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Teachers are too busy doing their jobs to give airtime to the culture wars

Culture wars place teachers in the crossfire, but the reality in the classroom is far different to what the media tells us

Illustration showing devices used in the spread of culture wars

Illustration: Sam Peet

In June 2023, a story spread like butter on hot toast among the right-wing press. A pupil at an East Sussex secondary school allegedly “identified as a cat”. When they were questioned by another pupil, the teacher branded the challenger’s views as “despicable”. 

The fallout prompted comments from the prime minister, whose spokesperson said teachers should “not be teaching contested opinions as fact or shutting down valid discussions and debates”, and from Keir Starmer, whose spokesperson said, “I think children should be told to identify as children.”

The minister for women and equalities, Kemi Badenoch, even asked Ofsted to carry out a snap inspection of the school at the centre of the controversy. It subsequently found that “the concerns… that led to this inspection do not reflect pupils’ normal experiences at school”. The college insisted that no children at the school identify as animals. You might have thought that this would be enough – instead, the story continued to reverberate around Whitehall and various papers for weeks. 

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Questions about the teacher’s handling of the situation aside, variations of the ‘girl who identifies as a cat’ story have been around since at least August 2022. Typically, the student is a girl, and the school punishes students who challenge her. I personally don’t know any cat-students, and neither do any of my teacher friends.

There’s this stereotype of the incompetent, ‘woke’ teacher. Supposedly, public institutions are overrun with lefties who obstruct the democratically elected government at every turn. It is certainly interesting that the story ran a week before a two-day strike by NEU members. Apparently we hate facts and love ideology. We’re teaching your children, treating your illnesses and drafting your laws, but our rigid adherence to the woke dogma is responsible for our inefficiency.

In reality, culture war issues that generate clicks are raised more in articles about schools than they are in schools themselves. Most teachers have a deep love and understanding of their subject, and waging a culture war in our classrooms only detracts from us teaching it.

While opinion polls on the political views of teenagers are scarce, I’ve learned from working with children that they have a deep sense of justice and fairness. These instincts can lead pupils to what are often characterised as progressive views. It has little to do with our input.

The first bullet point of the Department of Education’s Teaching Standards document asks teachers to “establish a safe and stimulating environment for pupils, rooted in mutual respect”. This, in combination with many children’s progressive-leaning tendencies, does mean that many state schools skew to what we might call left-wing. Politicians and newspapers claim that teachers are indoctrinating children, when it is actually the flourishing of open discussion and mutual respect that has led to kids being ‘woke’, whatever that means.

Though allegations of ‘wokeness’ in schools often come from those who claim to hold British values such as free speech and rule of law in high regard, the vigilante justice being carried out by newspapers does nothing but interfere with the proper disciplinary processes of public institutions and foster a culture of fear in which teachers are afraid to speak freely. Last May, for instance, a deputy headteacher with an unblemished record resigned after a pupil gave himself ‘two tiny blisters’ with a glue gun and a parent complained to The Sun before she complained to the school.

If we want to see where the war on woke schools goes, all we need to do is turn to Florida. Ron DeSantis, the Sunshine State’s governor, pushed through legislation this year banning education on sexual orientation and gender issues in schools. Aside from the flagrant promotion of censorship, it also has implications for subjects we wouldn’t expect the law to affect. As a classics teacher, would I be forbidden from teaching students a myth about the prophet Tiresias, whose sex was changed twice?

It is to be expected that right-wing media will scapegoat us and sensationalise stories about teacher failings, while themselves failing to care that our workload has been consistently increased and our pay consistently eroded since 2010. But we’re too busy doing our jobs to give airtime to their culture wars. If they learned from children, and paid more attention to justice and fairness, perhaps politics would be better for us all.

Cian Kinsella is a classics teacher and member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme

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