I recently met someone with a senior role in Australian education. As is often the case when talking to someone for the first time, the discussion began with potted biographies. I explained that I had worked in comprehensive schools in London but when I moved to Australia I struggled to find work in government schools and so I took a post at an independent school. “You probably would not be able to write what you write if you were in a government school,” came the response.
I have been aware for some time that there are restrictions, both formal and informal, on what teachers are allowed to say in public. Government school teachers from New South Wales have told me that they are prohibited from writing anything controversial about education policy. Yet it is teachers at the chalk-face who are best able to comment on the practical effects of policy decisions.
On the other hand, academics are protected by academic freedom. And the kind of freelance talking heads who run training events and offer consultancy advice to schools are able to advance their arguments with little restriction. The imbalance in freedom of expression between teachers and those who see their role as that of telling teachers what to do is one that is unhealthy for the state of the education debate.
Yet it is also clear that some people are working hard to maintain this imbalance.
Witness the reaction to researchED, the movement that organises conferences across the world. ResearchED ostensibly threatens nobody. If you think it focuses on the wrong things or selects the wrong speakers then there is nothing stopping you from creating and promoting your own event. Who knows; hit the right tone and it might gain traction.
At the moment, people are throwing anything and everything they can at researchED. It’s ugly stuff and it makes me wonder about the motivation for it. I can’t help but notice that one recurring theme in the criticism is that researchED gives a platform for teachers as well as researchers. We shouldn’t be hearing from teachers, it is claimed. They are, ‘amateur psychologists,’ who are not expert enough to interpret the research evidence for other teachers. This is very telling. It’s fine for teachers to connect online to share resources, but anything more sophisticated should be left to the true experts.
And these attempts at silencing play out in lots of small ways. When I used to blog under a pseudonym, there was a whole group of people working to expose me, presumably because they thought I was a government school teacher and exposure would shut me up. We have seen similar behaviour in the U.K. where teacher bloggers who quite legitimately challenge the status quo find themselves threatened with legal action. Nobody is condoning the kinds of vicious personal attacks that we sometimes see on social media but to try to shut down fair comment is an attack on democratic principles.
The lack of freedom of expression for teachers is the main reason why we can’t have nice things. It is why we don’t enjoy the same professional status as doctors, lawyers and engineers. Nobody would find it odd for a surgeon to read the appropriate research, complete a heart operation and then give a presentation about this at a conference. Medical professionals are able to move seamlessly between research and practice in a way that teachers are not. All power to researchED for trying to make this a feature of our profession too.
So how and why has this situation arisen? Why is there a need to silence teachers? I think it is as simple as this: Education experts believe in absurd things. They promote notions about behaviour management that simply don’t work. They encourage the use of impractical teaching practices and policies based on eccentric ideologies and yet they present these as accepted ‘best practice’. Teachers can see the effects in the classroom. They live in the absurdity and so they must be prevented from giving their testimony.