Revisiting the Trendiest Arguments for Progressive Education

December 4, 2016

Back in July 2015 I wrote this post and this post about arguments that were being used more and more by progressives, as their traditional arguments of “it’s what the government/OFSTED tell us to do” and “it’s what the research supports” had passed their sell-by-date. The arguments were the following:

  1. The argument from mental health;
  2. Debate denialism;
  3. The argument from political correctness;
  4. The free market conspiracy.

I thought it would be worth doing an update about how these arguments have developed over the last 18 months

1) The argument from mental health. Out of the 4 arguments I identified as trending, this is the one that took off most. At the time it had mainly took the form of the false (and somewhat racist) claim that south east Asian countries with very academic education systems had sky high youth suicide rates and, therefore, we shouldn’t learn from their example. However, a few weeks after that post, Natasha Devon was appointed as the government’s “mental health champion” and the new version of the argument appeared. It was claimed that there was a youth mental health crisis, and that exams were responsible. There were virtually no statistics to suggest there was a mental health crisis other than a rise in reported cases of self-harm that might well have resulted from better reporting of cases of self-harm. Youth suicide rates weren’t rising; children were self-reporting that they were quite happy; drug and alcohol misuse and other irresponsible behaviour among teenagers were actually declining. Even if there is an undetected youth mental health crisis going on, there was even less reason to think exams were responsible. Successive governments had been attempting to reduce the number of exams over many years now, with the abolition of KS2 science SATs, abolition of KS3 SATs, decoupling of AS-levels, abolition of modular GCSEs and A-levels and an end to rewarding schools for multiple re-entries. But the unproven crisis has gone viral, with even quite sensible schools inviting speakers to come in and warn teachers about the danger of making an effort to succeed academically and to encourage schools to introduce more meditation and lessons on happiness. Utter hatred can be thrown at anyone who challenges this narrative on social media on the basis that if you stop and ask for facts before worrying about the mental health crisis, then you clearly don’t care enough about children’s mental health.

2) Debate Denialism. This was the attempt to claim that there is no debate to be had about educational philosophy or methods, or more specifically that it is not a debate between educational progressives and traditionalists. I think this has also taken off, but mainly on social media. It has now become very hard to get any supporter of progressive education to admit that they are a progressive. They are more likely to suggest that:

  1. They are not interested in debate (even while they disagree with a traditionalist).
  2. That labels are unhelpful (presumably because not being able to refer to ideas is helpful, at least to those who don’t want the ideas criticised).
  3. That the debate doesn’t happen in schools.
  4. That there is a middle position or a mixed position between traditionalism and progressivism, which they and “most teachers” hold, that just so happens to look exactly like progressivism.
  5. That there is no single “best method” of teaching and, therefore, progressive methods cannot be criticised.
  6. That traditionalists are attacking teacher autonomy by supporting particular teaching methods.
  7. That there is actually some other debate going on, usually about political ideology, and if we frame the debate that way, then traditionalists can be rejected without reference to their actual beliefs and arguments.

Fortunately, none of these arguments hold up for very long when challenged, except perhaps the favour cop-out of supporting point 4 by claiming that the debate is entirely over methods and, therefore, that methods can be mixed. However, there does seem to be an increasing trend among Twitter progressives to block those who disagree, so you can often find whole communities of Twitter progressives agreeing with each other that they are not progressives and that everyone agrees except for these beastly traditionalists on social media trying to create conflict.

3) The argument from political correctness. I don’t think this argument has taken off as much as I expected. There are a few Social Justice Warriors on education Twitter, but people tend to block them once they cross the line into defamation, and there don’t seem to be too many of them in your average school. Despite the rise in political correctness in society, and particularly in universities, in the last few years, the only type of PC that entered the educational debate in the last few years on any scale has been of the feminist variety, with some organised attempts to suggest that women are horribly under-represented by the 66% of headteachers who are female. While some have attempted to use this message to push progressive education, this has not really taken off, and it is mainly being used to promote people’s career advancement rather than their pedagogy. That said, some progressives will resort to PC pearl clutching when challenged in an argument. A number of people in the last 18 months have suggested that everyone disagreeing with progressivism is a man (usually after they’ve done their best to intimidate women traditionalists into shutting up). And there’s always one person who sees telling the truth as an act of ideological sabotage:

4) The free market conspiracy. This was the claim that those arguing against progressive education are deliberately or accidentally promoting “neo-liberalism” and/or private commercial interests. This claim hasn’t gone away, even though the obvious splits in the Conservative Party over grammar schools, and the large numbers of traditionalists attacking the Tories over the issue, have made it far less plausible that all traditionalists are part of some right-wing cabal following a single, hidden, agenda (although some have attempted to rewrite history so that selection was either part of the agenda all along or the inevitable result of existing policies). Given the rise of political extremism on both right and left in recent months, it’s amazing that the conspiracy theories haven’t grown more. It might be the case that there have been so many people throwing around the word “neo-liberalism” on social media outside of the education context, that we’ve just all started to ignore people who do it even if they are doing it in the context of education. Or it might be the fact that issues like Brexit and grammar schools have revealed that most educational traditionalists are middle class liberals, not right-wing attack dogs personally dedicated to Michael Gove (no disrespect intended to any who are).


10 Years A Blogger

December 3, 2016

I haven’t been blogging lately. This has been partly down to workload, and partly down to political despair as the Tories return to the status quo of the nineties, and Labour to the eighties, it seems likely all progress in education policy has stopped. As a result I missed the 10th anniversary of my blog a few weeks ago. So, I thought I’d write my belated anniversary post now, reflecting on how things have changed in ten years.

When I started blogging the biggest ideological faultline in education was over inclusion. This policy consisted of two, equally appalling aspects. Firstly, there was a deliberate policy decision to run down special schools and force vulnerable students into mainstream schools, regardless of their best interests and what their parents wanted. Secondly, badly behaved students were to be “included” in the classroom at all costs, with schools doing everything to avoid permanent exclusions and teachers being blamed for what their students did.

Even as I started blogging the tide was turning. Inclusion was abandoned and from 2007 onwards the number of places in special schools increased and while the rules over exclusions tend to change frequently, I have never seen anything like the ludicrous pressure to avoid excluding the badly behaved that existed in the early years of my teaching career. That said, there are still headteachers out there exhibiting “inclusion machismo” where they boast of not having excluded students as if that, in itself, was something to be proud of and not likely to be a result of a willingness to tolerate disruption and bullying in their school.

The other big issue that was just emerging then, was the shift towards progressive education that was taking place. When I started teaching it was a given that progressive education would dominate teacher training, but Chris Woodhead’s OFSTED was far more traditional, as were most secondary schools, and at least some parts of the curriculum. The national strategies had, in the early years of New Labour, pushed whole class teaching, particularly in maths. However, after David Blunkett finished as education minister in 2001 the progressive fightback had taken hold. Group work and other fads replaced whole class teaching in the national strategies. A new national curriculum with mainly non-academic aims was introduced, influenced by the curriculum in Scotland. OFSTED was reformed so that its main purpose seemed to be to ensure that schools were enforcing progressive methods. Management structures were overturned so that over 40% of teachers became line managers, with enforcement of teaching methods an explicit part of their job. The GTCE struck off teachers who revealed that schools had descended into anarchy. The word “education” was dropped from the name of the government department in charge of schools. There was a serious attempt to merge education institutions into social services, with the “Every Child Matters” framework being applied to both and councils being pushed to merge their education and children’s services arms into one single bureaucracy. Schools were sent masses of paperwork from government promoting fads, like learning styles. The schools themselves became desperate to predict the next fad, with nonsense like Building Learning Power being implemented with the promise that it would be the next thing OFSTED wanted. Also, serious efforts were being made to replace GCSEs with vocational qualifications that consisted mainly of cut and pasted coursework and KS2 SATs with “Assessing Pupil Progress” a system of teacher assessment with thousands of tick boxes.

Teachers often resisted and attempted to maintain academic standards in their classrooms but they were largely excluded from the debate. Only in anonymous forums, like those on the TES website, could they declare their true opinions, where they would be routinely dismissed as “unrepresentative” of the profession. In my early years of blogging it really seemed hopeless. Just expressing my views seemed like an act of rebellion, and I would be routinely told I was unfit to teach because I actually wanted to teach kids knowledge.

Things changed after 2010. Partly, this was political, Michael Gove set about abolishing or weakening the various arms of the progressive establishment. However, social media also changed things. Although initially dominated by progressives, education Twitter moved from being the playground of consultants and ambitious senior managers, to somewhere that you could find ordinary teachers expressing their opinions. Suddenly the old debates were back, and they were being listened to in government. In the last six years on social media, we have seen a situation where progressive ideology has gone from being something that is simply assumed to be true and supported by research, to something so constantly under challenge that even its strongest supporters will deny actually supporting. Progressives now are more likely to say they are simply “asking questions” or fighting against the power of traditionalists (often caricatured as authoritarians or neo-liberals) or arguing for teacher autonomy. They are ashamed to admit to being a partisan in the 100 year old debate between progressivism and traditionalism in teaching.

I’m optimistic about continuing change. Progressive teachers exposed to the arguments of traditionalists on social media are still converting to traditionalism. Some change their minds almost immediately once they realise there is a debate to be had. Some take years, but eventually they realise where the best arguments point. Also, there are now schools proudly proclaiming a traditionalist ethos and calling out to traditional teachers to join them, something that could never have happened 10 years ago. This has not yet filtered down into every school, perhaps not even most schools. It has certainly not reached every part of the education system (there are large numbers of progressives still in positions of great power, actively trying to turn the clock back). This has been made worse by government losing the plot, wasting time with character education, the College Of Teaching and, now, grammar schools. But, for all their power, the terms of the debate have now changed and are continuing to change.


School Uniforms and The Mob

September 16, 2016

Last week there were stories in the press about a school that enforced its uniform policy (yes, that really was considered newsworthy). Much of the response resembled “school shaming” which I wrote about in this series of posts in the holidays:

It wasn’t a terrible “shaming”, as there was a lot of support for the school, and only the hardcore anti-uniform, anti-discipline types could go along with condemning a school for enforcing its own rules. The following blogs give a flavour of the response among bloggers:

For this reason, I wasn’t planning to comment on the story, beyond the following tweet referring to the contradictory positions of some of the serial school shamers:

However, I was quite impressed by one of the arguments used by the headteacher when defending his decision here.

I had 2 Year 11s talk to me yesterday about the fact that when they were in year 7, and when they came to school in perfect uniform, they got bullied by two other children because of the fact they were doing the right thing. We need to send a very clear message that I’m standing by the majority of our children, the majority of our parents, those parents who stood up to their children… and stood up for them.

It reminded me that so often when we relinquish the right of adults to tell children what to do, we are not liberating them to do what they want, we are putting them under the control of their peer group. The absence of authority is not freedom, it is mob rule. The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote about this problem with progressive education decades ago, identifying the following basic assumption in progressive thought:

… there exist a child’s world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar as possible be left to them to govern. Adults are only there to help with this government. The authority that tells the individual child what to do and what not to do rests with the child group itself–and this produces, among other consequences, a situation in which the adult stands helpless before the individual child and out of contact with him. He can only tell him to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening. The real and normal relations between children and adults, arising from the fact that people of all ages are always simultaneously together in the world, are thus broken off. And so it is of the essence of this first basic assumption that it takes into account only the group and not the individual child.

As for the child in the group, he is of course rather worse off than before. For the authority of a group, even a child group, is always considerably stronger and more tyrannical than the severest authority of an individual person can ever be. If one looks at it from the standpoint of the individual child, his chances to rebel or to do anything on his own hook are practically nil; he no longer finds himself in a very unequal contest with a person who has, to be sure, absolute superiority over him but in contest with whom he can nevertheless count on the solidarity of other children, that is, of his own kind; rather he is in the position, hopeless by definition, of a minority of one confronted by the absolute majority of all the others. There are very few grown people who can endure such a situation, even when it is not supported by external means of compulsion; children are simply and utterly incapable of it.

Therefore by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority. In any case the result is that the children have been so to speak banished from the world of grown-ups. They are either thrown back upon themselves or handed over to the tyranny of their own group, against which, because of its numerical superiority, they cannot rebel, with which, because they are children, they cannot reason, and out of which they cannot flee to any other world because the world of adults is barred to them. The reaction of the children to this pressure tends to be either conformism or juvenile delinquency, and is frequently a mixture of both.

From The Crisis Of Education, in Between Past and Future” by Hannah Arendt

I’ve tended to defend school uniforms in the past due to the way they help with school security, and the poor behaviour often seen on non-uniform days. But I think this is a more important point; we tell students what to wear because, if we don’t, the mob will. And our instructions will be much fairer, much more affordable and much more likely to help them develop good habits, than what their peers instruct them to wear. We tell children what to do because it gives them more freedom.


The College Of Teaching gives more power to the powerful

August 26, 2016

The College of Teaching popped up again today on social media.

I have blogged about this very many times. There has been a prolonged attempt by the education establishment to create a new professional body for teachers, following Michael Gove’s abolition of the last one, largely on the grounds that it was a quango that teachers had no time for.

Despite early suggestions that this new organisation might be led by the profession, it ended up being set up by CPD providers in such a way as to squeeze out frontline teachers in favour of educationalists, consultants and managers. This was done through holding events on weekdays in school time, proposing that “anybody with an interest in education” be allowed to join, and making sure that non-teachers and managers dominated the board of trustees. An attempt to crowd fund the organisation revealed a real lack of support from the profession, unfortunately politicians popped in to provide public money to get it going. There had been a few signs of hope: there was an invitation for more teachers to join the trustees and the fact that the issue of who could be a member was going to be considered by a consultation. But the signs were that the organisation had already decided that this was about non-teachers and SMT telling teachers what to do and since I last blogged about them they have asked for “teachers, head teachers and teacher trainers” to take part in focus groups for refining their “offer”, rather than just saying “teachers”.

Today they announced that the CEO would be Dame Alison Peacock, who is currently an executive headteacher, and well known for a willingness to sit on government committees and the boards of educational charities. She has been a headteacher since 2003 and Wikipedia lists 15 different boards, committees and advisory groups she is currently thought to be part of. You could not hope to find somebody who is more firmly ensconced in the education establishment and further removed from the life of a classroom teacher.

I’ve spent a lot of today seeing this decision justified. Much of the argument was based around assuming that the job was beyond a mere classroom teacher and that this does not suggest a problem with the organisation. People have referred to the organisation being “large” which given that it does not yet have members and its membership target is apparently a tiny 5000 members in two years suggests “large” refers to the budget provided by the taxpayer, which the College of Teaching claims may be be as high as £5 million (or £1000 for every member they need to reach their membership target). The plan appears to be to set up an education super-quango, not a grassroots organisation, and that cannot be trusted to an ordinary teacher.

This comes down to the problem that has been surfacing since the College Of Teaching was first suggested. A professional body for teachers sounds like a good idea, if it genuinely means developing teacher professionalism. But professionalism would mean trusting teachers, giving them more autonomy and reducing the number of people telling teachers what to do. Developing teacher professionalism would involve trimming the powers of education bureaucrats, heads, other managers and external training providers and giving power to teachers in the classroom. A professional body for teachers would be a body that sets out what teachers cannot be told to do, what they should not be held responsible for, and what they can be trusted to do.

The alternative vision, and the dominant one, is one where the education establishment loses no power to control teachers, but gains powers from government. Dame Peacock wrote a paper suggesting what power and influence a (Royal) College Of Teaching should seek. It included the following suggestions:

A new Royal College of Teaching could help to establish the core purposes and aspirations of education for all children in this country…

There are a range of organisations that primary colleagues can choose to align with including, for example, federations and Trusts, faith schools, Teaching Schools and alliances academy groups , subject associations, CPR / ASPE / Whole Education local partnerships and trusts unions and professional associations HEIs and partnership schools. The importance of a Royal College of Teachers lies in the notion that such an organisation could form an over arching network within which smaller networks would flourish independently. It could be that smaller networks would seek affiliation with the RCoT in order to enhance their work.

The role of the Royal College of Teachers would be to offer CPD that was inspired by evidence and independent of political influence. Course providers and subject associations could seek quality assurance from the RCoT in order that they could badge their CPD accordingly.

…The benefits to unions would be that the Royal College would provide a single united lobbying voice on behalf of chartered teachers… We need a national organisation to support schools against the current trend for initiatives linked to political imperatives and we need to avoid the exhaustion that comes with feeling powerless to resist…

…As a nationally recognised professional body of experts the RCoT could have influence on the appointment of HMCI. An important culture shift would be achieved if HMCI (a supposedly non political appointment) were to report regularly to the Royal College as a means of ensuring quality and accountability…

…This vision for a RCoT that is ambitious for all children, would represent the voice of English education across the world.

This is an incredible power grab. Power over CPD; over inspection; over school structures; over policy, would go to the College. It would also take on the role of representing the entire system and deciding what our education system is for. In this model, it is hard to see what role would be left with our elected representatives, other than getting to be lobbied by the College Of Teaching. For those unelected people who already have significant power in the education system – the educational establishment – this is a chance to squash all who might stand up to them. This has nothing to do with empowering the teacher in the classroom. This is about ensuring that those who already tell teachers what to do have less accountability and less democratic oversight. This is not going to increase our professionalism; it’s going to destroy it.


Top Blogs of the Week : Schools Week (May 2016)

August 18, 2016

Apologies for getting a bit behind with these. In MaySchools Week published my review of the best blogs of the week.

Andrew Old’s Top Blogs of the Week 2 May 2016

Purple praise: a spoon full of sugar helps the marking go down

By @Xris32

We all know that praise in marking is a good thing, don’t we? Many marking policies assure us that children need a “what went well” or “two stars” to encourage them. Not true, says the English teacher who wrote this post…


How to criticise without starting a witch hunt

August 11, 2016

I’ve been writing about schools being ‘shamed’ in the press or on social media.  In my latest post I had promised to look at how we, the users of social media, can avoid starting or prolonging the type of hate campaign I have been describing in previous posts:

…when it comes to how people should behave on social media, I really can’t think of any hard and fast rules. I am the last person on earth to advocate refusing to criticise schools. I am also hardly likely to suggest that social media is not a good way to whistle blow when things are going on in schools that the public should be aware of. But I do not think a hate campaign achieves anything other than to silence debate. And, at the very least, we can all consider the possible consequences of criticising.

I think the following points are all worth considering when criticising something. And, please note, these are a series of suggestions about how to judge one’s own behaviour, which I hope will influence my future behaviour, not a set of standards by which to judge others, or a claim to have always got these right in the past.

  1. What are your motives for criticising? I think this question is always worth considering. It seems fair to give examples of things happening in schools because people have denied that such a thing happens, or claimed they are uncommon. At times it may be fine even just to illustrate. If people make false claims about schools, I think it’s more than okay to correct them, even if that may reveal a less positive picture of the school. But while such things might upset individuals, upsetting should never be the aim. Deliberate intimidation, such as in Twitter storms, is even worse. I’d also warn against “virtue-signalling” as a questionable motive, i.e. condemning others in order to gain the approval of the like-minded. Sometimes somebody’s behaviour is so bad that it is worth saying it is disgusting, but do so because the person should know, not in order to vent, so save that for exceptional cases not just things you disagree with.
  2. Are your criticisms based on accurate information? In my descriptions of shaming, I didn’t want to restart the witch hunt, so I cut out any information about the actual concerns of the shamers. If I hadn’t though, I could have included as many tweets and emails that were factually incorrect as ones that were insulting. Never assume that the account of one disgruntled parent is accurate. Never assume that a newspaper story is accurate. Always try to check facts and find out the context. If that means contacting the person you are criticising first, so be it. Also be willing to admit the error, and make corrections when you have got your facts wrong.
  3. Are you criticising public behaviour? I should be careful here to state that I am not saying we should never discuss what goes on behind the school gates. Schools receive public money and should expect to be scrutinised. But I do think there is a difference between criticising what schools and teachers proclaim publicly, and weighing in on what is brought to light by their critics. In the first case, making something public invites (reasonable) responses and people should know if something they are saying in public is widely considered objectionable. Also, if it’s something you have posted online you always have the opportunity to remove it if there is a backlash you hadn’t anticipated. We should feel free to openly criticise the content of tweets or blogs, although I would suggest that deleted tweets or blogs should be forgotten about unless the author tries to pretend they never happened, or tries to misrepresent what happened (most commonly by claiming to be the victim in a row they started). In the second case, where the school has not put the information in the public domain, we can still criticise. However, when criticising we need to accept that we are now responsible for the consequences of sharing that information. It is not good enough to say “well, it was in a newspaper” or “it was already out there”, if the information is then misused, or prompts a hate campaign.
  4. Can those being criticised defend themselves? This is the “witch hunt” clause. Too many people claim they just want to debate what has happened in situations where nobody can express the opposing view without being insulted. When it comes to accusations about individuals, it is worse. If people have been genuinely forced off social media, (and I mean by weight of abuse, not because they flounced off) it is not fair to make accusations about them on social media. Don’t join in with a chorus of hostility when you know those at whom it is aimed cannot possibly reply. Also, if somebody is defending themselves, address the content of their defence. Don’t start changing the accusation to something different. I would also be careful against tweeting, or blogging about individuals who can be identified, but haven’t been named, or notified that you are talking about them.  Some people seem to think that criticising somebody in public without identifying them is a way to make debate less personal (see point 6) but the usual result is that the criticised person feels they are being slagged off behind their back in order to stop them defending themselves. With regard to avoiding Twitter storms, you can try to involve others in discussions that criticise, but back off if it could be intimidating. You may want to make people aware of somebody’s objectionable opinion, but try not to send the message: “let’s all pile in now”.
  5. Are you being insulting? This is one that always amazes me online. People often have a very odd concept of “insulting”. On the one hand there are people who see insult where there is none, and often reply with insults to an insult that exists only in their imagination. Common examples of this are those who think an insult can be defined by “offence”, so if they are offended by something, even just an opposing opinion, then they have been insulted. I have encountered people online who argue that you should never point out when somebody has passed on false information, even deliberate lies, because this is the same as calling somebody a liar. Also there are those who feel that if they think the person they are speaking to does not respect them, usually judged from the “tone” of comments, or their own insecurities, then they have been insulted. On the other hand, there are those who start with insults and then complain about the response (or lack of response). There are those who think that if they state something true, it cannot be an insult: “but your mother is fat and that’s just a medical fact”. There are also those who use analogies without quite realising that a comparison can be insulting: “No, I am just saying you are acting like a Nazi, not that you are a Nazi”. It is best not to start an argument with “anybody who disagrees is bonkers”, nor to resort too easily to the claim that somebody you disagree with has misunderstood. A “bully” is not somebody who disagrees with you. Similarly, describing anything you object to as “child abuse” is not the way to win an argument about whether it is right or wrong; it is just an insult. Finally, satire should be aimed at the powerful; some of the worst insults I’ve seen online have been defended as clever parody or just a joke, yet if the “joke” is that some ordinary teacher is pure evil and might do or say evil things, it can be indistinguishable from abuse.
  6. Are you making it personal? Even if you are not insulting people, arguments are not helped by making them about the people who hold the opinion rather than the content of the opinion. Some people do this so habitually that they cannot imagine arguing with somebody who is anonymous. Online argument often consists entirely of a series of ad hominems and appeals to expertise, where people are sorted into goodies (or victims) and baddies (or oppressors) where it is a priori wrong to disagree with the goodies, or agree with the baddies. Try to avoid these narratives. Be careful when using yourself, your school, or your children as an example; if you can’t bear to see any of these criticised, then don’t bring them up. If something is common, you do not need to provide specific examples. If you do not agree with a policy or teaching approach, you may not need to name examples of people (or schools) who agree with it in order to discuss it, although be careful that you don’t fall into the trap of criticising people behind their back (see point 4). People should not find that when they search for their own name, the name of their school, or their Twitter username, that they get your rant about them.
  7. Are you just repeating what has been said by others? This is probably a good way to avoid a Twitter storm. If you want to make a point to somebody you don’t need a 1000 others to say he same thing. Sometimes, you do want to get across the point that “this is not just me saying this”, but be careful that you are not getting dozens of people to repeat you. Sometimes a Twitter poll will help get the point across better than asking people to make comments. If somebody asks their timeline for their opinions, don’t bother if lots of people have already said what you wanted to say. It is okay to “like” a good argument that you agree with on Twitter, but read the responses first. Sometimes weak, or factually incorrect arguments (particularly about politics) are being liked on Twitter for days after they have been exposed as incorrect. Finally, if something is all over Twitter, we do not have to join in with a chorus of disapproval immediately. We can stop and think, look for the counter-arguments, or just wait to see how it plays out.
  8. Are you applying the same standards to yourself, or those you sympathise with? This is always one of the trickiest things to consider. We naturally apply all kinds of mitigation to ourselves and those we agree with that we don’t apply to others. But we should try to avoid it. If you are going to declare “nobody should ever do this”, but you know there are times when it is acceptable, it is best to mention the exceptions up front. It is best to think through the wider principles behind what we say, just in case we have just come up with a brilliant argument against our own beliefs. Sometimes it’s better to check your previous contributions to a discussion as you add to it, rather than ending up condemning somebody for doing something you started yourself. Furthermore, if you haven’t always got things right in the past, admit it. (P.S. I haven’t always got the things listed in points 1-8 right in the past).



Further thoughts on shaming schools

August 10, 2016

I have been writing a series of posts about schools being publicly ‘shamed’ in the press and on social media.

The last three posts were pretty much just descriptive, explaining what being shamed is like, but controversy has followed them. The most common responses have been:

  • Arguing over what counts as a ‘shaming’ or ‘witch hunt’ rather than legitimate debate or criticism;
  • Claiming I am attacking free speech;
  • Deducing some implicit “rules of conduct” from my posts and then objecting to them.

I will respond to these points here.

My choice of the word “shaming” was largely a result of listening to and reading several interviews with Jon Ronson after he wrote a book on the subject of online shamings (which I haven’t yet read). I think the term “shaming” is entirely appropriate for the situation where there is large scale disapproval by thousands of individuals aimed at one, or a small number, of individuals. It’s not how I’d describe any and all criticism of anyone, but if the targets are few; the rage great, and the numbers joining in are large, then it really is not a debate and I think this is a fair way to describe it.

As for the other term, I’ve blogged about Twitter “witch-hunts” before. This phrase is the best way I know of describing a situation where accusations are thrown about, but the targets of the accusation either cannot defend themselves (for instance if they have been forced off of social media) or if any defence will be considered to confirm the original accusation or justify new ones.

Both terms describe a situation where there is no debate, little regard for context or opportunity for mitigation, just anger being directed at individuals who have limited scope for doing anything about it. Because these situations, force people off of social media denying them free speech, I really don’t feel that suggesting we all try to avoid creating such situations is an attack on free speech; it’s an attempt to protect it.

Finally, have I implicitly set rules for how people should behave?

To be fair, I think my views on the journalism that has started some of these ‘shamings’ are clear. I would want journalists to avoid the following:

  • reporting the views of a minimal number of disgruntled parents (often just one) as “news” about a school;
  • naming individuals, particularly children, where it is not in the public interest;
  • one-sided and biased reporting;
  • sensationalism.

However, I don’t propose any mechanism to enforce any of this. I’m just saying I’d expect journalists with any integrity to try to avoid those things.

But when it comes to how people should behave on social media, I really can’t think of any hard and fast rules. I am the last person on earth to advocate refusing to criticise schools. I am also hardly likely to suggest that social media is not a good way to whistle blow when things are going on in schools that the public should be aware of. But I do not think a hate campaign achieves anything other than to silence debate. And, at the very least, we can all consider the possible consequences of criticising.

In my next post I will discuss what we might want to consider before criticising a school or a teacher on social media.


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