The masculine narrative of current education reformers won’t lead to freedom. It is infiltrating teachers’ consciousness; changing perceptions of who they are as teachers, what they stand for and what they do.

I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about the rise of a peculiarly masculine narrative within British education. Not everyone liked it. Not everyone will like this either.

My point was that the current education reformers are using masculine language. For example, the “soft” arts have been thrown out in favour of talk about the “hard-edged” science subjects.

The thrusting language of today is Gove’s legacy

Some critics thought I was implying that women cannot possess particular characteristics: a belief in a no-nonsense approach to discipline, or a love of knowledge for example. That was not what I was saying. One does not need to be schooled in linguistics or poststructural discourse to make a distinction between gendered language and biological determinism. Women can clearly be masterful; they can discipline. That doesn’t mean, however, that language can’t create some uncomfortable psychic spaces.

Michael Gove was undoubtedly a great orator. He labelled those who disagreed with him as a gelatinous Marxist “blob”. Shapeless but supposedly dangerous they were failing the next generation with their “soft bigotry of low expectations”.

He gave any dissenters the ideological label of “progressives”. He also, perhaps unwittingly (but probably not), endorsed an alternative harder narrative of education. This is sometimes known as the new traditional (or “neo-trad”) school of thought, with Captain “Core Knowledge” and Daddy Discipline as its mascots.

Perhaps Gove thought the female-dominated profession felt, well, a little too female. It needed beefing up. So his narrative was also full of urgency. The senior leadership team of every school I knew got on board with his reforms whether they wanted to or not. It was swim with the tide, or sink.

Language was just as quickly assimilated. Everyone needed to “shape up” and make rapid progress; it was required .The thrusting language of today is his legacy: competition, control and rigour. These are now the vocabulary, and weapons of choice for a modern breed of education reformer.

Mastery is the buzzword du jour, but take a glance at the websites of some recently opened free schools and you will see that “strict discipline” is also making a comeback. This new wave of paternalistic education in our inner city schools can be traced to urban charter schools in America, the equivalent of British free schools. There, “No Excuses Schools” use a “broken windows” approach to behaviour management that says even small misdemeanours must be quashed. Children in these schools must adhere to the strictest forms of control: walking in complete silence, “tracking” with their head the person speaking at all times, even walking down corridors holding a bubble of air visible in their cheeks to stop them from talking.

The voice of the patriarch within education is loud, and growing louder. Meanwhile the negation of the other — that is, those outside this dominant discourse — is palpable. Voices of opposition are falling prey to stronger censure.

The masculine discourse is undoubtedly attractive in its own way as power, money, and success glare down at us from billboards.

Three years ago I stared incredulous on tube platforms looking at adverts in which nonchalant male models tempted young graduates into the “new look” teaching profession. The promise of being fast-tracked and given cash bonuses plastered above their heads. This was not the school system I knew; they were not the incentives I needed to join the profession.

It is difficult to hold out in this hostile linguistic terrain, but don’t be seduced by fifty shades of one colour. In the book of that name, Mr Grey, is not as slick, nor as articulate as he seems, and he does not liberate. His handcuffs lead to no orgasmic Nirvana or enlightenment. The discourse of the other, of the feminine is about nurturing, uncertainty, chaos (not in the classroom — I know what you are thinking). And it is still needed. Without challenge, true understanding of the complexity of life is impossible, and education stops being worthy of the name.

Go on, let’s add some mystery to all this mastery. The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

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  1. Well obviously ads recently have been aimed at attracting men because they are under-represented in the education system. We want 100% of kids educated and so a 50-50 teaching gender balance would be rational overall. As for the language of patriarchy, it’s possibly that you’re so used to the language and milieu of matriarchy that it comes as a shock. Check your privilege in this regard. Typical examples of such language given privileged roles are ‘nurturing, uncertainty and chaos’, being associated (as here) with ‘the complexity of life’. To reinterpret, or deconstruct these, we would say that nurturing without targets is narcissism, uncertainty without end is hostility and chaos without end is nihilism- that is, taken from the perspective of the recipient of these questionable values, who has no control over them. You’re just putting one set of words against another. It may be that a little yin is just what your yang is in need of… Takes two to tango yada yada

  2. Proud feminist here, can’t help but wonder why “strict discipline” should be a male concept? Incidentally, I am also a teacher and the lack of “tracking” ability in my students is for me one of the most obvious demonstrations of lack of manners and concentration… guess what, when students talk I look at them and show that I am listening. What I am doing there is demonstrating respect and paying attention.

    I have a particular problem with your assertion that the Sciences are masculine and the Arts are feminine. As a feminist woman who never had any interest in the Arts, I find it offensive to think that there are people who think that my proficiency in the “hard-edged” sciences makes me more masculine!

    Can I have an apology, please?