Bernard Trafford: Oh for a modicum of humilty and open-mindedness

Journal columnist Bernard Trafford takes Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt to task over his comment on nuns in teaching

Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt
Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt

I have something to confess. I was taught by nuns, and ever since I have maintained a long-running joke, describing myself as “harbouring a lifelong terror of nuns”.

The Catholic infant school I attended was run by (I think) an order of Belgian nuns. It disappeared decades ago, so I can’t check my facts. I retain a hazy half-century-old memory of large women in all-enveloping dark-blue habits: mind you, when you’re only four, all adults seem enormous. Though my memory may play tricks, I recall a fearsome nun in charge of the kitchen, wielding a huge ladle and massive cooking pot, doling out lunches we didn’t like but dared not refuse.

It’s too easy, and far from kind, to poke fun at nuns: so, given my history, you might say I should hesitate to criticise Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt who made a fool of himself on the subject. On BBC 1’s Question Time last Thursday, Telegraph journalist Cristina Odone described her education in a mixture of state and private schools, including a religious one: she said she’d been very well taught by teachers with “real values”.

Hunt airily dismissed her experience, commenting, “They were all nuns, weren’t they?”

The following Sunday, on his morning show, Andrew Marr asked him seven times whether nuns could be good teachers. Eventually he conceded: “I’m sure there are brilliant teachers who are nuns”.

Where did this high-handed, dismissive attitude come from? Hunt’s a former TV historian.

Has he forgotten that, centuries ago, all teaching and nursing were done exclusively by religious orders? Governments assumed responsibility for such things only late, and slowly: in this country it took two World Wars and the advent of the Welfare State before services were professionally staffed throughout instead of relying to a greater or lesser extent on the religious who had taught or nursed by vocation, without salary or pension.

Did Hunt’s sweeping assumption betray a trendy liberal-left view of the religious vocation to service, a view which is, in fact, illiberal and despises both?

Maybe. Actually, his greatest sin wasn’t to presume (till he backtracked furiously) that nuns couldn’t be “proper” teachers. Worse: he’s turning into a bore.

Six times Marr tried to nail him down: six times he responded with incoherent pseudo-professional claptrap: “I think parents will be shocked to know that we see more and more unqualified teachers in our classroom. But then to make sure we have the continuing professional development with them, so year on year on year (sic).”

His obsession with teachers having to be qualified is boring, as well as dogmatic. By “qualified” he’s talking not about subject knowledge but about completing teacher-training. Take him as an example: he wouldn’t be deemed competent to teach, despite a history degree, unless he’s done teacher-training.

The vast majority of teachers are classroom-qualified, as well as in their subject specialism. They should be. If I appoint teachers to my (independent of government) school who don’t have a teaching certificate, I help them get one. It generally makes them better teachers and gives them a go-anywhere qualification. But sometimes, just sometimes, I interview amazing natural-born teachers who outshine even those who have been through the formal training programme.

Hunt wants to ensure that no one teaches children without that qualification. I find politicians like him insisting on everything being black and white just as bigoted and out-of-step as those private school heads who aver that teacher-training somehow prevents teachers from being inspired and original: that’s rubbish too.

Hunt’s insistence on conformity leaves heads and schools no flexibility (which we need when there’s a teacher-supply crisis), outlaws the unconventional genius and risks imposing a dull orthodoxy on all our schools. But then, I fear that’s what he wants.

This story isn’t about nuns, but a lack of humility and open-mindedness. A modicum of either would have prevented him from uttering a silly, insulting generalisation, and saved him considerable embarrassment.

Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal. - @bernardtrafford

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