Education Feb 27 2011

To Miss With Love – fact of fiction?

Katharine Birbalsingh , the teacher who spoke at last year’s Tory Party Conference condemning our state schools, has given her latest interview to the Observer.

Several parents,  teachers, pupils (including me) and one politician were given the opportunity to respond here.

Here is my initial take on the book , To Miss with Love, that she is currently promoting.

“I am getting worried about Katharine Birbalsingh. Having read her book, her recent interviews and re-watched her speech to the Tory Party conference in which she trashes her school and its pupils, I find her hopelessly muddled and am perplexed by what she is seeking to achieve.

Here is a woman who professes to love her pupils, yet thinks nothing about displaying pictures of the most vulnerable, accompanied by belittling remarks, from on high.

Having lost her job, and working as a journalist, she frequently fawns over students in the independent sector, yet claims she would never teach in a private school as her passion is for state education, about which she barely has a good word to say.

One of her many criticisms of the system she loves to hate is that schools are judged by meaningless Ofsted criteria, and results that are simply a reflection of intake. Yet she contemptuously dismisses as hypocritical both fictional and real parents who treat league tables and Ofsted reports with caution and actively choose to send their children to local schools.

As one of those parents, I don’t recognise the baleful, fictional picture she paints in ‘To Miss with Love’. Of course there are problems in schools – after eighteen years as a governor in two that have undergone difficult periods – I am only too aware of that.

However I could write a book that tells a different, but more accurate story about what goes on in real, not imaginary, schools. It would be free of the stereotypical warring ‘chavs’ and black boys brandishing weapons, that pop up in her book  with tiresome regularity. It would highlight the many genuinely mixed comprehensive schools ,where heads and staff work hard, where behaviour is good, pupils achieve well, go to university in such numbers that we can’t afford to pay for them, where fights and weapons aren’t a part of everyday life and where pupils are respected, not dished up on a plate for the entertainment of a decrepit party conference audience that would really just prefer to go back to the old grammar/secondary modern divide.

Rather than focus on what is wrong with our schools. I would seek to find solutions to the problems we can all see around us; the urban secondary schools with massively skewed intakes that can’t find the tough uncompromising heads and excellent teachers they need,  how we give young people real choice within, rather than between, institutions.

My book would also take a look at what really goes on in the independent sector Birbalsingh reveres. Is the teaching that good or are results also linked to intake, parental support and family income? What happens to students who rebel, get burned out or are asked, politely, to leave because they aren’t making the grade? We all know they exist, but unlike the lippy black boys who apparently typify the entire state sector, we never hear about them.

Would my book get published? I doubt it. The zeitgeist at the moment is to wallow in failure, rather than success, and to prefer anecdote to evidence. This provides brilliant cover for the chaotic slash and burn experiment being orchestrated from the centre by Michael Gove, under the guise of freedom and parent choice. I don’t think Gove or Birbalsingh really know what they are doing but the fiction they are peddling, that young people can’t get a good education in their local state schools , is a dangerous one and parents shouldn’t be fooled by it.”

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