Melanie McDonagh

What ‘Britain’s wokest headteacher’ gets wrong

What 'Britain's wokest headteacher' gets wrong
A statue of Lord Nelson (Getty images)
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Ah, a story for our times. And I think you know how it’s going to go. There was this junior school in Yorkshire which had houses named after various figures in English history; Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Lord Nelson. And then? You can take it from here. 

Some very agitated pupils got together and sent round a petition which frightened the headteacher so much that he renamed the houses?

Well, you’d be right except for one thing. It only takes one really annoying person to write the Great Men out of a school; that and a suggestible head teacher, one Lee Hill, who posts school news on Twitter with a picture that shows off his extensive arm tattoos, posing with a takeaway coffee.

Mr Hill – who has been described as Britain's 'wokest' headteacher – says that:

'During the Black Lives Matter protests, I received a passionate and brave email from a former pupil. This pupil not only educated me about the history of the three house names – that sat on our website, in our hall and were raised as ambassadors for our school – but also explained the impact of seeing these figures – who have links to slavery, oppression and racism – had on her during her time at our school. Not only a brave email to send to a white male in a position of power but also an email that set off a chain of events.'

Actually, the bit suggesting a teacher with tattoos is an authority figure does make you laugh. You wish, mate. But it says quite a lot about where we’re at that a) it takes only one former pupil to say she was upset to see white males with associations she doesn’t find congenial to cause a school figuratively to topple its statues; and b) a school head who doesn’t appear to know much about Drake, Raleigh and Nelson. You’d think that for his pioneering work promoting tobacco alone, Raleigh would be immortal. But nope, it seems not.

The one thing about this story that won’t surprise anyone are the figures who the school council elected to replace the dead white males. Yes, we get Malala. Yes, we get Marcus Rashford. Yes, inevitably, we get Greta Thunberg. But new to the contemporary pantheon is Amanda Gorman, the author of that badly written poem she delivered (very nicely) at Joe Biden’s inauguration. 

And what, I hear you ask has Amanda Gorman got to do with Yorkshire or indeed anyone in Britain? Answer comes there none, except that quite probably her occasionally incomprehensible poem will probably be on the GCSE English curriculum sometime soon.

As it happens, I am not a devotee of Raleigh and Drake. In fact, I take a really dim view of them. And this has nothing to do with their association with slavery but their exceptionally unpleasant record in Ireland. Besides which, they were Protestant sectarians. But it wouldn’t even cross my mind to take exception to their place in the Ladybird books, the popular histories of England and the pantheon of English Great Men. Why? Because even from the other side of the divide, I can see why they’re there. Is it not possible nowadays to transcend your own situation sufficiently to recognise the virtues and achievements of those you don’t happen to identify with?

But if you are going to rewrite history, for goodness’ sake make sure you get the history right. It’s wrong to bring down Nelson as an advocate of slavery. He never owned slaves, never owned a slave plantation and never took part in slaving activities at sea, nor did he profit from slave ownership (though his wife, who was from the West Indies, admittedly did own a slave called Cato). 

The correct response from the head to that excitable girl’s letter should have been to explain that Nelson was on the right side of history (not that it matters) in the struggle against Napoleon (who was, may I say, unsound on slavery) and the others should be seen in the context of their time.

Instead he observed that 'In English history, all three of them have been portrayed as admirable and courageous whilst their despicable deeds have been brushed under the carpet and certainly have not been discussed in the classroom.' This, folks, is where we’re at now.