The Sunday Times

October 10th, 2010

The truth about our schools from a repentant leftwinger

The Conservative faithful at their annual conference are usually politely generous with applause. But their reception of Katharine Birbalsingh, a charismatic young state school teacher discovered by team Gove, was little short of ecstatic. At the end of her electrifying speech on education, they leapt to their feet in a storm of enthusiastic clapping. What she had to say was clearly manna to the hungry Tory soul.

Birbalsingh is an elegant and good-looking deputy head teacher of Indian-Caribbean heritage. After a state school education she went to Oxford, where she says she became a serious leftie, reading Marxism Today and flirting with the Socialist Workers party, before becoming a teacher.

“I have come here today,” she said, tossing her impressive curls, “to expose some of the truths about the education system. My experience of teaching for over a decade in five different schools has convinced me beyond a shadow of doubt that the system is broken, as it keeps poor children poor”.

By now she had the hall’s eager attention.

She began with a story about a young boy called Kane, who was in trouble for bad behaviour. His best friend Mitchel had protested, “It wasn’t Kane’s fault, Miss, he was born with anger management.” At this Kane then said, “Yes, Miss, it isn’t my fault, I am anger management.”

Their garbled words suggest a great deal about the edubabble that befuddles both children and teachers in schools today. And, as Birbalsingh says, “they reveal a deeper culture of excuses, of low standards, in expecting the very least from our poorest and most disadvantaged” and a broken education system in which “standards have been so dumbed down that even the children know it. When I give them past exam papers to do from 1998, they groan and beg for a 2005 or 2006 paper because they know it’ll be easier”. So much for the usual denials.

Competition and “benchmarking” children are considered poisonous, she said: “Exclusion quotas bind our head teachers, league tables have us all pursuing targets and grades instead of teaching properly and the ordinary child … is lost in a sea of bureaucracy handed down from the well-meaning politicians from up above. Kids themselves cry out for structure and discipline.” As for the underachievement of black boys, she argues it’s due partly to classroom chaos and partly to the pervasive fear among teachers of being accused of racism: as a result disruptive black boys are not excluded or reprimanded and it is all the other black boys who suffer: “Black children underachieve because of what the well-meaning liberal does to them.”

Most chilling is her conclusion that “if you are ordinary, in the state system as it is, you do not stand a chance.”

None of this is news but it is hugely encouraging to have it said, unsparingly, by a successful black teacher — someone who could not be accused of racism or ignorance.

Birbalsingh had some forthright comments on left-wing bias in education: “We teachers tend to be blinded by leftist ideology. I, too, have been a victim of such thinking and I come to you today, finally, ready to overthrow the shame that I have felt, literally shame, because in the last election I voted Conservative.”

At this point the hall had the feeling of a revivalist meeting: the repentant sinner makes a passionate confession. “That in itself is part of the problem in education,” she continued. “Many of the necessary changes require right-wing thinking and we teachers instinctively reject such developments because of our loyalty to the left.”

As if to prove her point, Birbalsingh was soon after this speech in Birmingham suspended from her job and sent home — despite the fact that she had got permission from her head teacher to speak — and she now faces disciplinary action. Telling the truth about schools as she saw it, at a Conservative conference, too, was clearly aggravated heresy and unacceptable. She was not speaking about her own school, where she has been for only a few weeks, nor did she identify it, so the suggestion that she has damaged the school’s reputation is absurd. All this has to do with the toxic, leftist school establishment that punishes dissent. “It’s not the school’s or the head’s fault,” says Birbalsingh. “They are shackled by the system which bans teachers from having freedom of speech.” So it seems.

This remarkable woman has neatly identified the problem with education. The question is whether the government has truly identified the solution. I have some doubts. Michael Gove spoke repeatedly in his main conference speech, as he has elsewhere, about freeing schools, freeing teachers, trusting teachers and leaving it to the professionals to make decisions.

Yet if so many teachers are still in the grip of this leftist ideology and if so many teacher trainees continue to be indoctrinated in it, can they be trusted — to use their new freedoms to give it up and do differently? Some will, but many won’t. The school where Birbalsingh was teaching before her suspension has the relative freedom of an academy, yet it seems to be using this freedom in a most unliberated way.

Gove said we have now the best teachers we have ever had. What he bases this on, apart from political courtesy and the inflated A-level grades of trainees, I don’t know. What I do know, anecdotally at least, is that teacher training is still in the grip of leftist ideology. I spoke at length to one bright graduate student doing a part-time post-graduate certificate of education at one of this country’s top teacher training establishments. An Asian from a Third World country, she has been appalled by her experiences. Standards in her own country are much higher.

It is not just that the teaching in college is disorganised, inefficient and patronising, with very little content; she has had practically no teaching on how to teach reading or maths, or on child psychology, or bullying or classroom discipline. She has been told she’ll learn it all on her school placements, but it has been made very clear that students must never criticise their schools. Horrified by poor teaching, low expectations and poor discipline at one of them, and daring to complain, she was told she should learn from bad teaching.

Until an investigation is made into teacher training and what precisely is being taught and not taught to students, it will be pointless to offer teachers new freedoms.

Freedom is a great thing, but it is not a panacea.