What will happen to the endangered 'Tory teacher'?

With the government in meltdown and facing electoral obliteration, do teachers still support the Conservative Party?

With the government in meltdown and facing electoral obliteration, will the already-endangered ‘Tory teacher’ become a thing of the past? Donna Ferguson tried to find out…

Walk into any school and you will find plenty of teachers who feel despair about the current political chaos and the impact successive Conservative governments have had on them and their pupils.

But, there are some who still remain hopeful and positive about the leadership of this country.

They are the four per cent of teachers who, according to a recent poll by Teacher Tapp, would vote Conservative in the next general election. It’s a record low – down from nine per cent in September 2018 – but even so, it is a curious statistic.

Given the cost-of-living crisis and the economic bedlam unleashed by the Conservative government over the last few weeks, we wanted to find out why those teachers are still holding fast to their true-blue colours.

Fear of abuse

Perhaps it’s not surprising, but Tory-voting teachers are hard to find.

A keyword search on social media brought up hundreds of posts, but all of teachers declaring they would never vote Conservative.

None of the teaching unions Schools Week contacted could supply us with a Conservative-voting teacher to interview.

The Conservative Education Society was equally unable to help.

A call-out to the Conservative Friends of Education, which has 300 members, did yield four Tory-voting teachers.

teacher
James with Kelly Tolhurst and Sir David Evennett

But most were only willing to be interviewed under conditions of strict anonymity.

This was due to fear of “abuse”, we were told, “not embarrassment”. Another Tory teacher pulled out after their CEO told them not to participate.

According to Stephen James, the education consultant and former year 3 teacher who founded Conservative Friends of Education, many teachers who vote blue prefer not to admit it to their colleagues.

Teachers ‘hounded out’ for political views

If they drop even a hint, he said, “they find themselves hushed up in the corner.” And that’s the “tamer side”.

He said “five or six” openly Conservative-teachers – who did not wish to speak to Schools Week – had been “hounded out” of their jobs because of their political views.

Some had been repeatedly asked “politically motivated” questions by senior leaders and union reps such as: “Is this the right place for you? Do you think you fit in here? Do your values align with the school’s?”

When James was delivering Conservative party campaign leaflets in 2019, an anonymous letter was sent to the headteacher of his state primary school in Kent, suggesting he should not be teaching children because he was a fascist.

“My headteacher obviously had to investigate it.” The head then concluded that there was nothing untoward going on. “It was a massive waste of time,” he added.

Compassionate Conservatives?

James thinks there should be room in the education system for diverse views and values, and says any vitriol aimed at Tory teachers by their colleagues is both unnecessary and unhelpful: “It’s disappointing. And it doesn’t encourage respect for each other’s ideas.”

Last week, Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee, advocated in The Times for “compassionate Conservatism”.

He said this is what “our previous prime ministers stood for, including Boris Johnson when he promised to level up the UK. The Conservatives must return to being the party of social justice, the real workers’ party of the United Kingdom.”

Most of the current and former teachers Schools Week spoke to could be characterised as “compassionate Conservatives” or ‘one nation Tories’.

Kieran Isaacson, a Conservative party member who teaches humanities at a Catholic secondary school in Barking and Dagenham, said the government’s top education priority should be “properly funded” free school meals for all children.

‘I do worry about free school meals pupils’

“A lot of my students are on free school meals. I do worry about some of them and their families. Will they come to school hungry? Will they be cold at home?”

Isaacson, who is from a working-class background, also thinks teachers should get a pay raise at least in line with inflation, and would be “very supportive” of going on strike to get it.

teacher
Cunniffe

“As a teacher with a young family, I’m worried about inflation, bills, the cost of living… I don’t feel like teachers are adequately valued or compensated for their time.”

He votes Conservative because he supports “a knowledge rich, quite traditional curriculum” – the education ideas and reforms that have shaped the system since Michael Gove was education secretary.

While he doesn’t “100 percent trust Labour” with education, if they pledged to put up teachers’ wages and introduce universal free school meals at the next election – he would struggle to continue to support the Conservatives.

Christine Cunniffe, principal of a private co-ed day and boarding school in Ascot, is another Conservative party member who would like the government to introduce universal free school meals for pupils.

‘You can’t learn on an empty tummy’

teacher
Pitfield

Like Isaacson, she is also from a working class background (“my parents were fiercely Conservative”, she says), adding: “I’m an educator and you can’t learn on an empty tummy. Catering en masse is also a lot cheaper than families trying to cater for the children.”

She continues to have faith in the Conservative party because she thinks a Labour government would be “a disaster” for the independent sector and threaten the existence of schools like hers.

She doesn’t have any faith that a Labour government would have handled the cost-of-living crisis any better. Yet she is aware that “all the time that politicians are arguing and education ministers come and go, we are failing children.”

Dr Spencer Pitfield, a former principal of a SEND school who has voted Conservative all his life, would also be in favour of giving all primary school children a free school meal, even though it would mean helping children whose families could afford to pay.

“I think that’s a very fair way of ensuring every youngster in that age group gets a hot meal – and that will really help their education.”

‘What I’m in favour of is choice’

James was the only Conservative we spoke to who supports repealing the ban on grammar schools.

“What I’m in favour of is choice – parents being able to choose schools that suit their children,” he says. “But if I’m quite honest with you, the issue divides my organisation, Conservative Friends of Education.”

teacher
James with Liz Truss

Cunniffe thinks repeal of the ban on grammar schools should be put on the “back burner”.

The government should instead address “the real, pressing issues” in education, namely “we’re trying to prepare a workforce for the future and our curriculum and our exam system is not fit for purpose”.

Pitfield wants the government to stop its “relentless drive for change” and focus on “the basics” like smaller class sizes, good standards and giving children the best possible teachers.

“I think it’s a big red herring saying we’re going to have more grammar schools. Firstly, I don’t think that it can happen in 18 months. Secondly, it just takes away from the fact that all schools should be provided for, better.”

Like most of the Conservatives we spoke to, he would not be in favour of turning all schools into academies. What teachers urgently need from a Conservative government is stability and continuity, not “massive top-down change”, he said.

Grammar schools a ‘big distraction’

Steve Mastin, a former secondary school teacher who is vice president of the Conservative Education Society, thinks discussions around grammar schools are a “big distraction”.

“It won’t happen because there’s not support for it. It’s fundamentally unconservative, because Conservatives are in favour of parental choice – and grammar schools choose which pupils get into their schools, not parents.”

teacher
Mastin

He is equally against forcing existing schools to become academies.

Instead, he thinks the top priority for the government should be to “cough up the cash” to fund the 5 per cent teacher pay rise that was announced in July, followed by a cut in fuel duty and VAT, to reduce the cost of food.

“That will help some of the most disadvantaged homes where my pupils come from,” he says, “and it will help teachers who drive to school as well.”

John Bald, an independent education consultant, has consistently voted Conservative since 2005, but has grave doubts about mass academisation too.

“I don’t see it as improving education,” he said. “I think a lot of academy trusts have all the weaknesses of local authorities. Some of them have been downright corrupt and incompetent.”

Despite the current political turmoil, James feels confident that whatever this government has in store for schools over the next 18 months, it will be what’s best for the country and for children. “What we need to do is just roll up our sleeves and get on with it.”

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