Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Taking the Oath?

Taking the Oath?

 

So Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt has come up with another wheeze. He reckons teachers should take an oath of service, in the manner of doctors’ Hippocratic Oath.  

He was greeted by a chorus of oaths (not very attractive ones, I guess) from just about the entire profession.  

Why do politicians and policymakers always insist on trying to nail down professionals? They distrust and dislike the word professional: they actually want people to be under the thumb, directed and doing precisely what they want.  

But you can’t do it with teaching. Yes, of course we want our teachers to sign up to the highest professional standards. The profession itself (yes, it truly is a profession) sets itself high standards: there is a peer pressure within every school staff to maintain those high standards of behaviour and commitment.  

Yes, some school staffrooms get it wrong. A school that is losing its way, or “failing” in current parlance, can find itself in a downward spiral in terms of professionalism as well as standards achieved. What’s more, I’m sure that morale is frequently knocked by constant pressure from government and hostile OFSTED inspections.  

Moreover, teachers are human, so any time that any of us let down a student, the parents (and the child) feel it keenly. Of course they will. In fact, they should: and they should let schools know when they don’t measure up.  

For it is indeed all about measuring up. It is about setting ourselves those high standards and being honest when we don’t quite meet them. And we can afford to do that, because as a profession teachers do meet those high standards most of the time.  

That is what is being a professional. We are paid to do a job and, as jobs go, teaching is quite a safe and secure one. In return, we don’t count the hours, and the great majority (sorry, I’ve used that expression again) of teachers go the extra mile as and when it is needed. It’s needed all the time.  

It’s about vocation as well as professionalism. But when someone in a position of power feels that’s not enough and wants to force professionals to sign up to something, it all goes wrong. It first fell apart under Kenneth Baker as Education Secretary in the late 1980s. His name seems to be revered these days, but I remember him as the minister who alienated (I was going to use a stronger word) the entire profession. Concluding that the Unions, doing battle with him as usual (and probably more often than they should), weren’t going to play ball with him, he resolved to tell teachers exactly what the minimum requirement of the job was: he made it 1265 hours worked in one year.  

I recall seeing in maintained schools good teachers whom I respected, people in charge of music or sport, drama or all the other host of extracurricular activities, saying, “If that’s what Baker thinks of us, and that’s what the job is, then that’s all I’ll do”.  

At a stroke, Baker lost the goodwill of those great teachers. Children lost out: the amount of extracurricular opportunity available for them was slashed. We may be harsh on those teachers and say they should have been more robust: but they’d had enough, and the last straw was a cabinet minister with the breath-taking arrogance to tell them what their job was, and what the limits were.  

That damage has never been entirely undone. For the last couple of decades (but particularly since the Blair government onwards) there’s talk of extended schools: newly-opened free schools and academies boast of going on till 5.00 or even 6.00; of having longer terms; of running breakfast clubs. But it’s all got to be paid for. If your child’s school is really going to be open for 10 hours a day, it will have to be staffed, and you can’t just ask more and more of teachers.  

Here at the RGS, we ask huge amounts of our teachers. Yes, we do pay supervisors to ensure children are safe between 7.45 am and 6.00 pm. But the host of activities, enrichment, extra-curricular opportunities, whatever you like to call them, are run by teachers (and some hugely generous members of the support staff). Today is Friday. This evening we host the ONA Dinner, always a pleasant occasion. I shall go home to don my dinner-jacket and, when I come back at about 6.15 pm the Cadet Force – run by volunteers – will only be just thinking of winding up. Some will be hard at it till 7.00 pm. Other staff will be on the way with the U15s to a rugby tournament. And, marking the WWI centenary in front of the War Memorial in the Hall, the Concert band and Orchestra will entertain those ONs before their dinner.  

That is the nature of great schools, of course. It can and should be the nature of all schools: but not if small-minded control-freaks in high office (or even shadow high office) insist once again on failing to trust the profession, and trying instead to nail it down (I started with that expression: I’ll finish with it). It seems to be the only language they understand: and it does great damage.  

Thank goodness for the fact that, despite Westminster’s ineptitude, so many teachers up and down the land still regard themselves as professionals, follow a vocation and continue to give to their pupils far more than anyone has a right to ask.  

After all, professionalism and vocation are really what makes the world go round - and they start in schools.  

Bernard Trafford
Headmaster