Katharine Birbalsingh was invited to speak at an education conference in Ireland last week. Her visit should never have happened. Why? Because the school, and indeed the society she’s come here to sell, has no place in Ireland.
If you haven’t heard of her, Birbalsingh runs the Michaela Community School in Wembley North London. She’s a Conservative and has most recently been appointed the new boss of the social mobility commission, charged with helping children escape the poverty trap. She is known as Britain’s strictest teacher. She’s also, apparently, concerned at Ireland’s move towards progressive education.
Birbalsingh is another name in a long line of Conservative educators who proclaim that it is down to the individual child to escape the harsh society created by the Conservative ideology. An ideology that sees parents working double-shifts. An ideology that loads the dice against the most vulnerable.
It’s a master sleight of hand. Conservative educators don’t question the system. They feed it. And so, they make it the child’s job to overcome it. They get to play a double role: perpetrator and saviour.
I taught in an East London school from 2006 to 2012. The professionals I encountered there were exceptional, as were my students. But it was a tough environment. It was hard because the world outside our gates was hard. My school community dealt with the loss of young life through knife crime and suicide. They knew the shape of the shadows that moved about them – the gangs, the lure of drugs, the police intimidation.
So, we did our best by our boys by being strict and unwavering in our devotion to get them good grades. We fought to get them into Oxford and Cambridge. We fought against the odds. We lined baby-faced black boys up in a military fashion, in the yard and then again outside their classrooms. Uniforms were strictly monitored. It was normal to hear a Head of Year bellowing at a child in their office. The rest of us teachers would cower in the adjoining staffroom, like children smirking at their father’s bad temper that day. We had ‘hard men’ on staff, at least that’s how they presented themselves to the students. Underneath, they were deeply empathetic, loving people, committed to improving the lives of the children they cared for.
You don’t need to have lived in England to know that it’s highly classed. To put it in sharp focus, the UK has one of the poorest rates of social mobility in the developed world. This means that people born into low-income families, regardless of their talent, or their work ethic, fail to access the same opportunities as those born into more privileged circumstances.
Birbalsingh believes students “desperately need to be able to change their stars and make something better of themselves.” She believes in spreading conservative values – family, discipline, order – which she assures everyone, will turn round lives in the inner-city schools she runs. She gets excellent results, and she uses them as evidence of her success. It is for these results that she won’t allow slouching or excuses. For these results, she’ll demand that students walk in silence along the corridors. Children of parents who haven’t paid their school lunch money will be asked to sit alone, isolated from their peers.
Only the results deserve attention, not the society these children are trying so desperately to escape.
Some Irish people might ask – have we gone too soft here? Are we too progressive? Should we adopt a similar pedagogy, dismiss nimby-pimby progressives?
No. No. No. Because guess what…The dichotomy of the progressive and the traditional teacher is a fiction. I believe in student-centred, caring teaching, but I still ask for silence when the learning requires it. I set high standards. I’m a fan of individual desks; they just get pushed together for group work. I’m neither one thing nor the other. I’m various as a teacher, just as my students are various.
The context of the London school Birbalsingh comes from, matters. It really matters. These schools and the teachers in them are not cruel. It is a case of hard love for most of them and the students feel understandably safe and content, sheltered from the harsh world around them.
The bottom line is that schools reflect society. How we educate says a lot about who we are. It follows that Irish educational reform should say a lot about who we wish to become.