One Wednesday afternoon, I witnessed a surprising rebellion in a comprehensive in North London. The perennially jaded Mr Rogers was teaching his form about the virtues of LGBT inclusivity during Pride Month. Clicking through his slides, a tediously long acronym of the latest sexual preferences popped up on screen.
The teacher of geography, who resembled so little of that rainbow he was required to teach, found himself reading out the alphabet soup of letters and symbols. Upon finishing, the Year 7 class briefly considered this latest arrangement, then promptly erupted into howls of laughter. “How ridiculous,” opined one precocious little madam.
In the age of classroom culture wars, I find myself thinking about this little incident a lot. Barely a week goes by without some strange dispatch from the frontline of British education working itself into the news cycle. Earlier in the year, “catgate” blew up, in which a teacher appeared to describe the views of two students on the limits of gender identity as “despicable”.
The other week, a curious symbol meant to teach the hierarchy of societal oppression in schools was posted on Twitter. Its colourful simplicity bore a resemblance to something Bruce Forysth might spin. More recently, a children’s book that culminated in a grandad sporting leather fetish gear was pulled from a pre-school reading list — the adults in this instance deciding that introducing homosexuality to toddlers via a stereotype lifted from a Roy Chubby Brown sketch probably wasn’t the best idea.
Conservatives lament. Many an institution has been captured by the great awokening, but schools — the place where future citizens are reared — must surely be the greatest loss. At its most paranoid, this fear suggests the local comprehensive risks turning into the campus of UC Berkeley, with students being primed for a future of fluid sexuality, American racial politics and a determination to decolonise everything in sight.
Tokenistic figures inserted into history were spotted a mile off
My own experience as a teacher makes me slightly sceptical of all of this. Given the chaotic nature of British schooling over events of the last few years I’m increasingly sceptical of schools levying any sort of influence on young people at all.
Beyond doubt, I have encountered much eye rolling idiocy amongst adults overpromoted to the position of societal guardians. One assembly comes to mind, for instance, in which an assistant head used the murder of Sarah Everard as a hook to lecture boys on the sins of toxic masculinity. The bemused look on their face suggests they too were struggling with the jump from pubescent sex pesting to the antics of a pyscho-sexual murderer.
Such moments abounded during my short tenure in 2020–21, a baptism of fire for school children into the increasingly surreal world of adult life in the 21st century. Adults were muffled by masks whilst teaching long division. Black History Month saw a renewed moral purpose amongst a mostly white, liberal teaching force post-George Flloyd.
Many of our students, not least those referred to as “BAME”, regarded these overtures with a sense of suspicion. Tokenistic figures inserted into history were spotted a mile off, invoking confusion rather than some deeper representation. “So he just weaved silk, that’s it?” said one student of Reasonable Blackman, a 16th century resident of Southwark who popped up halfway through the bloody violence of the English reformation.
The heightened sensitivities around race post-Floyd all too often indulged the adults rather than the children. I could only look on in bafflement when a reformational split engulfed the school as colleagues debated whether it was conscionable for a white teacher to tell off a black child for using the “n-word”. One staff member once confessed to me a concern that he was over-disciplining a child because of some secret racial bias he harboured. After a brief check of the student’s behavioural record, I assured him he was not the only potential racist on the school’s payroll.
Amidst the vain follies of adults and the confusing chaos of pandemic dictats, I couldn’t help but notice how one characteristic of the British state school children endured in opposition to all of this. They were curious creatures: capable of both great cruelty and kindness, stoic, cynical, broadly sceptical and generally suspicious of adults with an overt agenda or point to prove. Above all, they just seemed fed up.
“Set text” syndrome means children generally regard the rigidity of the curriculum with suspicion. The best way to get children’s attention is to utter the words, “I’m not supposed to teach this”, followed by some heretical fact. This logic reversed also holds true. As with much of the progressive activist fare, its guardians and practitioners seem irrevocably cringe.
Children, unsurprisingly, have an acute sense of this phenomenon. Mary Whitehouse seems positively transgressive, when a shrewish teacher of religious studies in her mid forties stands before a class of teenagers and teaches them about navigating a polyamorous sex life. One poor teacher who took to wearing a Black Lives Matter pin was secretly mocked by those he was so eager to be an ally of.
The best practitioners of these virtues are the children
Tethered to our ever confusing discourse and the never ending cycle of contemporary adult anxieties, debates and backlashes, it’s no surprise this frenetic education induces a numbing cynicism. At its worst excesses, the school risks becoming a bootcamp that is overly concerned with mitigating society’s endless flaws. A sad, confusing place, it is downstream of an adult world that all too often betrays little confidence or understanding of its own professed ideals.
Observe the way in which one professor recently suggested we explicitly teach children how to spot conspiracy theories and “debunk” fake news (where to start). Or the media frenzy over Andrew Tate, which has seen a cottage industry of advice and individuals shoehorn their way into schools offering to solve the perennial crisis of modern masculinity.
Reflecting on this strange period of British schooling, I can’t help but think that childhood and its virtues have a thing or two to teach the adults. Take those monolithic slogans of diversity and inclusion. All too often the best practitioners of these virtues are the children themselves, who for the most part seem to have little problem getting on with each other until some hectoring adult starts chiming in with their own potted history of race relations under the ghoulish authority of the silent classroom.
This September some children will not be returning to the classroom because their schools risk caving in, a visible decay of a system that has barely recovered from the pandemic. It is now seeing a record number of parents switching to homeschooling, with an attendance crisis that has prompted government intervention.
The modern British state school, deprived of resources and run by a merry go round of overworked and abused teachers, is fast becoming a place where ideals wilt and die rather than wield the desired influence both liberals and conservatives hand wring over.
In any sane society, this decline is hardly acceptable. In a less than ideal system fraught with far graver problems than the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of acceptable adult opinion, though, the innate character of the British school child offers something of a reprieve — if not a lesson for adults, weaned on our obsessive crisis ridden culture of hand wringing, lecturing and shallow ideas. After a number of disruptive years, it’s the jaded cynicism of school children that has a surprising thing or two to teach the adults.
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