Wednesday 23 February 2011

The return of the 'Tory teacher'

Some of you might remember the name Katharine Birbalsingh. She gave a speech at last year’s Tory Party conference in Birmingham, exposing the failings of Britain’s state schools.

Instantly she became a darling of the Tory Party. Here was a black, female, London schoolteacher claiming the left wing liberal bias in Britain’s schools, had contributed to a dumbing down in standards. To senior Tories it must have seemed that they’d won the lottery!

Birbalsingh’s been back in the news this week. I’ve read two interviews with her in the Guardian and The Sunday Times as she’s got a book coming out providing a warts and all fictional account of life in an inner-city school.

She’s had plenty of time to write the book. After giving her speech she soon found herself out of a job and has struggled to find another teaching position.

The ‘Tory teacher’ label seems to have stuck, but after reading some of her thoughts and accounts of teaching in state schools, I think she's been harshly treated.

In the interview I read in the Times, Birbalsingh’s claims she doesn’t regret the speech on a moral level, but admits it was a mistake on a personal level.

She argues she wants to expose the truth about our state schools. How a
left leaning liberal bias amongst the teaching profession has hindered standards and contributed to some of the chaotic and violent incidents you can find in some of the country’s toughest schools.

I’ve been interested in the backlash she’s experienced. State schooling isn’t perfect in Britain, but I think she's raised some important issues and questions.

The fact that she said this at the Tory Party Conference and was a previous Labour voter, she seems to have been blacklisted from the profession. It's as if she’s not allowed to say such things.

I know the stereotype says all teachers are ‘lefties’ but there must be some Conservative voters within the profession? I have some sympathy for Birbalsingh it's almost as if she's being punished for speaking out and not conforming to the typical image and views that teachers are meant to have.

I’m not a Conservative voter, but I agree with some of the things she says. She argues that despite exams results improving under Labour - standards did not. I agree with this.

Children aren’t told how well they’re doing in comparison to their classmates in case it undermines their confidence and self esteem. Stories like that just make me groan!

In the Guardian interview, Birbalsingh spoke about the introduction of school league tables and how they’d put more pressure on schools to achieve good exam results. It’s resulted in many schools encouraging pupils to study so called ‘soft’ subjects at GSCE in order to keep exam results high and improve a school’s league table ranking. Having a higher ranking will hopefully attract the sort of pupils that will impove a school’s performance.

For me, this isn’t radical news. My cousin is a secondary school teacher at a North London Academy. He’s taught in London schools for the last 10 years, and has told me exactly the same thing.

It’s a long time since I left school; almost 20 years and I admit I’m probably out of touch with what’s going on, but some of the points Birbalsingh’s been making are views held by many people in the country, but because of who she is and where she expressed these views, they've been politized to such an extent she can no longer find a job teaching. I think that's unfair

Although it hasn’t been great for a career, Birbalsingh’s at least stirred things up a bit and there’s nothing wrong in at least challenging some of the more dominant thinking within the teaching profession that currently exist.

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