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Sunday, 4 September 2011

Soldiers in the Staffroom

Many of you will have heard all the fuss about the new, slightly odd Free School that is going to be starting up in Manchester which is staffed entirely by ex-nurses and ex-paramedics. Michael Gove has been piping up about the lack of good-natured, patient and resilient role-models, particularly for boys, and the new school comes at a time when Gove is seeking to raise the numbers of teachers who are moving from other public-service sector backgrounds. It is hoped that these nurses, with their brilliant and laudable reassuring bedside manner, will be able to restore calm and order by taking a mild, empathic approach to discipline - 'this is particularly pertinent now, as youth run riot, desperately in need of having their voices heard and their living standards improved', Gove added, echoing the values of his recently appointed Special Advisor on children's welfare, Camila Batmanghelidjh.

Only joking of course. Only joking.

What is actually happening is that the new Phoenix free school is being proposed in Manchester, and it would be staffed entirely by ex-soldiers. Rather than the empathic and understanding approach, talk of this school is bubbling up at the same time as a raft of policies which seem oriented directly at 'masculinising' education. Men were put off by the legal quagmire around physical contact, Gove explained as he cancelled the obligation of teachers to record instances when they used physical force on a child. And it is part of a wider drive to get more male role models into schools, particularly primary.

I'm thinking of the soldiers school thing in relation to the male role model thing. Why does it seem so odd to think of a secondary school run entirely by ex-nurses? Are they not as strong a role model as soldiers - they work long hours in stressful conditions, are underpaid and deal with the messy, tragic and often dirty side of life. They keep calm in times of stress, the grit their teeth and get stuck in. But no.

The reason soldiers are seen as the missing members the staffroom is that they are presumed not only to be men, but to be a very particular sort of man. Soldiers are the sort of men that Michael Gove wet-dreams about when he calls for more male teachers, particularly in the primary school. Gove isn't on a crusade to balance the penis:vagina staffroom ratio, it's a form of masculinity that he wants - a masculinity he finds symbolised in the military rituals of self-discipline, order and force.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying soldiers are inappropriate to be teachers. I'm not saying they are appropriate to be teachers either. It's a question, as always, of 'some'. Some soldiers will be brilliant teachers. Some soldiers will be arseholes.

The same can be said of my theoretical nurses and ambulance workers. Some hairdressers would be brilliant teachers. Some mechanics would be brilliant teachers. Some factory workers would be brilliant teachers. Where is their parade? Where is their fast-track access to teach?

It doesn't exist because they don't fit the mould of what Michael Gove sees as the missing piece in the schools puzzle: the broad-shouldered silhouette of the 'real man'.


  1. Hey there! I'm an incoming grad student from the U.S. about to start an MPhil in Psychology and Education at Homerton. Up until now I've been working on the psychology and cognitive neuroscience of contemplative practices (did my senior thesis on the psychology of meditation in American middle schools) but I want to start working on issues of sex, gender, and sexuality. I found your blog by googling East House (where I'll be living), started reading your posts, and have been enjoying them very much :) I was wondering if I could email you privately to talk about Homerton, studying sex/gender/sexuality at Cambridge, and any other things that may come up! Looking forward to hearing from you.

  2. Hi Tom, brilliant to hear from you. I'd be interested to hear about meditation in middle schools - I'm teaching in London now and any gentle tactics to pacify my kids is welcomed. I'd be happy to talk about Homerton, sex, gender and anything else - my email is jonny.walker(AT)