June 16, 2018

There is a lot of debate in teaching around who speaks for teachers. Classroom teachers are often given very little freedom to express opinions. At times, believing a particular ideology is treated as almost part of the job description. Often union leaders, educationalists and headteachers are treated as if they speak for the profession, even though there are often huge differences between their perspective and those of somebody teaching year 9 on a Friday afternoon.

At its absolute worst we have:

  • Attempts to silence teachers who dare express views that aren’t those of the education establishment.
  • Organisations who are set up to represent teachers, but are actually dominated by non-teachers and/or managers.
  • “Gatekeepers” who may allow teachers to play a part in public debate or in educational research, but only if they are the right sort of teachers.
  • A culture where leaving the classroom, or taking on other responsibilities, can be seen as evidence of having greater expertise about teaching than is possessed by those who have spent the most hours actually teaching.

I am very interested in what expertise we can find in the classroom, and particularly in those who are not seeking to leave the classroom, or to take on much in the way of management responsibilities. Often it is difficult to draw lines. Plenty of lower management positions involve only a minimal loss of teaching time. In a very small school, even senior management positions can be combined with an almost full time table. Yet at the same time, so much debate about teaching seems to have minimal input from the unpromoted teachers who make up the majority of the workforce. The debate over the role of non-teachers in the Chartered College of Teaching; the criticism of researchED for allowing ordinary teachers to speak, and the attempts to silence teachers on social media, all show many people in education believe that classroom teachers need “experts” to tell them what to do, and cannot be experts themselves.

I’ve been thinking for a while about ways to redress the balance. Even a one-off demonstration of what the plebs of the education system can contribute, might have an impact. As a result I recently suggested an “#Unpromoted” conference. This would be an education conference where anyone could attend, but only unpromoted teachers could speak. Those who have moved down from management positions would be welcome to speak, and such a format would not be intended to imply criticism of those who have taken on some management responsibility, or imply that even a TLR 2c makes one into a different species, but to redress a balance and to celebrate those whose only interest is the classroom. This is intended as an experiment, and hopefully as an example, rather than an ongoing series of events. If all it did is remind people that the unpromoted are out there and they matter, I would be happy.

I have a lot of other things to do in the next few weeks, but I would really like to start giving this some serious thought over the summer, with a view to organising it for the half term of summer term 2019. If you are an unpromoted teacher with some relevant expertise (not just as a potential speaker, but anything to do with conference organisation) please get in touch. Similarly, I’d love to hear from potential venues or sponsors.



The Progressive Narrative on Behaviour. Part 2

June 3, 2018

Last time I discussed how discipline is seen by progressives, and looked in detail at the view that children needed to be liberated from adult authority.

However, I also touched on another aspect of discipline:

We are responsible for our actions. While there must be exceptions to this principle, they are exceptional. Schools are not psychiatric hospitals; children are not insane and discipline is not therapy. Refusing to hold children responsible for their actions can only stunt their moral development. We all need to know we can make the right choices, and we all need the structures that encourage those right choices.

This part, is perhaps the most disputed aspect of discipline. Again, in the progressive tradition, denying personal responsibility goes back at least as far as Dewey. In Experience And Education, right after the passages I quoted last time about how the right sort of activities could reduce the need for discipline, he describes the limits of this approach in this way:

I am not romantic enough about the young to suppose that every pupil will respond or that any child of normally strong impulses will respond on every occasion. There are likely to be some who, when they come to school, are already victims of injurious conditions outside of the school and who have become so passive and unduly docile that they fail to contribute. There will be others who, because of previous experience, are bumptious and unruly and perhaps downright rebellious. But it is certain that the general principle of social control cannot be predicated upon such cases. It is also true that no general rule can be laid down for dealing with such cases. The teacher has to deal with them individually. They fall into general classes, but no two are exactly alike. The educator has to discover as best he or she can the causes for the recalcitrant attitudes. He or she cannot, if the educational process is to go on, make it a question of pitting one will against another in order to see which is strongest, nor yet allow the unruly and nonparticipating pupils to stand permanently in the way of the educative activities of others. Exclusion perhaps is the only available measure at a given juncture, but it is no solution. For it may strengthen the very causes which have brought about the undesirable antisocial attitude, such as desire for attention or to show off.

He then goes on to argue that while progressive schools have often struggled with these students, the right sort of planning would address the problem (something that I will look at in a future post) . This passage illustrates two key progressive beliefs.

  1. Bad behaviour, or lack of motivation, is considered the exception in children.
  2. Where it occurs, it has a cause that can be addressed on an individual basis.

Dealing with the first point, in reality we are all capable of doing wrong and we all do wrong for no good reason other than we felt like it. Moreover, children, particularly teenagers, are social animals. Most will behave badly if it is normal to behave badly. The problem in our schools is not that a small number of children are caused, by circumstances, to behave badly, but that behaviour which obstructs learning is often normal and most children are part of it. We often talk about “low level disruption” to describe behaviour that, far from being “low level”, is massively harmful but extremely common. You cannot deal with bad behaviour if you assume that it is exceptional, rather than something that our systems and methods have to address every day in every lesson.

The second point is probably the most contentious there is in current education debates. Teachers are frequently encouraged to treat behaviour problems as having a cause that can be treated that goes beyond the fact that children had an opportunity to misbehave, and not being natural saints, they took it. This perspective is so unhelpful to running a classroom, that it is mainly advanced in the form of slogans. There are two key slogans I see used most often. The first is “all behaviour is communication”, encouraging teachers to find some message behind the behaviour which will uncover the causes that can then be addressed. The other slogan is “unmet needs” which refers to causes which are specific to a child and something that can be addressed in order to “cure” the behaviour. These two slogans are used to deny human nature and in particular the facts that a) we all feel the temptation to do wrong and b) we adapt our behaviour to match those around us. Instead, bad behaviour is to be located in the child but treated as not under the control of the child.There are several flaws with this approach.

Firstly, with the possible exception of the very youngest children, if a child was genuinely unable to restrain themselves from misbehaviour, regardless of the consequences, that child would be insane. If  you cannot stop yourself from doing something, not for any reward or in response to any threat, you would have gone mad. This is not a pejorative term for mental illness, this is what insanity has always meant. It is what we mean by “diminished responsibility” in criminal trials. It is clear that this is not the normal situation for children. What it is even more clear, is that while such a condition might absolve a child of responsibility for their actions, it would not be something that schools could reasonably address or treat. The argument for specialist provision outside of a mainstream school would be unarguable in the case of a genuinely insane child. To do anything else would be unfair both on the child, and to anyone who could be harmed by their behaviour.

Secondly, if a child isn’t insane then it is likely that their behaviour is best addressed by holding them responsible for it and no “cause” can actually be found. What is particularly problematic for teachers is that the fruitless quest for causes has become almost an industry. There is a widespread belief that bad behaviour can be explained by a special educational need, which can then be addressed. We end up with children being labelled as having a special need because they are badly behaved, and their bad behaviour is then excused because they have a special need. We also end up writing off children with special needs (even special needs that have nothing to do with behaviour) as basically incapable of behaving. You will find people in education who simply cannot separate the concept of having a special need, from the concept of being badly behaved. This is absolutely toxic and entirely dehumanising for children with special needs who can only be disadvantaged further by being written off in terms of behaviour. You also have a proliferation of “theories” to explain bad behaviour. When I started teaching I encountered those who thought all or most bad behaviour was caused by low self-esteem (it isn’t). Nowadays you will find people who think all or most bad behaviour is caused by attachment difficulties (it isn’t). One of the founding fathers of British progressivism, A.S.Neill thought that sexual repression was a key cause of bad behaviour, and claimed that arsonists could be cured by encouraging them to masturbate.

Finally, if bad behaviour is caused by “unmet needs” not bad choices, we then have a tendency to avoid punishment and instead find some other way of addressing bad behaviour. Inevitably this results in pressure to simply let children get away with it, and where necessary, elicit good behaviour through appeasement. If a child kicks off when made to work hard, then their “need” is addressed by not expecting them to work hard. Standards are repeatedly lowered where this ideology is accepted. If a hypothetical child with hypothetical unmet needs could not live up to certain expectations, then the answer is to lower expectations for everyone. Instead of setting rules that almost everyone could follow, and treating the exceptions to that as exceptional, schools are encouraged to set standards so low that we would never even be able to tell the exceptions from the kids that simply couldn’t be bothered to behave better because the school expects so little from them.

The progressive beliefs about behaviour I’ve outlined here are very often just assumed. Teachers are encouraged to believe that they are simply how things are, and that any teacher who does not accept this must be lacking in compassion or sanity. We need to challenge them. We need to argue for realism and honesty about behaviour.


Zen and the Art of Going to the Lavatory

May 30, 2018

There was a lot of controversy on Twitter this weekend after one troll who works at an expensive private school overseas boasted that they let their students “go to the bathroom” whenever they wanted. A teacher at a state secondary ended up in a Twitter storm for pointing out why this is not allowed in their school. A lot of what followed was just the usual teacher-bashing and trolling you get on edutwitter from people who would never work in a tough school. But some non-teachers genuinely didn’t understand what the issue is. I said I’d write a post explaining, only to remember I wrote this one ten years ago. I’ve added some updated remarks at the end.

Scenes From The Battleground

“How lucky you English are to find the toilet so amusing. For us, it is a mundane and functional item. For you, the basis of an entire culture.”

Von Richthoven (Adrian Edmondson), Blackadder Goes Forth, 1989

Simple, insignificant things become complicated at tough schools. You are constantly supervising dozens of students who have no social or moral restraint when it comes to causing harm to others or thwarting the purposes of the school. Something as insignificant as allowing a student out of the classroom to go to the toilet becomes a potential threat to learning which has to be evaluated, dealt with and, more often than not, justified.

There are several reasons why teachers can’t just let students answer the call of nature:

  • There is often a problem of internal truancy. Students who should be in lessons stay in the corridors. Sometimes they play games or attempt to intimidate passers-by…

View original post 753 more words


The Progressive Narrative on Behaviour. Part 1

May 28, 2018

There are two basic reasons why schools need discipline.

The first is the practical point. Schools need to be safe and effective. If children and teachers live in fear, or if it becomes impractical to actually teach, then a school is not fit for purpose. Discipline is necessary to prevent disruption and danger. To deny this, is to deny human nature and declare children to be natural saints, who will behave perfectly without the need for boundaries and consequences.

The second is the moral point. We are responsible for our actions. While there must be exceptions to this principle, they are exceptional. Schools are not psychiatric hospitals; children are not insane and discipline is not therapy. Refusing to hold children responsible for their actions can only stunt their moral development. We all need to know we can make the right choices, and we all need the structures that encourage those right choices.

However, there is an alternative narrative that denies these points. This narrative can be identified with progressive education. It relies on the belief that children are natural saints, and we need only liberate them from adult authority and remove whatever obstacles are preventing them from behaving in a saintly way. In this post I will look at the first of these points: children liberated from adult authority.

John Dewey summed up his view of a non-coercive but orderly community in Experience and Education. He argued that just as children play games by cooperating, without the need for an external authority, there is a limited need for authority in education.

I do not mean by this that there are no occasions upon which the authority of, say, the parent does not have to intervene and exercise fairly direct control. But I do say that, in the first place, the number of these occasions is slight in comparison with the number of those in which the control is exercised by situations in which all take part. And what is even more important, the authority in question when exercised in a well-regulated household or other community group is not a manifestation of merely personal will; the parent or teacher exercises it as the representative and agent of the interests of the group as a whole. With respect to the first point, in a well ordered school the main reliance for control of this and that individual is upon the activities carried on and upon the situations in which these activities are maintained. The teacher reduces to a minimum the occasions in which he or she has to exercise authority in a personal way. When it is necessary, in the second place, to speak and act firmly, it is done in behalf of the interest of the group, not as an exhibition of personal power. This makes the difference between action, which is arbitrary, and that which is just and fair.

Moreover, it is not necessary that the difference should be formulated in words, by either teacher or the young, in order to be felt in experience. The number of children who do not feel the difference (even if they cannot articulate it and reduce it to an intellectual principle) between action that is motivated by personal power and desire to dictate and action that is fair, because in the interest of all, is small. I should even be willing to say that upon the whole children are more sensitive to the signs and symptoms of this difference than are adults. Children learn the difference when playing with one another. They are willing, often too willing if anything, to take suggestions from one child and let him be a leader if his conduct adds to the experienced value of what they are doing, while they resent the attempt at dictation. Then they often withdraw and when asked why, say that it is because so-and-so “is too bossy.”

I do not wish to refer to the traditional school in ways which set up a caricature in lieu of a picture. But I think it is fair to say that one reason the personal commands of the teacher so often played an undue role and a season why the order which existed was so much a matter of sheer obedience to the will of an adult was because the situation almost forced it upon the teacher. The school was not a group or community held together by participation in common activities. Consequently, the normal, proper conditions of control were lacking. Their absence was made up for, and to a considerable extent had to be made up for, by the direct intervention of the teacher, who, as the saying went, “kept order.” He kept it because order was in the teacher’s keeping, instead of residing in the shared work being done.

The conclusion is that in what are called the new schools, the primary source of social control resides in the very nature of the work done as a social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility. Most children are naturally “sociable.” Isolation is even more irksome to them than to adults. A genuine community life has its ground in this natural sociability.

The strongest argument against this is, of course, to watch actual children playing games and see how often they fail to regulate themselves. If you’ve ever had to supervise a boys’ PE cover in a tough school, with unfamiliar kids and you might have some inkling of just how much adult authority children can need just to play a game for fun. Even a teacher working with a more refined intake will not necessarily develop a rosy view of human nature from watching children play. William Golding, the author of Lord of the Flies, was a grammar school teacher, yet had no optimism about the benevolence of children deprived of adult authority.

Hannah Arendt, wrote about what actually happens when children are left unregulated in her essay “The Crisis of Education” which was published in this book. She described the progressive ideal:

… 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.

Who is right? Dewey or Arendt?

I don’t think there is much debate about this among classroom teachers. Certainly not in secondary schools. We know that the hierarchies formed among children are far less benevolent than the one that puts the teacher in charge. We know that unsupervised kids can cause a hell of a lot of trouble. Maybe not every time and not all the time, but often enough to know that adults must have authority over children for children to be safe and for children to learn effectively. We know that slogans like “positive behaviour management” or “restorative justice” mean little more than letting kids get away with it.

Possibly the only alternative model that might be supported by a classroom teacher is one where the teacher manipulates children, without the need for explicit authority, like the monstrous progressive teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, who manipulates a group of girls in completely unethical ways. Ironically, refusing to exercise adult authority over children’s actions, can actually require greater adult control over their thoughts. If the rule of the mob is to be avoided, the methods of the cult leader, or the propagandist, are the most likely alternative to the natural authority of adults over children. But even these methods, seek only to direct the mob, not to limit its authority.

Next time I will look at the second part of the progressive narrative on behaviour: the denial of personal responsibility.


If we are not careful, history will repeat itself on exclusions

May 26, 2018

Back in 1997, Labour was elected on a manifesto which promised:

Teachers will be entitled to positive support from parents to promote good attendance and sound discipline. Schools suffer from unruly and disruptive pupils. Exclusion or suspension may sometimes be necessary. We will, however, pilot new pupil referral units so that schools are protected but these pupils are not lost to education or the country.

Unfortunately, once in government, ministers listened to the education establishment, and before long attitudes to discipline moved in the opposite direction. In particular, the policy of “inclusion”, which was meant to be about providing provision in mainstream schools for disabled students and students with SEN, started to be used to justify keeping badly behaved children in school and in lessons. I have a strong recollection from my second year of teaching, back in 2003, of a senior figure from the local authority coming to my school at the start of the year and explaining there would be no permanent exclusions in Coventry that year.

Without exclusions for the worst offences, all discipline was undermined. Things that should have resulted in a permanent exclusion, were dealt with by temporary exclusions or internal isolation. Things that should have resulted in a temporary exclusion or internal isolation resulted in a detention instead. Things that should have been resulted in a detention were ignored. School discipline became a national concern over the next few years, with the Tories using it as a campaign issue from 2005 onwards, a couple of television documentaries exposing what was happening, and the  government commissioning a report which sought to gloss over the problems. The opposition put forward a tougher line. In 2008 the Guardian described the Tories plans:

Under the Tories, parents would no longer have the right to an external appeal to challenge headteachers’ decision to exclude their child. They would only be able to appeal to school governors rather than local authority-run independent appeals panels, as under the present system.

The move is in response to fears that growing numbers of ill-disciplined children are being allowed back into school because parents know how to “play the system”.

The Tory leader, David Cameron, will say that teachers do not have the powers they need to keep order.

“The problem doesn’t lie with teachers – it lies with the rules and regulations which stop teachers imposing proper discipline,” he is expected to say.

“We will change this by giving teachers and heads the powers they need. We’ll make it easier to expel disruptive kids. We’ll stop forcing schools to take in violent pupils who have been kicked out of another school.”

Changes were made after the Conservatives entered government, and the rate of permanent exclusions did go up as planned and, in my experience, schools became safer.

But eventually political leadership in education became weaker than it was under Michael Gove, and the counter-revolution began just as it did under Labour. Educational commentators, politicians and most of all, education establishment figures, have started talking as if:

  1. The increase in permanent exclusions was a bad thing.
  2. Rather than being a result of deliberate government policy, it must be due to some other new development in schools.
  3. Schools needed to be told that permanent exclusion is a last resort.

And these assertions seem to go unchallenged repeatedly.

It is up to teachers to put the counter-arguments:

  1. Exclusion is a last resort. No school casually uses permanent exclusions. Nobody who doesn’t work in a school needs to tell us this is how it should be. This is not the same as it being a bad thing or showing a school doesn’t care.
  2. Permanent exclusions are necessary for the safety of children and teachers. The stories of what happens when schools don’t exclude are horrific. Anyone suggesting exclusions should be reduced, should explain exactly why more assaults, vandalism, dangerous behaviour and disruption should be tolerated. And if they are not willing to work in a dangerous environment themselves, or send their own kids into one, they should explain why they think it’s okay for teachers and okay for everyone else’s children to be put at risk.
  3. There is no mystery about increased exclusions. Schools were given more power to protect their staff and students and used it. Ideologues suggesting that the rise in exclusions is an accidental side effect of strict discipline policies, school league tables or a more academic curriculum should be called out for their transparent attempt to use this issue to advance their own preexisting ideological concerns.
  4. Attempts to reduce exclusions were a disaster here, and they have been a disaster in other countries too (e.g. Australia and the U.S.). Any attempt to limit exclusions will simply result in more tolerance for dangerous and violent behaviour.
  5. Exclusions are for the benefit of the victims, not the perpetrators. It is not meant to be therapy. Exclusions are needed because nobody should go into school wondering if they will be assaulted or abused today and knowing that the perpetrators will not be stopped.
  6. If permanent exclusions are not allowed to happen through the official channels, there is every reason to think they will happen unofficially, with schools forcing kids out in other ways, which will have fewer safeguards and be less open to scrutiny. And this is not a sign that some school leaders are morally depraved and corrupt and hate children. This is because some school leaders will do anything to protect their staff and students.

There are, of course, other issues around the fairness and appropriateness of permanent exclusions and I will return to some of those. But the basic principle that every school should be a safe school is one we should stand up for at a time when it’s under fire from those who care nothing about the victims of extreme behaviour in schools.


How Educational Progressives are still trying to silence those who disagree Part 3

May 20, 2018

In my previous post about silencing educational traditionalists online I discussed the use of bogus legal threats to intimidate. Another common method of trying to silence people, is the use of abuse. I’ve blogged before about the Progressive Trolls who try to drive traditionalists off of social media. The last attempt to form a twitter mob against me, (somebody found an old post satirising the idea that the badly behaved all have SEN) resulted in the following :

I’ve talked a lot about “school shaming” where schools, particularly those with more traditionalists approaches, are subjected to campaigns of online intimidation and abuse, negative media coverage and vexatious FOI requests.

As well as bogus legal threats, online abuse and school shaming campaigns, I’ve also began to notice the use of spurious complaints to people’s schools and universities for expressing the wrong opinions. Unfortunately, most of the victims of such behaviour cannot go on the record for fear of the consequences. Bloggers who are generally uncontroversial have been told that they must stop blogging. At least one anonymous blogger was forced to quit their job after their identity was revealed to their employer. One teacher told me their headteacher had received letters of complaint, that were initially acted on, just for recommending my blog on Twitter.

A few people were able to talk about their experiences publicly.

Tom Bennett, behaviour expert and researchED supremo told me:

When I was asked by the DfE to lead behaviour reviews, that’s when the Angry Brigade really got their engines started. Now I consider it a quiet day if someone isn’t firing off bitter, poorly spelled tweets that mysteriously include the handles of the DfE, Secretaries I’d State etc. I’ve even had venues I’m holding researchED in harassed because lonely keyboard warriors feel compelled to make their internal struggles with joy a public issue. It’s largely fine- when you become part of a lively and public discourse, you expect pushback. But the tactic of ‘I’ll tell your boss’ is rather weird if the reason is simply ‘I disagree with you.’ That’s simply an attempt to shut down debate through intimidation. Happily I’m self employed, so my boss is unlikely to sack me. My favourite incident was when someone emailed researchED (which is me) and told them to sack me.

Greg Ashman, blogger, author and PhD student described what happened following a blogpost:

…a number of Australian academics complained to my university. As I understand it, the complaint was about me making fun of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference. Specifically, I joked about how some of the paper titles sounded silly. The complaint was thrown out because I didn’t claim to be representing my university when making these comments and because I am allowed to have opinions about education.

Bodil Isaksen, blogged about education and worked at Michaela school which is known for its traditionalist leanings. When she moved to working for Unlocked Graduates, a charity who work with prison officers, she described what she was told by one of her new employers:

My boss told me that she got “warnings” not to employ me in my new role when I updated my Twitter with my new role. Along the lines of “do you know who you’ve just employed?” with links to lots of Michaela stuff. As it happened, my boss was on Twitter so understood the venom, and was herself at a highly criticised new school so she just found it funny and ignored it. Also, I had been at Unlocked for a while before I put it on Twitter. But I dread to think the effect it could have had if that wasn’t the case.

In this blogpost, a school governor who had praised some traditionalist bloggers described how one person familiar with things he’d said on Twitter, chose to:

… call the school office and headteacher on a weekly basis for two months, still threatening to call in the police and go to the media because of my supposedly disgraceful behaviour. Worst of all, this person knew the effect of they were doing, making references to wanting the principal to prioritise their complaint over improving the life chances of 350 “poor” children, and threatening to “drag the school through the mud”. This was not a dignified phone call asking for the headteacher to make up their own mind and be trusted to take appropriate action. This was the offline equivalent of endless Twitter hectoring. Ironically, our principal did also consider going to the police to make it stop.

I’ve no reason to think that there are more than a handful of people doing this sort of thing. There may be some overlap in those whose actions are described above, or some overlap with people whose actions were described in my other blogposts on silencing traditionalists. But what is clear is that, if you are unlucky, expressing educational traditionalist views can be enough in itself to lead to retaliation.


How Educational Progressives are still trying to silence those who disagree. Part 2

May 19, 2018

This is a follow up to this post, and is the second of three posts about attempts to silence educational traditionalists online.

In the last year or two, I have seen an apparent rise in the use of legal threats against educational traditionalists. It’s probably worth bearing in mind when reading what follows that, legally, something can only be defamatory if it is untrue. Or at least that’s how I understand it, but obviously don’t take my legal advice, I’m not a lawyer. Opinions, even insults, are not defamation if they do not make false claims.

When Greg Ashman wrote a blogpost observing that a consultant who claimed there was “no best way to teach” had been the leader on OFSTED inspections where traditional teaching was criticised, a blog comment made the following threats:

The blog is defamatory and posting libel via social media (The writer has linked to this blog post on Twitter), or anywhere else, can have consequences.

I have *never* in any of my many inspections transferred any bias (I have none, regarding teaching methods, have developed the hashtag #nobestwayoverall which supports that and I support ‘Trad’ teaching, in context. There is valuable methodology in ‘trad’.) into any inspection I ever led, or in which I was a team member. This is simply a personal attack to support the writer’s belief that Ofsted inspectors transfer anti-‘trad’ views to inspection and he’s picked on me to try to illustrate that, as I don’t believe ‘Trad’ is the best way overall.

I would like this blog to be removed. If the author would like to contact me by email, or by DM on Twitter, we can sort this amicably; or he can delete the blog.

Repeated requests to identify any actual falsehoods in the post did not get anywhere and no case was brought. Another progressive claimed “I’m investigating the potential for defamation in his actions” when Greg criticised project based learning. Again, no case was brought.

A little over a year ago I blogged about the case of “Teaching Newbie”, a trainee teacher who blogged and tweeted about her experiences as a TA and as a trainee. After a visit to Michaela school in which she praised their behaviour system for being “no excuses”. She mentioned a couple of bloggers who had made comments critical of such systems. She mentioned one who had said

“there’s a thing called ‘no excuses’ is the wrong way to open up a discussion, in my opinion. Assumes the worst about kids”

and another who had said that such systems were:

“Entirely without compassion”

Teaching Newbie was then told in her blog comments by one of the bloggers and by a PGCE tutor (who she didn’t know personally) on Twitter that she could be sued for defamation. This threat was ridiculous, but the PGCE tutor was insistent telling Teaching Newbie she had put herself in “personal danger”. You cannot be sued for disagreeing with people, but she removed the name of these two bloggers, while refusing to remove her own opinions. When this failed to silence Teaching Newbie, the PGCE tutor then told Teaching Newbie that bloggers could be easily identified; that her context was “identifiable”, that her ” blog and identity can be easily traced”. Given the context of the conversation, this was intimidating enough for Teaching Newbie to delete her Twitter account and blog.

When I wrote about this incident, I was kind enough to avoid mentioning the PGCE tutor’s name, so as to avoid a Twitter witch hunt and as far as I can tell I stuck entirely to the facts. She wrote a number of comments on that blogpost, identifying herself and making comments such as:

All I can say is that fair minded people with a smallish number of followers will not be frightened by the Twitter big hitters and will seek recourse to legal procedures if necessary

If you had the slightest concern of in any way inciting or being privy to inciting a witch hunt surely you could have been laying yourself and others open to criminal charges. I have spent much time in the last days seeking legal/police advice.

If you continue to accuse me of bullying which is a highly serious accusation, without substantiated evidence I will contact my local police. I have no qualms about doing this. … So your accusations of bullying have no substance and I construe them as malicious in an attempt to damage me. As I say it is your choice if you truly and legally stand by your accusations. Otherwise I shall contact my local police shortly.

I am following professional advice here on dealing with on line attack. This is not bullying but my legal right to defend myself against unfounded allegations. We all know that the advice given to people in this situation is to inform the local police.

Again, where threats of legal action were mentioned, I asked for details of anything I had said that was factually wrong and got nowhere. While I understand that the writer of the intimidating comments claims they were just giving friendly advice, they were not interpreted as such by Teaching Newbie. Teaching Newbie had not asked for advice from somebody who had previously supported threats to sue her for defamation and had apparently taken the time to identify Teaching Newbie and work out what harm revealing her identity might do. I dismissed the legal threats and threats to contact the police and thought that would be the end of it. I even joked about it.

A few weeks later I received (as an email attachment) a letter from somebody working for a firm of solicitors quoting various comments (one of which was not even about their client) telling me that:

Whilst you have attempted to justify the publications you have made, we do not consider that you would have any defence under the Defamation Act 2013…. our client would like this matter to be resolved We therefore request that you remove your comments in relation to our client from your blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts and provide our client with an apology by 4.00 pm on Wednesday 21 June 2017

It seemed to me the main claim in the letter, that “It is clear from your comments that you were not just accusing our client of engaging in bullying behaviour but you also accused our client of being a bully” was false. As a teacher, I’m very familiar with phrasing things so as to describe a child’s bad behaviour rather than labelling the child as bad. But I’m not a lawyer, and believing something is false and proving it in court is not the same thing. So I contacted a solicitor recommended by somebody I knew from Twitter, and paid for them to respond on my behalf. I’m not saying the reply my solicitor sent was dismissive, but it began by describing the original complaint as “bemusing” and ended by suggesting that if she really wanted the consequences of bringing an unfounded claim “your client should issue proceedings forthwith”.

The only response received through official channels claimed “our client is ….currently considering her further options in respect of this matter” and that was the end of the involvement by lawyers. Some pretty strange stuff appeared on social media afterwards. Really strange. Some of it was still threatening. A lot of it was just silly. Narratives appeared in which sending me legal threats was an act of great heroism. My favourite version of the story was the conspiracy theory in which my lawyers acted for free (they didn’t) because of their mysterious connections to an online publication.

All I know is that one edutwitter progressive thought it a great idea to tell a part-time teacher earning £21 grand a year that, unless they deleted their opinions, they could face legal action which could cost tens or hundreds of thousands to defend against. They also thought it okay not to withdraw the threat or apologise but instead leave the teacher with the worry that it could be carried out at any time. And they did so because they were so offended at the suggestion they were the sort of person who made threats to silence teachers. If I hadn’t thought and said that before, I can certainly say that now.

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