14 November 2022

Let’s stop pretending that teachers and nurses are paragons of virtue


When was the last time you heard a politician being critical of schools or hospitals? Or heard of teachers and nurses being talked about in public life in anything other than glowing terms?

If you only listened to our elected representatives, you’d think that every classroom and ward in the UK were world class, staffed with heroic professionals and flawless both in how they are run and in the results they achieve. Whether it is the new Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, last week claiming that all teachers are ‘amazing’, ‘absolutely fantastic’ and ‘an inspiration’, or the endless verbal encomiums that successive health secretaries trot out to describe the NHS (there are too many to quote), the words from Government and opposition are a diarrhoea of sweetness. Yet these vacuous statements, dripping in meaningless superlatives, conflict with the realities their constituents experience every day.

In many ways the pandemic compounded this shared misperception – the banging of the pans drowning out any criticism that could be levelled at a health service that was struggling to cope. It wasn’t Covid that turned the NHS into our new, secular religion (think of Danny Boyle’s tribute to the NHS in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics). But it was the pandemic that converted us en masse into true believers, crayoning little rainbow votive offerings to proclaim our faith. That uncritical position has remained unchanged in public discourse. Even the threat of nurses going on strike and putting vulnerable people at risk is only ‘disappointing’ for Steve Barclay, the current Secretary of State.  But just in case that was a bit strong he covered himself by also tweeting that nurses, inevitably, are ‘incredible’.  

The same is true, to a lesser extent, of my profession. Teaching lives large in the public’s collective memory because it is perhaps the one experience common to us all. But teachers haven’t had a transformative Secretary of State who treated us as grown ups, rather than paragons of virtue, since Michael Gove.  And any changes he introduced, to make teachers more accountable, to make the National Curriculum more rigorous and assessment more demanding, were fought every step of the way by the teaching unions and the liberal commentariat. David Cameron’s decision to sack him was a very public demonstration that you can only go so far when it comes to upsetting teachers.

Perhaps it is because both professions are essentially about caring for others that they see reform as not just an attack on them, but on those who they look after. Proposals to change funding, or review working practices, are quickly escalated by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, as an attempt to deprive the sick, elderly and children of the support they need. It’s nothing new: Margaret Thatcher’s decision as Secretary of State to stop free milk for primary school children is still seen by some as a vindictive act. She remains, for the permanently infantilised, ‘Thatcher the milk snatcher’. This kind of rhetorical escalation quickly makes rational discussion impossible, and the effect is only magnified by Twitter, where users are almost pyromaniac in their use of combustible language. The end result is that politicians only talk in reductive, palliative, statements of bland affirmation.  

But if you have suffered at the hands of an inept nurse or doctor, or seen your child’s prospects limited by their failing school, saying that our NHS is ‘world class’, and that all teachers are heroes, sounds frankly insulting. Increasingly, the public are unhappy with the NHS. A recent report by the King’s Fund found that satisfaction with the NHS has fallen to just 36%, and more people are dissatisfied with it than satisfied. Claiming that these failings are simply a result of underfunding is reductive to the point of distortion. According to OECD data, NHS spending in 2019, at 10.2% of GDP, matched the average for a developed, affluent country. This government has increased its spending on the NHS by 42% since 2010. In comparison, schools have seen only a 3% increase. That said, since 2010 schools have seen funding for 5-16 year olds grow by 53%, and since 2019 funding per-pupil has increased by 4.4%, and then by a further 4.2% in 2022-23.  

Even those limited tools we have for monitoring standards in the NHS and schools are under constant attack. The NEU, the biggest teaching union in the country, is committed to abolishing Ofsted and league tables – both of which give parents invaluable insight into how the schools they send their children to are performing. Labour, it seems, would go further. The deputy leader of the Labour Party, Angela Rayner, not only wants to scrap inspections but also school expulsions – an absolute last resort that is used not to attack the disadvantaged, but to protect pupils and staff. You would think that such a mad policy would never get off the ground, but you’d be wrong: Southwark Council are already asking schools to sign up to a ‘no exclusion policy’. Standards will almost inevitably fall because of an ideological position taken by those who find it easy to reform schools from the safety of their open plan offices. 

Teaching is already afflicted with attitudes that are so idealistic that they border on a dereliction of duty. The ‘seven myths of education’ that Daisy Christodoulou brilliantly dismantled in her seminal 2014 book remain stubbornly present in too many schools. Indeed, to some extent they have metastasized, hardening into national systems.  Look no further than the dismal Curriculum for Wales, or the ironically titled Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland. In both countries politicians have been instrumental in overseeing a lowering of standards, both in academic standards and behaviour. And in both countries any public criticism of schools remains muted.  

But silence is deadly. If we are unable to hold teachers, doctors and nurses to account, to see them as fallible human beings capable of making daily mistakes (as well as achieving great things) then we really do allow the most vulnerable in our society to suffer unnecessarily. We don’t need heroes in public life, nor should we romanticise ordinary jobs. Doing so removes our ability to see how they can improve. What we do need are professionals who are grown-up enough to accept constructive criticism.

But we also need politicians brave enough to lead that debate, to articulate the concerns of their voters, not reflect back the distorted representations that have replaced the reality. 

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David James is deputy head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.