Why using “extreme examples” might sometimes be necessary

I was struck by a comment made by Vic Goddard on a controversial blog post by the Quirky Teacher dealing with segregation, inclusion and parental choice. He stated, “using extremes to make points weakens the validity of an argument in my opinion.”

I recalled a discussion with my head teacher a couple of years ago on the three hours a year limit for PM related observations. I told him about the horrific account I had heard from a teacher at a union conference about the impact excessive and unnecessary observation had had on her. It resonated with me in particular, as excessive observation in my first UK teaching job was the issue which first got me involved in the union. My head teacher’s words on hearing this were “I understand, but you can’t make policies because of exceptionalism.”

Actually, you can. A lot of legislation is made with an eye to protecting people from exceptional events. Take the much derided “elf and safety.” I cringe as much as anyone when I hear stories of common sense being swept aside because of a seemingly stupid rule. Yet we do need to realise how the legislation came about. In John Prescott’s autobiography, he mentions his campaign to have automatic door locking fitted on the high speed trains. When he first brought it up, he was told that, statistically, very few lives were lost through a lack of automatic locking. He got nowhere until an “exceptional” event happened, a little girl losing her life. The locks were fitted and statistically around 8 people a year are alive today who would otherwise not have been.

Going back to education, the scandal of William Tyndale primary school in the 1970s was dismissed by many at the time as “an extreme example”. Which it was. But should the educationalists and politicians  have ignored what was going on, simply because it was exceptional?

In my union role, I have frequently dealt with cases which are indeed extreme and exceptional. Thankfully so. But they have made me aware just how much employees need to be protected – it is no good simply saying “but this is exceptional – most managers would not act that way.” To the people that suffer from bad management it is a living reality. Yes, they can leave and find another job – providing they have not become a mental and physical wreck in the meantime. The fact that most managers are fair and reasonable should not blind us to the fact that some are not. That is why employment law is necessary.

Going back to Vic Goddard’s comment, I would like to say that I felt his critique of the post was reasonable and balanced, unlike some of the more emotional responses. Yet I would defend the right to use “extreme” examples to make a point. The post was bravely challenging ideas which have become a “given” in recent times. Such examples are necessary, if only to make people pause for thought.

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