Jacques-Louis David Oath of the Horatii 1784
I’m thinking about oaths. Not the ones that rush to the tongue as we approach halfterm but the kind of oath that the Shadow Secretary of State proposeth. I wonder, as I hassle along two young people arguing about whether the sky today is bluer than it was yesterday, if it will help. Can we have an oath against headphones inside the building? I’ve looked for the Singapore model, but haven’t come up with anything, so I’m thinking about the medics.
Hippocrates starts briskly: I swear by Apollo the physician, and Aesculapius the surgeon, likewise Hygeia and Panacea, and call all the gods and goddesses to witness, that I will observe and keep this underwritten oath, to the utmost of my power and judgement.
It’s reasonable to keep the powerful on side. I could swear on the most recent version of the OFSTED Evaluation Schedule and the Performance Tables that I will submit myself to measurement by any means dreamt up in Sanctuary Buildings. I could swear by the old gods and the new: by Michaels Gove and Wilshaw, by Tristram Hunt, Nicky Morgan and every politician with a yen to tweak the nations schools, but it’s not quite the same.
We could easily swear something similar. We’d remember our own teachers, from the inspirational to the inept. We’d swear to keep up the tricks of our trade: how to teach trigonometry to the reluctant and science to children who we’d hardly trust with a spoon. We’d value how to learn and remember things, the importance of eating well, not teaching children lies, or hitting them, and trying to keep calm. We’ll leave surgery to the surgeons (I think that’s probably a universal principle), make ourselves useful in any classroom and yard, report accurately, refrain from any untoward behaviour and only keep the secrets that need to be kept.
The importance of the oath emerges slowly, like sixth formers loping to lunch. For all its antiquity, it is familiar to us. It forms the basis of what we expect from doctors. It makes us feel that they are people of honourable and righteous purpose, that we are safe in their hands. It echoes some current principles: safeguarding, accountability, healthy eating and the end of corporal punishment. It’s helped us form the modern world.
So I try to poke fun but I’m not opposed to Hunt’s hope. In fact, I’d like to have a go at drafting it. I think that there’s work to be done on explaining the purpose of education, schools and teachers to the taxpayer. I wrote last year about the principles that I think underlie public education, of powerful knowledge and exciting teaching, social justice and fair opportunities. In a post-Hippocratic world where we can’t swear to serve the families of our masters we need principles and ethics to liberate trust and effectiveness. Children need that too. They need to know that shoving each other in the corridor will attract the same opprobrium no matter who stops it, and that we will all do our best to teach them to become non-shovers. Even if we don’t know each other well, we can rely on each other’s motives.
Let me share something. We have codes for staff too at Tallis, beginning with the senior team. Part of our code is this school-ish version of the Nolan Principles for Public Life. So, we value
- Selflessness – acting for the greater good, not for our own power or status
- Honesty – reflecting issues as they are and being honest with each other
- Openness – explaining our actions and responding to criticism, not just demanding compliance
- Integrity – doing what is right to build up a solid and reliable education system
- Objectivity – making decisions on merit, not because they make life easier
- Accountability – taking responsibility for our actions, as public servants
- Leadership – acting according to these principles and enabling others to do so too
We hope that we keep this promise to the children we serve, to the utmost of our power and judgment. As Hippocrates said,
If I faithfully observe this oath, may I thrive and prosper in my fortune and profession, and live in the estimation of posterity; or on breach thereof, may the reverse be my fate.
Quite so, and if we can’t do it then the children can’t trust us and they don’t prosper either. I think it’s an oath worth commissioning.