It's Tristram Hunt who should be taking an oath, not our teachers


Poor Tristram Hunt. The Shadow Education Secretary’s latest revolutionary idea of having teachers swear a public oath in the style of the Hippocratic Oath – committing themselves to the values of their profession – has not gone down with the degree of enthusiasm that he might have hoped for. Within hours of the announcement, the Times Educational Supplement had carried out a snap poll of 500 of its users and found that 85 per cent of the teachers were not amused.

Teachers are a fickle bunch, with little love for politicians of any political colour. They are generally perceived as ignorant and interfering, putting stumbling blocks in the way of teachers getting on and doing the important work of teaching children how they see fit. Michael Gove was on the receiving end of plenty of spite and vitriol, and his replacement, Nicky Morgan, will probably experience the same if she is given time to stamp her mark on her position. Tristram Hunt appears to want to get in early and lose the faith of teachers even before the General Election draws near.

The Hippocratic Oath has a long and respected history. It has been modified numerous times since the 5th century BC, but still retains at its heart the importance of a doctor’s duty to preserve life and put the patient’s needs first. Could Hunt conjure up something that would come close to gaining the same level of respect? Given this typical response, he’s already lost the battle:

John Tait on Tristram Hunt

It’s not that his proposal is completely ridiculous: it obviously has some positive effect in Singapore, from where he stole the idea. But Singapore is not the UK . Teachers there also receive a compass to remind them of their responsibility to provide a sense of moral purpose and virtue to young people. Given that education in this country is such a political football which is knocked backwards and forwards depending on who is in power, perhaps travel sickness pills might be a better token. Although, given the current state of our public finances, teachers would probably be expected to buy their own.

Unless the law states otherwise, an oath is not legally binding. It does not hold the same as weight as the marriage vows, for example. An oath sets out the values of an organisation or profession, much like a mission statement. Whether someone actually takes an oath or not should not make any difference if they subscribe to the values of a profession. If it was that crucial, why do some universities not require their medical students to take the oath? One of my close friends who is a doctor has never taken the Hippocratic Oath and yet, as far as I am aware, they have only ever sought the best for their patients. I would like to assume that the vast majority of doctors are exactly the same.

How would I feel if my church suddenly decided that I was required to take an oath before I could call myself a Christian? Would that make me any more holy? Would it make my faith stronger or give me added wisdom? To be honest, I’d be offended. I’ve made my commitment and given a public witness through my baptism. Jesus didn’t ask for a load of extras on top of that just in case I didn’t really mean it. Why would I need then to make a series of promises when my actions have already said enough?

The same applies to me as a teacher. I gave up a year of my life at considerable personal financial cost to train as a teacher. I passed the interviews, worked my guts out and demonstrated my capabilities through the assessments. Is that not proof enough that I’m serious about my current profession? I would never have gone through all of that effort to qualify, and then continued to stick at it for over a decade, if I wasn’t bothered about giving my students a decent education.

Perhaps, if there is a place for oaths, it’s where trust is being questioned or needs to be restored, such as in a courtroom. Where there is a lack of evidence of morality and truth, a publicly-stated commitment can be used to hold someone to account. In the latest Ipsos MORI poll on trust in professions, doctors were ranked as most likely to be trusted to tell the truth, followed teachers. Right at the bottom, as you might well expect, were politicians. So perhaps if anyone needs to be saying a public oath to bolster their public reputation and “elevate” the status of their profession, as Mr Hunt put it, it’s our MPs. So how about this to kick things off?

I promise not to make commitments I have no intention or will be unable to keep.

I promise to treat the electorate with the respect they deserve.

I promise to remember that there is life outside of the Westminster Bubble.

I promise not to put down and dismiss the views of other politicians just because they are members of a different party.

I promise to remain honest and upright in all of my financial dealings.

Well done, Tristram, for making the effort to think about how education could be improved. But, in the words of so many school reports, you “must try harder”. If you really want to target a group of people whom you feel are lacking in professionalism, perhaps you should look a bit closer to home.

  • poor tristram. he’s the labour candidate for the position of “teachers union rep in parliament”, which the tories don’t compete for, so he really ought to get an easy ride.

  • JayBee

    What a silly idea. Especially in an age where truth and loyalty tend to be whatever people want to make them and moral relativity is rampant.

    Still if he insists on an oath, maybe something along these lines might be appropriate:
    I, (Insert full name), swear by the gods of Equality and Diversity that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Secretary of State for Education, his/her/its heirs and successors, according to all decrees promulgated and the doctrines of secular humanism. So help me Darwin.

    There, that should hamstring the Islamic trojan quadruped in no time at all.

  • Busy Mum

    “Perhaps, if there is a place for oaths, it’s where trust is being questioned or needs to be restored”

    As I said the other day, my children do question how far they can trust their teachers – teachers who do not know what the Bible consists of, whether ‘lovely’ is an adverb or an adjective, teachers who don’t know when to apostrophise ‘its/it’s’… is now being smashed even further when a school’s Christian ethos is statedly based on the premise that ‘we are equal because God made all of us’ but Science lessons will tell the children the opposite; namely, that their very existence is down to an inherent superiority. How very confusing for the children; a compass pointing one way in all the assemblies and PSHE lessons about being kind and compassionate, which then swings in the opposite direction in Science lessons. All faith schools would need two oaths, one for the state and one for their own god; just make sure the children know which oath holds in which lesson,

    • James60498 .

      Not sure many faith schools would bother with the two oaths.
      State school first with a bit of religion kept entirely separate. Where the two compete, State wins every time.
      There may be a couple of exemptions that perhaps sit somewhere outside the state system, but they are few and far between.

      • Busy Mum

        I agree – my suggestion of two oaths was a bit tongue-in-cheek!

  • CliveM

    As Virgil should have said “beware politicians bearing gimmicks”! It is the election season.

    This sort of stupidity is going to come thick and fast over the next few months. This is a cross we are all going to have to bare.

  • carl jacobs

    An oath properly constructed is a legally-enforceable promise to perform the duties of an office. If there is no enforceability then there is no oath. Before there can be an oath, there must be agreement on the duties of the office. Typically those duties involve the exercise of authority, and the oath is intended to constrain the exercise of that authority. Teachers could theoretically b fitted into this mould. The idea is not totally ridiculous. Teachers exercise authority in the moral formation of children.

    I think however that most teachers will see an oath as an implicit accusation of disloyalty. There is no history of it so why should it be introduced now? It reflects the disintegration of truth in a Secular culture. Since there is no longer any agreed authority capable of defining truth, people reach for oaths to constrain the moral formation of children. We recognize the need for moral formation – for indoctrination in a word. But there is no longer any shared sense of what should form the basis of that indoctrination. We reach for oaths instead of creeds.

    That’s what people are really looking for in this oath – a Creed.


    • Uncle Brian

      Exactly, Carl. Cranmer wrote: “An oath is not legally binding.” But some oaths are. “I swear to tell the truth” etc. … if you fail to keep that promise, and if you get caught, you can be had up for perjury. An unenforceable oath is no oath at all. It’s nothing, just a children’s game.
      By the way, is the teachers’ oath enforceable in Singapore? I wouldn’t be surprised. On pain of flogging, even.

      • CliveM

        Shhhh, it wasn’t Cranmer who wrote the article!!

        • Uncle Brian

          Thank you, Clive, for pointing out my mistake. I have now gone back and corrected it.

      • Uncle Brian and Carl, you are right. If the law says an oath is legally binding, then it is. Others are not, including the Hippocratic oath. Children might be put off joining the Scouts or Guides if they knew that their oath was legally binding .

        • carl jacobs


          The point being that oaths have essential form. You can call any declaration an oath just as you can call any rule a law. Without enforceability there remains only bluster.

          Children cannot legally binding themselves to anything. And what good is the Hippocratic Oath if doctors can alter it to justify their performance of abortion?


          • Yes, the introduction of abortion effectively invalidated the Hippocratic Oath.

        • Uncle Brian

          Gillan, thank you.
          I promise to remember that there is life outside of the Westminster Bubble.
          Now there’s an oath that I’d like to see made legally binding!

        • IanCad

          Or the marriage oath.

    • CliveM


      I think we are at risk of giving this idea to much credence. This is not a serious suggestion from a serious politician. This is about headlines and is not based on an analysis of what will help our schools. As the saying goes Mr Hunt is ‘all fur coat and nae nickers’!

      • carl jacobs


        I can understand that perspective. I’m not really capable of evaluating Mr Hunt the politician. (Beyond the universal characterization of politicians as loathsome self-interested parasites. It is not a coincidence that so many politicians are also lawyers.)

        Theoretically speaking, however, the idea is viable. Teachers do occupy an office of Trust. It could never be imposed at this point. It would have to emerge from the profession itself. But an oath would be consistent with the magnitude of a teacher’s responsibility.


  • carl jacobs

    BTW. The medical profession cashed in the Hippocratic Oath when it made its peace with Abortion.

  • MartinWW

    It is remarkable (not) that the BBC has given Hunt’s hare-brained idea no publicity at all. Imagine if a Conservative or UKIP had made such a proposal? Lefty commentators would have been lined up by the BBC to condemn it.

    • Nick

      That’s state propaganda for you.

  • Marie1797

    If as Carl says “An oath properly constructed is a legally-enforceable
    promise to perform the duties of an office” then this sneaky little
    idea of loony leftist Mr Hunt is a danger to society in that it
    cements the left wing creeds and ideology of the Labour party. It
    rids society of any other thinking and teaching other than left wing.
    If I were a teacher I would not want to be bound up by it.

  • CliveM

    “So perhaps if anyone needs to be saying a public oath to bolster their public reputation and “elevate” the status of their profession, as Mr Hunt put it, it’s our MPs.”

    MP’s do take an oath, the oath of allegiance. Doesn’t help their status however. Interestingly atheist MP’s can simply ‘affirm’ their allegiance. Would atheist teachers be given a similar dispensation?

  • magnolia

    A slightly off the wall idea which fails to take into account the lack of an overarching framework of belief in a too post-Christian world. I don’t know where Mr Hunt stands on
    this, though I note he is not short of ecclesiastical relations, so maybe he is “sympa” re church at the least.

    As for the impressive oath that MPs should swear on top of their pre-existing one, I am all for that, and would like an added one that they promise to whistleblow on all dodgy goings on re children, all cash for questions, and all “bought” votes, irrespective of party allegiance.

  • IanCad

    Goofy! Goofy! Goofy!
    Homeschool! Homeschool! Homeschool!
    Sal Khan waits ready to help.

  • Politically__Incorrect

    Not sure why the Government has come up with this idea. It’s probably because it will cost nothing and sounds good. In fact oaths tend to be pretty worthless or to become a rod for our own backs. That’s why the Bible tells us to avoid them. Atheists can only swear by Earthly things, which is just a form of idolatry. Our “progressive” secular society would ensure that any reference to God would be omitted from any teacher’s oath. It’s all a pointless gimmick from a government that is running out of useful ideas.

    • James60498 .

      Not that I want to defend this government in any way, but the idea has come from the Labour opposition.
      Of course, many if us would argue that it’s the same thing anyway, but it’s only fair to point out.

  • Nick

    I’m not sure. Increase the salary of teachers and bribe them to say, “I will do no harm” too?

    Or else the curriculum could be changed to include more useful things like life-saving skills rather than logarithms. Or life saving skills and less logarithms? People resist change. I think the trouble may be in the implementation of changes and an oath does not really cause many financial problems. Whereas changing curriculums can be expensive, especially if it involves training.

    But treat the teachers better and the teachers won’t take their personal frustrations out on the children.

    By the way, did Christ go to school?