To Miss with Love

A third of British teachers leave within their first term on the job. One who stayed explains why.
Francis Phillips | Apr 28 2011 | comment  



Katharine Birbalsingh, the author of this revealing and disturbing book, came to prominence at the last Conservative Party Conference in which she attacked the teaching and standards in state schools in the UK. As a result, she lost her job as an English teacher in a London comprehensive. Subsequently she began a lively blog about the tribulations of modern state educational theory and practice – and found time to write this revealing, autobiographical ‘diary’ of a typical school year.

Written semi-humorously – perhaps to disguise her sense of despair at what she has witnessed in the classroom? – the book makes painful reading. It invites the question: how could successive governments have so failed our children’s future?  The author puts this failure firmly at the door of the Department of Education with its rigid Left-wing, egalitarian ideology. This has had a dire, knock-on effect on the way state schools are run; she comments, “About half the schools in Britain are mixed ability [i.e. unstreamed] and have no intention of ever changing.” Competition is frowned on, even though, as she observes, “Children want competition: to know where they are in class and where everybody else comes.” The ideology is further entrenched because “Lefties become [school] governors. Right-wingers do not.”

Birbalsingh, herself a product of comprehensive education, and steered towards Cambridge by an inspirational teacher, has clearly wanted to give the pupils in the state schools she has taught at the same ambition and goals. In this she has been constantly frustrated by a combination of the low educational standards expected of the pupils, the absence of a proper system of punishments for bad behaviour and the schools’ inspectorate’s demand that teachers must be seen to ‘perform’ in the classroom rather than teach. At a pre-inspectorate meeting in her own school staffroom, she actually heard the head teacher tell his staff: “We simply cannot have a situation where teachers are teaching and children are listening.”

The exam boards, she explains, invent “easy” subjects and sell them to schools which then get “easy” results. Five “C” grades at GCSE is the goal at “Ordinary School” where she teaches; this is considered a “good” school compared with “Basic School” and “Infamous School” nearby. Friends and colleagues prefer to send their own children to private schools; the “sharp-elbowed” middle classes, as David Cameron has described them, would not dream of sending their children to the kind of schools the author teaches at –thus compounding the problem; you cannot have truly comprehensive schooling if children from a variety of backgrounds are not educated together. Birbalsingh watches polite and conscientious 11-year-olds enter the secondary school system “and its excruciating web of madness” and notes that within a couple of years they have become sullen, aggressive, lazy and truanting.

To disguise the identities of her subjects she has given them the names of humours and emotions: “Seething”, “Furious”, “Beautiful” and so on. This can make them seem somewhat one-dimensional, defined by their dominant personality traits, but it serves its purpose. “Stoic” is the exception to the general rule; quiet, well-behaved, hard-working, seemingly impervious to the mayhem around him. In conversation with the author he tells her that, aged 11, he made a decision to work (and be lonely) rather than to have friends and get into trouble.

On holiday in Jamaica where her own parents live, Birbalsingh visits a private girls’ school. There are few of the facilities and equipment that her London school boasts of, with its white boards and computers, but the ethos is entirely different: disciplined and respectful pupils in a serious learning environment. In a conversation with “Cent”, one of her troublesome rogues, the author learns from him that in Nigeria, where his family has come from, discipline in school is also enforced.

The author is obviously a committed teacher herself, putting all her energy and long hours into trying to help her students, whom she deeply cares for, “make something better of their lives.” Yet she feels impotent to change the system. Most of her colleagues talk only of “survival”; fights happen all the time between pupils, occasionally resulting in hospitalisation. Although seeming mentally and emotionally tough, she confesses to relief that a parent, who has come to the school to discuss her son’s bad behaviour, “isn’t going to hit me.”

Reflecting on all the problems in the educational system, the author concludes, “The eradication of the old-school teacher is the single most destructive ‘improvement’ that is taking place in our schools today.” By this she means teachers actually teaching - rather than entertaining and containing their classes - and pupils capable of listening and learning. The Coalition Government is currently trying to tackle the abysmal situation described in this book, with the Education Minister, Michael Gove, taking on the teacher’s union. The question is, will he succeed?

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.



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