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December 21, 2002
Thoughts on a death threat which wasn't

Mike Peach is onto something of a story, namely the "death threat" that has been expressed by one of a chat-posse of exasperated teachers blowing off steam in the TES chat room. Mike recycles the quote. One teacher, it seems, from time to time yearns for

"a large handgun ... to blow the head off of the first pupil who has failed to shut up/do homework/sit properly at their desk/speak politely to me".

Well, maybe this is a story, but in my opinion the story is not that this man (I'm guessing he is a man) is a murdering psychopath. It is that he is only one of thousands upon thousands of stressed-out teachers who are finding life harder and harder, caught between an ever less deferential populace, ever more attracted by the alternative enticements of electronic pop culture, and an increasingly meddlesome central government which bombards state teachers with bureaucratic torments as never before in English educational history. Yet these teachers are expected to make the sort-of almost completely compulsory, "inclusive" (i.e. no-expulsions), state education system just keep on rolling as if nothing bad was happening to it.

The other day there was a story about how a struggling school in the north of England had gone to the immense trouble and expense of recruiting a couple of new teachers from Jamaica. In Jamaica, old-fashioned education, at least for the more aspirational pupils and teachers in the better schools, lives on, and our Northerners were trying to import a slice of that old magic.

It's the same story, I think. The story being what a ghastly job it can be, teaching in a British state school. The locals can't or won't do it any more, and certainly not with the old ease and confidence and contentment.

Remember also that comments in computer chat rooms, and for that matter many blog postings and blog comments, are put together and "published" a lot more hastily than something like an article in the old Times Education Supplement, and thoughts that are how can one put it? somewhat unprocessed will find their way into virtual print. That, after all, is part of the point of these things.

If people in the Old Media decide to try to make something of this, along the lines of the above quote being a real death threat, then maybe the real story should be the deliberately misleading malevolence of the Old Media. They take a hasty little remark which was at least honest about a real problem, parlay it into a major row by bouncing it off some special interest groups who also benefit from pretending that the "death threat" was the real thing, gouge ever more undignified apologies and retractions from, in this case, the TES website editors, and then report the whole mess as if it just happened by itself, when they truth is that they created it themselves pretty much out of thin air.

This kind of thing is okay if the original blurter-out was the US Senate Majority Leader. (That's a recent real case this man has just blurted himself right out of the job by saying something racially unacceptable). For a teacher telling it like it is, and for a website trying to go on allowing people to do this, it would be cruel and stupid and would solve nothing.

Nevertheless, I'm sure that (the selfish, careerist, ambitious part of) Nick Farrell of computer active on line is hoping that things do proceed along exactly the above lines. Farrell's piece (thanks to Mike for the link) ends thus:

A TES spokesman told the BBC that the teachers were doing what some might do in the pub after school, and were simply venting their frustrations by playing a silly fantasy game.

Two things of note there. One, TES "spokesmen" are already talking to the BBC about this, and two, they are already conceding that it is "silly" for the truth of what it can feel like to be a state teacher to see just a little bit of the light of day. So already the Media have got the Human Beings on the run here. Already there is a trace of blood in the water.

Yet how long before some crazed prematurely retired teacher sets fire to a school? And when that happens, will it emerge that several times the poor wretch tried to say how it felt being a teacher, but they told him to shut up and to stop rocking the boat?

And before I stop, one more point. I freely admit that I'm grinding my various axes here, just like everyone else in this story, or what there is of it so far. By paying my little bit of attention to this (so far) non-story, I'm doing my little bit to stir it all up. So it would now suit me (i.e. this blog) quite nicely if the Media proceeded to do exactly what I have said earlier that they shouldn't.

But my "official" opinion, so to speak the reason why I find this story so interesting, and the thing that I think it proves or at least illustrates very nicely - is that compulsory "Prussian" education for everyone is now an unsustainable system in a country like Britain, and is in terminal decline here. I regard the personal travails of individuals in that system, both teachers and pupils, as symptoms of a deeper malaise, and not something that can be corrected by treating these offending individuals as one-off personal aberrations and just bashing on regardless with the same old system - except staffed instead by Jamaicans (or for that matter by Australians) at ten times the cost that it used to cost.

Even the new role played by the Media in all this just means that education, like everything else, now takes place in a completely different wider context. Telling the Media to drop dead and stop being the Media is, after all, no answer to anything.

Yet plenty of activities now proceed very nicely in this changed context, and they use the Media to do even better. State education just isn't one of them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:06 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
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