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.