Should teachers question authority?

December 30, 2017

It’s often unpredictable what will cause people to kick off after a blogpost. A few recent controversies caught me by surprise.

The first was in the aftermath of these two posts:

In the first of these posts I had been quite reductive about PE and drama. I had reduced PE to being about sport, and drama to being about acting. The curious thing was that PE teachers were able to immediately come back and say that PE was also about fitness and participation (points I accepted in the second post) and drama teachers came back with dozens of different, often contradictory, suggestions for what I’d left out that suggested no consensus whatsoever about what should be in drama other than acting. But what was most curious of all, was that people attempted to argue their case about what was essential in drama by referring to the GCSE specification. The entire debate had been about whether examinations were appropriate for certain subjects, yet for some people it was unthinkable that anyone in the debate would disagree with what the examiners had said about the subject.

The other surprise controversy was over this post:

Addendum: A 4th Way phonics denialists will try to fool you

In this post I had quoted from a couple of posts from The Diary Of a Not So Ordinary Boy a blog written by a (then) teacher about her son. The quotations included the name of the son, and in the first version of the post I included his name, and mentioned who he was in the description of the blog. Nothing I mentioned was not a direct reference to the blog. Nothing I said involved any information that I had acquired personally rather than read on a public site that the author had shared on Twitter to over 7000 people. The quoted material had also been published years ago and left up. The blog had also won an award from the TES and been publicised that way. However, both the author and a variety of other people declared that I had endangered her son, or committed a safeguarding breach, by quoting the blog and/or mentioning what the blog was about. I hadn’t realised that the blog’s author had used her son’s real name in her blog, so when she complained I removed her son’s name, expecting her to do the same for her blog. She didn’t. She, and other people, were of the view that parental consent meant that she could publish whatever information she liked about her son to an audience of thousands, but if anybody else mentioned what the blog was about, they’d need her permission. Why? Because that’s how it works in schools. Schools can only publish information about identifiable children with parental consent, therefore, parental consent must make all the difference. Of course, parental consent makes sense in schools,, it is making sure there is shared responsibility for any risks, no matter how small, that a child might be exposed to. It means that schools that work directly with children need to seriously consider whether the information they have about those children is confidential. It has absolutely no bearing on whether anyone can refer to information that has already been published to thousands of people and a moment’s thought about all the times reviewers of books, films, or TV programmes have mentioned by name children who appeared in those books, films or TV  programmes would make that clear. However, for many, the rules that govern schools revealed timeless moral truths that were applicable beyond schools, rather than a pragmatic basis for how schools should operate.

Finally, there was a fuss over some of the comments I’d made about exclusion. I won’t go into too much detail as I covered it in this post Children are human beings, not labels but again I found people with an absolutely entrenched belief that the authorities had determined what could be debated. There were people who believed that any suggestion still in official guidance about being inclusive of SEND, meant the policy of Inclusion that was abandoned 10 years ago was still in place (or alternatively had never existed as a distinct policy). There were people who believed that as The Equalities Act (2010) required “reasonable adjustments” for those with disabilities, then allowing the badly behaved to treat teachers like dirt was required by law (stretching both the concept of reasonable adjustment and the concept of disability to breaking point) and no teacher could debate this point without being unfit to be in the classroom.

All of these controversies involved people taking something that had been written down by an authority, that was authoritative in their working lives, or in their online activism, and assuming that it was authoritative in other circumstances. So examiners’ ideas about what to examine in drama were authoritative in debates over the nature of the subject. Child protection guidance for schools is authoritative, even over people referencing what had already been published about children they have never met. The laws and guidance about SEND determine what should be done about behaviour, even in cases where SEND is not known to be an issue, or where the established interpretation of the laws and guidance says something else entirely.

All this reminded me of when I first started blogging. I would repeatedly be told that I must believe in the ideology promoted by the DfES or DCSF (as the DfE was then known), by the GTC(E) in their teaching standards, by OFSTED, and by schools. There could be no argument about knowledge in the curriculum, because the official curriculum already marginalised knowledge. There could be no debate about behaviour, because Inclusion was the official policy and the Steer Report had said there wasn’t a serious problem. There could be no debate about teaching, because OFSTED had already told us the correct way to teach and the GTC(E) had already told us what we must believe about how to teach. I had to be anonymous back then, and the most common argument against me was not that I was wrong, but that I was not allowed to even hold the views I do and still teach in state schools. The authorities had spoken and debate was no longer necessary.

Ironically, given that many educators have problems with adult authority over children, there is a long tradition in the profession of uncritical acceptance of authority over teachers. Policymakers and administrators have to make decisions that people have to abide by, but those decisions are never above critique. What is written down about what teachers should do or think is contingent on time and place, and is applicable only in that context, and never in the context of determining what can be debated. To be a profession, we must have freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Not because there are no right or wrong answers, or no legitimate authorities, but because debating ideas is necessary in order to develop our thinking, and as professionals, we are obliged to think about what we do.



  1. Authority exists by virtue of either tacit or overt consent, which can (at least theoretically) be withdrawn. So I was more than a little taken aback by the title of your post, having been open to questioning authority and to having my authority called into question, too, by my students at times. Certainly I wanted them to understand how authority worked, and that included mine. Mind you, I’ve been retired for seven years, so things may have changed…
    You seem to have encountered a fair number of rather closed minds in response to what you have written. If I post something in my blog, it’s public; I’ve made the choice for it to be out there. I can delete it, I suppose, if I want to, and people can challenge what I’ve written, but tell me I shouldn’t have published? I don’t think so, unless I’ve actually broken a law…
    In terms of education policy, I think it’s vital for teachers to be critical and to challenge. We are professionals, with training, understanding and experience, and you can’t say that about all forms of ‘authority’ which determine our jobs and what goes on in schools.

    • I’m sceptical of the idea that authority stems from consent. Authority is about legitimacy and we expect people to consent to legitimate authority. In a democracy we tend to think that legitimacy has something to do with some kind of “general consent” but I think that idea can be disputed in a number of ways. It fits less well for other kinds of authority. The authority of parents over their children, the authority of prison guards over prisoners or the authority of a judge over a courtroom cannot easily be reduced to consent.

  2. I’m a career changer, from a engineering senior management role, and was told I must follow anything SLT tell me without question, because Teaching Standard 8 deals with professional conduct.

    I was also told the school were cautious of me having a blog. I have to be careful on Twitter, as my Head follows me. A great read!

  3. […] Old’s latest blog, ‘Should teachers question authority’, proves yet again what a relevant and important voice he is in the teaching community. The last […]

  4. We’ve been here before. In 1972, RJW Selleck commented on AS Neill, who founded Summerhill, the private school for the children of well-heeled anarchists:

    Neill’s doubtful dominie (who was never too doubtful about advising adults) urged a reluctant teacher…[to] ‘become one of the gang. Smash a window,’ he suggested, ‘chuck books about the room…anything to break this idea that you are an exalted being whose eye is like God’s, always ready to see evil.

  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. […] Should teachers question authority? […]

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