Saturday, October 09, 2010

To Miss With Love x

This was the title of an education blog by Miss Snuffy aka Katharine Birbalsingh, which she has now taken down following her speech to the Conservative Party conference and her subsequent (short-lived) suspension.

Having taken the view that she is, or was, being persecuted for simply telling the truth about the state of our schools - and coming out as a Tory - a number of bloggers have given her their unequivocal support.

Now, what she said about 'dumbing-down' and indiscipline I think most teachers would recognise - and the management of the school behaved in a rather heavy-handed fashion, so I'm happy to add my name in support - but unequivocally?

Mr Chalk writes that, "everything she says is completely true." Hardly the most critical commentary, I think you'll agree. I have to allow that the education system is different in England but leaving aside the general issue of standards and discipline, there was a fair amount of what she said, both in her speech and on her blog, that I simply don't recognise.

This stuff about Marxist/leftist teachers, for example. I have to say I rarely, if ever, meet any. I'll allow for the possibility that English schools may have more of them than Scotland but when one looks at the way things like voting preferences break down across this land, I would suggest that there is at least reason to be sceptical about this. Anyway, it wasn't exactly clear who Ms Birbalsingh thought was the problem - Marxists or liberals?

I can't say I recognised much of this stuff about the reluctance of 'we teachers' to allow kids to know how they compare to others - so 'leaving them in darkness' - either. Again, maybe it's an English thing but when she said this, I thought, "Who's this 'we'? Speak for yourself". Would I really find myself in a minority of one south of the border in thinking this?

But it was the analysis that was so disappointing. What, exactly, is the point of yet another diatribe against failing standards in schools that merely describes the problem without offering either a proper diagnosis or, in as far as you could identify one from what she said, a coherent cure? Here her new choice of friends is truly bizarre.

"League tables have teachers pursuing meaningless targets instead of teaching", said she to the conference of the party that brought in league tables.

So England should get rid of these, I would assume is what she proposes? She didn't actually say but I think she would be unwise to assume that Mr Gove's agreement on this point is guaranteed.

Quotas for exclusions are nonsensical too - so no disagreement there. But beyond this, there wasn't much concrete; just some vague notions about 'unshackling heads' and 'setting schools free'.

Let's back up here a minute. Much has been made by righwing bloggers of the 'Blairite' credentials of this particular headteacher. But unless anyone is seriously suggesting that Tory heads are incapable of behaving in an authoritarian manner, the bleedingly obvious point here is being missed: this was a head behaving in a rather 'unshackled' manner, was it not? Yet Katharine Birbalsingh chooses to throw her lot in with a party that wants to make heads more power...

Here I'd argue the 'faith' nature of the school is not irrelevant. A lot of garbage is written about these. The truth is that they only make a difference at the margin and in my view the number of things they make marginally worse outweighs the number they make marginally better. One of the common features of them that I don't like is that they tend to be more hierarchial with more authoritarian heads who expect more deference from staff. Even within the constraints set by local authorities, some of them already behave like little Caesars. Yet here's Ms Snuffy addressing the party that wants much more of this sort of thing?

I don't understand this. And I don't understand her attitude to unions either. Some commentators have linked to the remarks made by the NUT. Christine Blower, the General Secretary said:
"No teacher will want to damage relationships with the school community within which they work, but as the experts on educational issues teachers must be allowed to speak out about the impact of government policies and give their views on the education system.

"The NUT may not agree with a teacher's views but we will assert their their right to express opinions about the system within which they work."
It is unfortunate that Ms Birbalsingh has taken down her blog because on it you would have learned that while this is all very well and good, it is largely irrelevant as she is not, or at least wasn't*, a member of a trades union - along with comments written in direct response to me that part of the reason for this is she thinks the unions are 'too powerful' and are 'part of the problem'.

Powerful unions? Again, it's one of the many aspects of Ms Snuffy's view of the world I don't recognise. Certainly unions can be fairly conservative and occasionally obscurantist - but most of us don't join them for their views on education, but simply as an insurance policy. Feeling the weight of the bureaucracy coming down on you? This is exactly when they come in pretty damn handy. Thus endeth the lesson.

*Disclaimer: at the time I am referring to, Ms Birbalsingh was by her own account neither a Conservative nor a trades union member. Since one of these has obviously changed, I fully accept the other might no longer be the case either.

Update: This is funny.

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