselves permanently cross-threaded in the machinery of life. Frequently - but not exclusively - this is associated with something like high-functioning ASD (Asperger Syndrome), where being less able than most to rely on intuitive or conditioned grasp of societal norms means you frequently end up trying to work everything out from first principles on a logical basis.

Now, it is certainly not my place to speculate about Mr Cummings, but I'd guess from the 'weirdos and misfits' job description (and his reported lack of 'people skills') that he is no stranger to that way of thinking; in fact, his approach all along has been characterised by a willingness - or determination - to take things apart and question everything.

That being so, it was almost inevitable that, faced with a unique and complex combination of circumstances (including potential threats to his home and family), he would go back to basics and attempt to find the most rational solution possible rather than simply obeying the shorthand general advice that he, among others, had promulgated.

It's the tragedy of the commons, of course; one family group changing quarters makes little or no difference but a multitude doing so is a very different matter. Cummings, by reasoning from an individual rather than a collective viewpoint, opened himself up to the spittle-flecked (and somewhat ironic) bellows of 'Hypocrite!' from the crowd besieging his home.

It is possible that his judgement was impaired by the virus - the speed with which he succumbed to the illness on arrival suggests he may have been his usual incisive self - but, whatever the case, it is hardly reasonable to suggest that what he did entitled any Tom, Dick or Harry to pile the kids into the car and head off for a jolly day out at the coast, whatever the pundits may say.

Reason, however, has been taking a holiday, at least as far as a certain sector of journalism is concerned; think of the closely-packed mob shoving microphones and cameras in his face (are we allowed to say 'the pot calling the kettle black' these days?) or the endless attempts to shoe-horn criticism of him into unrelated news stories. Selective reporting - and what looks increasingly like the opportunistic settling of scores - has pushed the story onto the front pages and kept it there.

The end result begins to look more and more like an unrelenting attempt to unseat Mr Cummings (and possibly the Prime Minister) at all costs. Another thing I teach my pupils is always to ask 'cui bono?'; whether it's because of Brexit, the BBC, No. 10's internal affairs or simply party politics, Mr Cummings' problem is that, in his case, the answer is a very long list indeed.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Teaching and the Union Stranglehold

For anyone who has read the recent headlines on reopening schools and wondered why 450,000  supposedly intelligent men and women seem to be unquestioningly endorsing the NEU's machinations, a little background might be helpful.

For many teachers, union membership has nothing to do with collective bargaining, solidarity or marching under the glorious banner of a united brotherhood (or sisterhood). It's much more like having breakdown insurance for the car; you pay up regularly and then forget about it - expensive, but necessary in case anything goes wrong.

In a tight spot, the backing of a union can make a huge difference to the outcome; this, remember, is a profession in which head teachers rule an effective fiefdom where their word, however unreasonable, is law (the press can furnish abundant examples of those promoted beyond their moral and intellectual capabilities) and an unsubstantiated allegation by a malicious or disturbed teenager can lead to crippling legal costs or end a career.

The gross over-simplification that says children never lie about abuse has put a powerful weapon into the hands of dishonest pupils who want to settle a grudge or avoid disciplinary sanctions (it is almost always the strictest teachers who are on the receiving end of false allegations). While every school must have an effective safeguarding and reporting structure in place to protect pupils, there is a very real danger of cynical exploitation for nefarious purposes.

There is also the possibility of an unscrupulous - and possibly delusional - adult in search of a compensation payday or revenge for a perceived slight in the past. To that threat can be added the third-party element, such as a school administrative worker reporting a teacher for giving a stranded 17-year-old pupil a lift home or over-zealous police officers primed to give full credence to the 'victim', however far-fetched or antiquated the claims.

Until recently, union membership was effectively the only form of insurance available to cover specialist legal expenses and expert advice for a teacher facing an allegation of abuse. There's no such thing as the presumption of innocence here (suspension is a frequent first step in dealing with cases) and an accusation could come out of the blue at any time and relate to any period of career history; how do you prove your alibi for a date 30 years in the past?

The last is really the key to union membership; support over historic allegations is only available as long as teachers remain with the same union. Changing allegiance at any point in your career seriously reduces your options if a past pupil suddenly makes an accusation. The unions scramble for newly qualified teachers with massive introductory discounts and incentives, knowing that, once signed up, members are generally cash cows for life (as well as adding weight to the demands of the leaders).

Like many others, I made a conscious choice at the start to join a non-striking union; I disagree profoundly with the idea of putting politics before pupils. Unfortunately, the most suitable option, the  ATL (formerly the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association), was already under threat thanks to the infiltration of activists who did not share the majority ethos; in 1999 it affiliated to the TUC and, with the arrival at the helm of Mary Bousted, the leadership abandoned the moral high ground and began the downward slide - via its first ever strike - towards the eventual merger with the far more militant NUT.

The turnout of ATL members for the merger ballot was 25% (with 73% of those voting 'yes'). A minority of activists carried the day, while the 98,000-odd teachers who did not vote in favour were dragged willy-nilly into the placard-waving world of 'one out, all out!' and the sort of industrial action some of us wouldn't touch with a barge pole, all so that the joint general secretaries could proudly proclaim that they head the 'largest education union in Europe'.

Now my mailbox is bursting with e-mails - chummily designated 'from Kevin and Mary' - instructing me to sign petitions or e-mail my MP endorsing the NEU's stance or, this week, inviting me to join the 'biggest ever online union meeting'. There's more than a touch of self aggrandisement in their endless hyperbole as they set about furthering their political ends; the satisfaction they appear to derive from the resulting power kick is almost indecent to watch.

As one of the 'nearly half a million' the union leaders are so fond of using as their justification, I'd like to point out that I, for one, am not at all happy about it.