What’s your definition of ‘extreme’?

Extremism seems never to be out of the news these days.

A trainee teacher in Liverpool said recently she “could not see how a teacher could be a member of an extreme political party and at the same time promote equality and respect for diversity (so did Michael Gove by the way, but that’s another story…)

She said that if the police and prison service could ban membership of extreme political parties, she didn’t see why teaching couldn’t.

Before we consider some of the issues about this – just on a point of information – the contracts of police and prison officers disallow activity in any political party, even mainstream ones, presumably to assure the public of their political neutrality. So if you’re a police or prison officer, you can’t even be an active member of the Labour Party, let alone something like the BNP.

This is a different principle from banning teachers from being members of an ‘extreme’ political party because mere membership renders them unsuitable to practise their profession.

The open expression of political views, attitudes and beliefs to influence the minds of young people in the classroom – whether extreme or indeed mainstream – is neither appropriate nor professional and most teachers would readily accept that. We keep our private politics separate from our school lives and most of us don’t doubt that we can achieve that.

So why might we doubt the ability of someone with ‘extreme’ views to achieve the same degree of separation? Are they so ‘passionate’ or indeed ‘fanatical’ that they are incapable of adhering to professional values? Well… some ‘extremists’ may be incapable of it… but my experience also tells me that some teachers with ‘mainstream’ views are incapable of it too.

Another student asked me what I meant by ‘extreme’ and added, “Do you mean parties like… UKIP?” Now I don’t know what your definition of an extreme political party is – but UKIP doesn’t spring first to my mind. And that illustrates perfectly the difficulty of the issue – who defines what is ‘extreme’?

So to explore it a little deeper… here’s a question for you to consider: Do you think teachers should have their rights of political association with an extreme (but legal) party constrained because of their profession?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.


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6 thoughts on “What’s your definition of ‘extreme’?

  1. I didn’t know that by becoming a teacher we must also give up all our beliefs and practices. You often hear people say how teaching is the easiest career in the world and that all teachers do is complain about what they have to do, yet if these same people are asking these things of us, then aren’t they hypocrites? How simple would it be for them to formulate a guise and live their entire life with that guise simply to satisfy the desires of how a teacher “should be”? Not so simple, I imagine, and no challenge they’d want to conquer. So how could they possibly expect it of us? If we are keeping these opinions outside of the classroom and if these opinions follow the Golden Rule of “treat others as you would like to be treated,” and are not detrimental to how others live their lives (ie. not racist, not anti-Semitic, not a political group that aims to ban group A from living at the same standards at group B) then where exactly is the harm? I don’t see why personal political preferences should even arise in conversation in a classroom.

    1. I agree that it’s inappropriate to engage students in your own political opinions – especially if it’s unsolicited and intended to influence their views. I also agree that if you keep your religious and political beliefs separate from your professional practice then you have a right to hold them whatever they are. We live in a democracy after all and we should expect to have fundamental disagreements with others and to be challenged and even offended at times.

      You are right – we shouldn’t have to live in a hypocritical ‘guise’ but I imagine you would agree that teachers should protect their reputation. You may want to practise a particular religious belief or become active in a particular political party (both reasonable things to do in a free society) but you will have to deal with other people (and their perceptions) once you do that.

      Not easy. Welcome to teaching…!

  2. Actually, police are only banned by Regulation 6 of the Police Regulations 2003 as amended by the Police (Amendment) Regulations 2004 from taking an active part in politics. It appears that this does not extend to mere party membership.

    On the substantive point, I think what matters is the behaviour of the teacher in the classroom and whether their activities would bring the school or the profession into disrepute. So belonging to the BNP might be allowable, but expressing BNP opinions in the class or engaging in racist or violent activity is not.

  3. I think many students are very aware of the political views of teachers who say they never state their views explicitly. If we teach students to read between the lines and look for bias, they don’t limit this to sources in text books. I think it is better we are open but make sure that students know that we celebrate a classroom with lots of different views.

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