At the chalkface: Carry On Culture Wars

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

What’s next? The stocks? The guillotine? Cotton-picking? This may play well in the shires, but surely not on most of the country. And certainly not with our pupils. The young don’t buy it – they never have...


The Culture Wars have been raging like billyho over the summer. No doubt they’ll be preying on your September classrooms like those monsters in Goya’s sleep of reason – a specious, manufactured, craven, nuance-shredding, trigger-pressing racket hatched by the right to divert attention from their cruel, divisive governance.

Pantomime gestures, idiot binaries, false moral equivalences hold sway.

You know how they go.

Here’s just a few of them.

  • Dealers in doubt vs dealers in certainty
  • Quiet contemplation vs Good Frontier gibberish
  • Metropolitan snowflakes vs hardcore pragmatists
  • Takers of the Knee vs Takers of kneejerk racism
  • Black Lives Matter vs All Lives Matter
  • The England football team vs Little Englanders
  • The war on “woke” vs the war on the comatose
  • Mixed ability vs streaming
  • Classroom creativity vs Management Targets

So it goes. The far right – is there any other kind these days? – would seem to be winning the “argument”.

The left, “virtue signallers”, “snowflakes”, teachers, me, seem to be losing it.

Until now.

Now I’m not so sure.

But first, a little history, for this stuff isn’t new...

I endured it as a pupil at my 1950s grammar school. Uniform was uniform, the syllabus was set in stone, deference, casual racism, white privilege, union flags ruled. The right stuff went unquestioned.

Hair had to be short and military and not “over the ears” like the Rolling Stones. That was for girls. Odd chaps girls. I was sent to matron to be fleeced for trying to look like Keith Richards. My chum Rumble was sent to her for trying to look like Elvis. Snip!! Snip!!

Wrong culture.

Control.

I endured it as a teacher at Holland Park Comprehensive, a liberal and gloriously various school. Teaching was exhilarating but it also felt like a perpetual subversive activity. We were labelled “the enemy within” by Mrs Thatcher and seen to be keen to promote things like Marxist-Leninism, Rastafarianism, homosexuality, mixed ability, illiteracy, innumeracy and grocer’s plurals. It wore you out.

We survived for nigh-on 30 years. Then we didn’t. The borough finally drafted in a demon head to “turnaround” our permissive loony bin. Cleanse it of variousness. Targets, outcomes, measuring ruled. Control ruled. We were disappeared or sacked and went bonkers or pruned roses or went to early graves.

Wrong culture. The school became a shining exam factory, the best in the known world.

Culture wars have also raged at Pimlico Academy since its inception. All the old chestnuts about race. gender, uniform and a duff syllabus, This year it was displaying too many liberal tendencies. Enter Tory bigwig, the Lord Nash, to “turn things around”. Hairstyles that “blocked the views of others” were not permitted. Hijabs that were “too colourful” were not permitted. Flags were flown. Pupils were threatened with expulsion and teachers with the sack. New head put in place. Control returns (for more, see Sally Weale’s coverage in The Guardian).

So it has been going in many schools across the nation.

So how much attention should we you give this stuff? Will it just go away? How do we stay impartial? Apolitical? Sane? In our pastoral lessons? How do we stop the occasional rant? I couldn’t. I sometimes just lost it and went on one – to little avail.

“He’s having one of ‘is turns!!”

Will it continue to prey on our classrooms?

Well, I think not. I’m optimistic, because the right is panicking and adopting ever more ludicrous, cartoon positions. Prime minister Bunter is cranking up the crackdowns. Let’s criminalise the poor some more! Let’s have more electronic tagging, more stop and search in a “kind and loving” way. Creepy. Let’s put miscreants “in one of those fluorescent chain gangs” and make them clean canals! Dear me.

What’s next? The stocks? The guillotine? Cotton-picking? This may play well in the shires, but surely not on most of the country. And certainly not with our pupils. The young don’t buy it – they never have.

Things are surely changing. A real catalyst is our lovely, bright, brilliant, emotionally articulate England football team and its manager that graced our summer. They are like any inner-city comprehensive class I’ve ever taught. Sussed. sharp, diverse, empathetic, kind.

Their sheer decency prompted a series of excruciating Bunter U-turns. One too many? On the wrong side of history?

And now there are further rumblings at Holland Park Academy – allegations appeared in The Guardian last month of bullying, intimidation, humiliation of teachers, a Sisyphean workload and a “toxic” culture. Teachers have been driven bonkers and out. But 26 former teachers are refusing stay silent and bravely blowing whistles to the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). There were 30 others in 2019 who raised similar concerns. Read the Guardian article and watch this space...

Our good angels are in the ascendant. So stay vigilant. We can be better than this Babel.

“That’s what England is about. That is what’s possible,” as Gareth Southgate has quietly said.

Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London. He has written for SecEd since 2003. Read his most recent articles at http://bit.ly/seced-whitwham

Further reading

  • Millar: Allegations of ‘toxic’ working environment at top London school, Guardian, August 2021: https://bit.ly/3iAbcTF
  • Weale: Pimlico academy parents told: future disobedience will be punished, Guardian, April 2021: https://bit.ly/3jFuc2q


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