Yesterday, I read an article in the Guardian. Specifically, it was in the G2 section. It was entitled “Katharine Birbalsingh: ‘I spoke at the Tory Conference, so I must be evil'”. Upon seeing the title, I made a joke that my biggest problem with her was that I couldn’t pronounce her name. Then I read the article, and realised how wrong that statement was.
For those of you who don’t know her, Katharine Babalsingh is the state school deputy-head who gave a speech (to standing ovation) at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference, basically saying how awful the state school she worked at was, and how right Education Secretary Michael Gove’s changes to the education system were. She was then sacked from her post by the school for bringing negative publicity on them, and the school will now be closing, largely due to lack of pupils applying.
The G2 article was published in anticipation of her book, soon to be released, which as far as I can gather is meant to be a fictionalised account of her life in teaching which will persuade all of us how awful state schools are. Except, judging from the interview, she has some of the most contemptuous views I’ve seen.
Now, let me nail my colours to the wall here. I was educated in the state school system. I attended a state primary school. I attended a state secondary school. I got good GCSEs (three A*s, seven As). I attended a state sixth-form college, and studied the International Baccalaureate. I am now in the third year of a Law degree, at the end of which I expect to get either a 2:1 or a first. I can only assume that I’m not the failing student Ms Barbalsingh is talking about.
Which is fine, I’m not saying that there aren’t state school children who are failing, of course there are. But Birbalsingh’s conclusions seem to be based on broad, sweeping, and at times rather insulting generalisations. Take this gem, for example:
…she claims that whereas private school kids read five or six novels in a year, “In a state school they might read two chapters, and then watch the film,”
Now I can tell you from the start that this is a) a generalisation, and b) an untrue one. Private school children may read more novels, I can’t testify to this; I never have, and never would, attend a private school. But to make a blanket claim that state school children don’t read is thoroughly insulting to the vast majority of us who do. When I was in year 7, I was reading the novels of Anne McCaffrey. At that point I was the exception. A year, two years later, the vast majority of my classmates would be reading for their own pleasure and personal advancement.
And I’m by no means holding up my secondary school as a shining example of what a state school should be. In many ways it was a shithole. But it wasn’t as bad (and I suspect very few in this country are as bad) as the picture Ms Birbalsingh painted.
Another thing I take objection to, is passages like this:
…inspectors are “now obsessed with making lessons ‘fun’ and ‘interactive’, through endless games and group work and the use of flashy technology”, traditional teaching methods are penalised, even if they engage the pupils and get good results.
Again, I’m sorry, but that is fundamentally rubbish. “Traditional” teaching methods (by which I can only assume she means the teacher lecturing to the class, and the class taking notes, unless she’s actually and rather slyly advocating a return to corporal punishment) are still used. They’re used where they’re appropriate, which is for the most part in heavily fact-based subjects. But even where new “fun” and “interactive” methods are used, I don’t see the downside. If they engage the children, if they get them interested in learning, then what’s the problem?
Michael Gove has, with his English Baccalaureate and other such measures, been trying to move the country back to a 1950s model of education. I realise that the 1950s are a glowing model of what the world should be like for the Tories, but the world has moved on. What was true then, is not necessarily any more. And what worked then, is not necessarily appropriate now. Privileging “academic” subjects like science, maths and history looks very nice, but on the flip-side penalises other subjects like the arts (which, honestly, this government seems to have it in for).
In the end, I just disagree with the lie that Katharine Birbalsingh is perpetuating. There are problems in state schools. Reform is needed. But this is not the right direction. I’m offended by the sweeping generalisations she makes, which as the author of the article points out serve only to demonstrate that her experience stems from a very limited base. Birbalsingh wants to be painted as a martyr, but so far as I can see, she did draw (perhaps undue, certainly inappropriate) negative attention to the school she worked at, and is likely responsible for its subsequent closure. So her dismissal, from where I’m sat, doesn’t seem unjustified.
I don’t think Michael Gove is evil, Katharine. I just think he’s wrong. And likewise, I don’t think you’re evil. I just think that you’re every bit as wrong on this subject as he is. So get off your sodding high horse woman.