A Hippocratic Oath for Teachers

Confronting the Juggernaut: 1. A Hippocratic Oath for teachers

Every teacher I have spoken to in the last ten years agrees that the current schools system, and the demands it places on them and their pupils, is seriously flawed and unsatisfactory. Of course, they don’t all agree about which are the most serious flaws, let alone about how to improve the situation, but there can be no doubt that virtually everyone can see that things are really not right. However, in the face of a juggernaut of change, reorganisation, ever-increasing prescription, the enormous demands of so-called ‘accountability’, the politicisation of public services and attacks on local government and the perceived overweening powers of the teaching unions, the natural reaction is a sense of individual and collective powerlessness and the desire to keep one’s head down, out of the firing line, and pray fervently that somehow this maelstrom will pass.


The problem about this is that it allows the storm to grow, fed by the personal and political prejudices of people who know little or nothing of pedagogy, the science of brain development and the conditions that make for really effective learning and problem-solving; or of others who know these things but view education in a narrow socio-political context where personal development, critical thinking and prosocial virtues like kindness and tolerance are just not important. Teaching as a profession has become complicit in its own difficulties by failing to mount effective opposition to changes which have resulted in huge, counter-effective increases in workload and stress.


More seriously, and importantly, the second problem is that this juggernaut does huge harm to children, who are even more powerless to respond, and who are ruthlessly crushed when they do oppose it. They are indoctrinated, on the whole very effectively, into a cult of obedience, passivity and dependence in a highly competitive milieu which defines winners and losers in terms of personal moral responsibility (because, after all, anyone can become a multi-millionaire if they just work hard enough and obviously if you’re stuck in a tough, dirty, low-paid job it’s your own damn fault. If you’d only paid more attention in those English and Maths classes). It’s a soul-destroying business and it’s not morally acceptable for teachers to be acting – even under such duress – as agents of harm. 11-year-olds driven to extreme distress and mental illness by the terrifying prospect of Year 6 SATs which are of precisely zero importance to them as individuals but which are used to rank and grade schools. Active, curious, intensely physical 5-year-olds cooped up in classrooms and made to sit still when it’s literally almost impossible for them to do so. 3-year-olds baffled and put off, sometimes for life, by being forced to ‘learn to read’ at a developmentally inappropriate age and in educationally inappropriate ways (the chief of which we call ‘phonics’). Teenagers whose growing maturity and independence is ignored by oppressive and demeaning rules and regulations in schools, and whose potentially life-determining academic choices are determined more by the conveniences and priorities of their schools (particularly their place in the league tables) than the needs and wishes of individuals. Creative, imaginative, visionary learners who find that there is no place for their quirks and distinctiveness. Angry, disaffected, distressed, anxious and troubled children whose teachers cannot find the time to give them the loving, accepting time and attention they need and carry on putting them into situations where they simply cannot succeed. Children who are ‘different’ becoming dangerously – and sometimes fatally – immersed in a cauldron of bullying and intolerance, because young people are essentially powerless in school and powerlessness corrupts. Even those defined as the most ‘successful’ in this system can pay a high price: constant success can breed a terrible fear of risk-taking and failure and a withering on the vine of non-academic potential – such as artistic, musical or craft skills – because of neglect. So-called ‘privileged’ children who go through their entire school life in private schools are deprived of so many opportunities to develop tolerance, understanding and empathy by never having daily contact with people who come from very different backgrounds.


We know – I mean, know as a fact, not a wish or a belief – that every child is a unique and uniquely gifted individual. We know that children quite normally and quite naturally develop at very different rates. We know about different learning styles and preferences. It is therefore inconceivable that an inflexible, highly demanding and constraining curriculum can come anywhere near meeting every learner’s real needs, and therefore it is inevitable that such a system will cause real harm to at least some children. This would, rightly, be intolerable in the world of health care. It is also deemed intolerable to give patients medicines which have not been rigorously and thoroughly tested in scientifically precise ways; yet we are willing to impose the latest educational whim on legions of schoolchildren without questioning the lack of plausible pedagogical justification.


This is why there should be a Hippocratic Oath for teachers: First, do no harm.