CentreForum Liberal Heroes of the Week #52: Mr Burton and Musharaf Asghar from Channel 4?s Educating Yorkshire

by Stephen Tall on October 25, 2013

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

cf hero mr burton and musharaf

Mr Burton and Musharaf Asghar

Stars of last night’s Educating Yorkshire
Reason: Mr Burton for teaching and Musharaf for discovering the power of education to give you a voice that can be heard.

Education’s been much in the news this week.

Nick Clegg’s speech distancing the Lib Dems from the Coalition’s policy on free schools and saying all teachers in state-funded schools should be qualified or working towards a professional qualification has overly focused attention on a very small part of the system.

There are currently 170 free schools, less than 1% of the total number of all primary and secondary schools in England and Wales. There are 14,800 currently unqualified teachers, which sounds a lot but is less than 4% of the 400,000-strong teaching workforce.

The debate about free schools and whether all teachers should be qualified is an interesting one and not unimportant. But let’s get it in proportion. It’s far more important we focus on the 99% of schools which aren’t free schools and the 96% of teachers who are already qualified.

Schools, in fact, like Thornhill Community Academy, near Dewsbury, subject of Channel 4′s compulsively brilliant Educating Yorkshire. Teachers like Mr Burton, an inspiration to his ‘reet proper clever’ pupils. And pupils like Musharaf Ashgar, who Mr Burton helped coach through a stammer so he could complete the oral component of his English GCSE.

By the time Musharaf stood up at his final assembly – prefect’s jumper restored after some misbehaviour in recognition of his endeavours: there’s restorative justice for you! – and addressed his 200 fellow pupils I’ll happily confess I felt tearily privileged just to be watching. The collective blubbing on my Twitter timeline practically leached salt-water through the screen.

What Mr Burton (the self-proclaimed ‘Musharaf Whisperer’) achieved wasn’t just to help a young man pass his 5 A*-C GCSEs, the passport to later life opportunities — though that in itself is to be celebrated. More importantly he taught Musharaf to discover and use his own voice, as he described in this Guardian article (and how terrific is it, by the way, for Musharaf to be able to say he’s been published in a national newspaper?):

My stammer has been a problem for me since I can remember, and I think I was about five years old when people started noticing it was a bit different to a normal stammer that goes away as people get older. It has meant that at various points in junior school and during year 7 at Thornhill I got bullied, but as soon as the school found out they really hammered down and made sure the bullying stopped there and then. After that my school life was amazing and I can’t think of anywhere I would rather have gone to school. … The most amazing moment for me was when I finally managed to speak in Mr Burton’s class. … I was excited, if nervous, about the whole thing going out. But I’m really happy and proud to be on telly as I hope it gives other people with a stammer the confidence to have a go at public speaking.

I’ve banged on about the importance of free speech quite a lot during this Liberal Heroes series. It’s a precious thing, the best way in which ideas can be exchanged, our sum of knowledge increased, and progress realised.

For free speech to become real, though, we all need to be equipped with the language and skills to deploy it so that we have a voice, can be heard and, more importantly, listened to. As Mr Burton and Musharaf showed us all, so fantastically, last night.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.