We had always educated Cassie about politics and the world outside, though with increasing care as chaos flourished around us. She was an inquisitive child and we encouraged that, considering what we taught her about life to be complimentary to her schooling. As time went by however, it became less and less acceptable for parents to teach their children anything that might contradict the preferred doctrine of the Department for Education.
This became uncomfortably clear in early 2020 when I was called into her school. Cassie had come home a few days previously and said, ‘Daddy, what’s democracy?’ Aside from the difficulty of trying to explain the intricacies of the British version to a seven-year-old, I wondered why she’d asked and it turned out her teacher had said during a history lesson that it might not be fit for purpose anymore.
I learned about the workings of government as a trainee journalist on a local newspaper and felt strongly about the ongoing corruption of its principles. We were in the second year of emergency powers, but there had been no indication that children’s education would now include the suggestion that our right to vote might be removed. I told Cassie why I thought this was wrong and was surprised to find myself in front of her teacher and head a few days later.
“Mr. O’Dwyer, we need to speak with you about your daughter, in particular regarding some of the obstructive ideas she’s been putting forward in class,” said Mr. Greaves, the head teacher, a stressed-looking man in his fifties who seemed like he might be more comfortable anywhere but running a school.
“Go on,” I said.
“Well, it seems last week she contradicted Miss Caulder by telling her she was wrong about something that had been taught in class. We are of course all for individuality but there needs to be some restriction on the disruptive effect this may have on other children.”
“Can you be more specific? You seem to be telling me there’s a problem without saying what it is.”
“I’ll let Miss Caulder explain the details.”
“Thank you Mr. Greaves,” said Miss Caulder, a tall woman in her mid-twenties, probably not long out of training. “This isn’t necessarily the first time Cassie has been outspoken and we were hoping to try and impress on you the effect this might be having on the class as a whole.”
She stopped talking, as if expecting a response. When none came, she continued.
“At the end of last week I taught a short interactive history of the nation as required by the syllabus. It consisted of a simple representation of how the country is run but according to Cassie you took offence to a comment I made regarding the usefulness of democracy as a governing system. As she put it, ‘my father said you’re wrong’.”
“Offence might not be the word for how I felt. Maybe disgust.”
“Perhaps,” said Mr. Greaves, “but I think the issue is more to do with your undermining of Miss Caulder’s work.”
“I understand what you’re saying but what you said to her is untrue so I would question why you were making comments like that at all. If Cassie has been disobedient or disrespectful then I’ll most certainly talk to her, but what you’re asking me to do is lie. I suspect if you go out on the street and ask twenty people whether they’d like to give up voting, most of them would agree with me. When I heard what you said, I chose to teach my daughter what I think you should have in the first place. I’m a little surprised that given you should be teaching a curriculum, you’re bringing your personal opinion into the classroom.”
“It is the curriculum ...”
“I think what Miss Caulder means is that we are obligated to provide all viewpoints to give a rounded education,” said Mr. Greaves.
“Sorry? Let’s just go back a bit. Are you seriously saying it is now policy to teach children that their future might not include the ability to choose our government? You’re teaching this to seven-year-olds?”
Mr. Greaves shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“The most recent advice we’ve received from the Department,” he said, “is that in light of the last couple of years of instability, we need to be balanced in our appreciation of the fluidity of the situation and how we impart sensitive information to the children we teach. We have also been asked to provide guidance to parents.”
“Telling kids that they may not have a say in how the country is run when they’re older is firstly probably over their heads, as evidenced by Cassie’s questions when she got home, and secondly, doesn’t even begin to give them the truth. It’s nothing more than slightly disturbing brainwashing.”
“That’s a very strong term and not one we appreciate. This has come from the highest level and I will not have you sit in my office and accuse us of indoctrinating young children.”
“Fine, but that will have no bearing on what I teach my daughter at home. If the government choose to try and push propaganda into the minds of children in a manner worthy of the crassest dictatorship, then I will counter that at home, for reasons of balance of course.”
Mr. Greaves frowned at me while Miss Caulder inspected her feet.
“Mr. O’Dwyer, I’m not sure your tone is helpful,” he said. “Our worry here is that divergent viewpoints in the classroom will confuse the children.”
“No, your worry is whether the Department gives your school a good rating or not and I’m assuming that is now dependent on you pushing the ideology laid down by them. I sympathise with the fact that your jobs are affected by this but I cannot agree with the corruption of my child’s education. I’ve listened to your guidance so you’ve done your job but if this kind of teaching is to become normal, I will educate my daughter about the realities behind the spin.”
“Very well Mr. O’Dwyer, there’s little else to say then,” said Mr. Greaves, getting up and smoothing himself down. “I would however ask for your understanding of the effect these ideas may have on the other children. Please ask Cassie to refrain from discussing these matters with her classmates.”
I chuckled involuntarily.
“Is something funny Mr. O’Dwyer?”
“She’s seven. How is she going to understand any of this?”
Mr. Greaves looked at me and indicated the door.
The following day I did what any self-respecting political journalist would and wrote a piece about the whole encounter, wondering aloud why children were being taught a dangerously callous doctrine and questioning whether government education policy was heading in the right direction.
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