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Birbalsingh has changed her tune since she was Head of Languages

IMPORTANT NOTE: “Katharine Birbalsingh has asked us not to name any of her previous schools in our blogs and comments  as the ‘Ordinary School’ featured in  ‘To Miss with Love’ is fictional.”

Since reading her fictional diatribe against state education, To Miss With Love, and writing a review of it for The Observer,  I’ve been starting to investigate the truth about Katherine Birbalsingh and found out some interesting facts. Firstly, she was Head of Languages at a in South London when the school took part in the London Challenge, a scheme where schools collaborated to raise standards across the board. Secondly, in Teacher Magazine, I found this quote:

“Senior staff have very high standards for both the students and the staff. They have really led in a way that doesn’t always happen in other schools,” says Katherine Birbalsingh, head of languages.

I wonder if she stands by these words of praise for the good work the school did? Was she telling the truth about the school then? Or is her novel a more accurate representation of the school? I’ve contacted her and asked these questions. I have also contacted the headteacher at the relevant school and asked for his view. Perhaps, with a bit of investigation we might find if there is any “truth” to anything she says.

Perhaps most pertinently, is there anything in the most recent Ofsted report of a school which she was a teacher at for a number of years, which she disagrees with? The school, like her fictional school, Ordinary Comprehensive, in To Miss With Love, was judged “good with outstanding features”.

I found this section heartening, I feel it’s difficult for her to refute it, because it’s based on hard facts and personal testimony.

“Students enter the school with levels of attainment that are broadly average. They make good progress and many, regardless of attainment or background, reach their personal challenging targets. Overall attainment is above average. The needs of students with learning difficulties and disabilities are met well by teachers and by well-trained learning support assistants. They make very good progress. The GCSE standards attained over the past three years have placed the school in the top one third nationally on the basis of achievement.

These high levels of performance are initially underpinned by the good teaching and learning, which includes a high number of outstanding lessons. In the best practice, teachers generate excellent group work and private study that motivates students to think and learn for themselves. This gives them confidence and enables them to review and guide their thinking to indicate the next steps in their learning. Senior leaders recognise that there is more work to do to enable all students to develop these independent learning skills, but clearly a good start has been made. Learning has a very high status in the school and the vast majority of students are sympathetic to others who work hard or strive to improve their performance in any sphere of the school curriculum. Most parents are very supportive – one writes, ‘The school has an excellent balance between education, pastoral support and extra-curricular activities.’

The atmosphere of harmony and tolerance throughout the school reflects the school’s active approach to developing a good cohesive community. For example, it is reflected in the dramatic decrease in exclusions over the past three years. Personal development and well-being in the school is good overall. Aspects such as spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, students’ health and safety, and their contributions to the community are outstanding. A Year 11 student stated, ‘There is a great sense of community in our school; we get on with everyone, whatever their backgrounds.’ Most students behave and engage well in lessons. They are well supported by effective pastoral teams who work closely with a host of outside agencies to provide excellent quality of care, support and guidance. Attendance is good and improving. Students have a good knowledge of how to be healthy and how to stay safe.”

What is your response to this report about your old school Miss Birbalsingh? Unlike your novel, it is based on truthful personal testimony and a variety of different views, including inspectors’ own judgements and the various stakeholders involved, pupils, parents, teachers, governors.

It would be great if anyone else has any other information to contact me at

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Comments, replies and queries

  1. Very interesting Francis. And of course Katharine Birbalsingh had only been at St Michaels and All Angels for five weeks before she made her speech to the Tory Party Conference in which she criticised the school and made fun of her pupils – it is worth watching the clip again to see how much pleasure she appears to get from response of the hall on these points.
    However it is good to know that Katharine was previously proud to work in a school which had high expectations and excellent practice. More evidence maybe that this particular book is simply a work of fiction?

  2. I have to say this is the most pathetic thing I have ever read here.

    A new low.

  3. I’ve read all her blogs published in the Daily Telegraph in her own unique patois and I can’t recall her ever writing one positive statement about state education, often making jaundiced comparisons with the private sector be it the teachers, pupils or facilities.

    Yet curiously, for reasons I’m unable to fathom in view of her disparaging comments, she expresses a desire to return to the state sector in a teaching role rather than a private school.

    It makes about as much sense as Fiona wanting to join the board of governors at Roedean – where’s the smiley icon?

  4. She got fed up of living a lie
    The problem is you are defending the lie

  5. If a comment about the disparity between an OFSTED report and the author’s account of the school is described as a “pathetic thing” and “a new low”, perhaps Andrew Old could provide evidence to back up his assertion.

  6. Ben Taylor says Ms Birbalsingh got fed up with living a lie. Which one would that be exactly?

    • Apparently Katharine now objects to the names of her previous schools being published in case anyone thinks the book was based on them, so we must all be very careful.

  7. Ms Birbalsingh defends her book from negative reviews by claiming that reviewers haven’t actually read it. She justifies this assertion by saying that the reviewers only mention one of the characters: Miss Snuffy (Miss Birbalsingh’s alter ego) and not some of the others like Mr Bushytail (I’m not joking).

    If an author who is a high-profile ex-teacher writes a book about experiences in an inner city school, then anyone who has been in a school with her will recognise their establishment and people within it. Perhaps she’s afraid that her characters Seething and Deranged will recognise themselves and not like what they read.

    All this publicity will, of course, increase interest in her book. It’s now 63 in Amazon’s best-selling list.

    • She is certainly becoming a great comic character in her own story and judging by the comments following this blog, even some of the Telegraph readers agree with that.

  8. The product description for the book on Amazon says: “A third of teachers leave within their first term on the job.”

    Is this statistic true? The only accurate evidence I could find was a House of Commons report into teacher retention in secondary education published in 2004:

    “We heard in evidence that fewer than 50% of those who begin teacher training are
    teaching after five years”

    Has anyone more up-to-date evidence which can demonstrate whether the book’s blurb is correct? Or is it just a statistic plucked out of the air?

  9. Janet,

    The new low is the desperate trawling for any old crap to discredit anyone who tells the truth about our broken school system.

  10. She wrote a novel Andrew; fiction is by definition made-up, not truthful. Her OWN ‘non-fictional’ words praising the school where she worked for years contradict her fictional protrayal of the school. The Ofsted report contradicts it. She wrote a lot of old tosh which has no basis in fact. The only shocker is that no one until now checked to see whether it had any basis in fact — which it doesn’t.

  11. Francis,

    I’m a teacher. Why would you even bother telling me that OFSTED reports are reliable descriptions? Who actually believes an OFSTED report?

    As for Katharine saying different things at different times, surely you are in no position to throw stones? I remember when you were the one writing books about terrible state schools and encouraging people to go private.

  12. I don’t see the inconsistency in Ms Katharine Birbalsingh in that the Ofsted report and her book based on her own experiences are both capable of being true.

    I don’t see why she should answer any of your questions if she so chooses since this is the standard the authors of this website seem to operate for themselves – but if you want to lay out a comprehensive standard for equal treatment of web debaters which you intend to stick to please go ahead.

  13. Andrew, I’ve changed my mind based on my research and experiences of teaching in the state sector during the last decade — and being a parent: things have got much better than when I first started teaching in the 1990s: teachers are better trained, schools are better resourced, standards have gone up, and inspectors generally assess schools more accurately. KB has refused to say whether she’s revised her opinions despite the fact that I’ve asked her a few times. Where do you teach Andrew and what’s your opinion of the school where you teach?

  14. Andrew,

    Fiona and her gang are like the school bullies, picking on the new girl for daring to question their status as the coolest kids in the playground.

    Just when you think they’ve hit a “new low”, they manage to sink even further. I didn’t think they were capable of shocking me, but Nigel Ford’s use of the word “patois” to describe Katharine’s writing was a marmalade dropper. If she agreed with them, her African-Caribbean heritage would be invoked as a reason to take her seriously. But because she doesn’t, they’ve no qualms about trying to use it to discredit her.

    What’s next, gang? Are you going to accuse her of being a lesbian?

    Oh, and Francis, when exactly did you become convinced that New Labour had brought about this magical transformation in state education? Must have been fairly recently because you wrote the following in the Evening Standard in 2005: ‘Some schools I’ve known have not been places of learning: they are bearpits of bullying. Over the years, I have been sworn at, jeered at, threatened, had missiles thrown at me, had to break up endless fights and watch constantly so that I didn’t sit down on chairs spiked with pins and ripped cans. And that’s just the kids. At times, trying to deal with a management which is intent upon meeting pointless and misleading targets is even more difficult, because of the atmosphere of fear that this creates… those kids most in need of higher standards, those from poor backgrounds, still mostly get a raw deal.’

    KB couldn’t have put it better herself.

    • Glad you have found time to visit us again Toby, and to raise the issue of bullying, which reminds me that you haven’t replied to my request that you apologise on the Telegraph website, and on the website of the West London Free School , for the malicious and unfounded allegations you made about me, about my son and about the founders of this site here on November 12 last year. I am happy to take you through each of the ‘questions’ you posed, line by line, to explain why you are quite wrong on every count.

  15. Francis,

    you appear to be under the impression that everybody has to answer your questions and that if they don’t then their opinion is worth less than yours. You know teachers do not have the freedom to criticise their schools so demanding that individual teachers do so before they can be believed about what schools are like, is ludicrous. I can only assume that you resort to this tactic because you know that your general position – that state schools aren’t suffering from dumbing down or the behaviour crisis – is so unbelievable to most teachers or observers.

    I can’t help but notice that before your conversion to the wonderfulness of state education, you were hardly willing to name schools where you had bad experiences. How seriously would you have taken a review of “I’m a teacher, get me out of here” or “Teacher on the Run” that identified the schools you’d worked at, quoted nice things said about them, pointed out that the book was fiction, and then said that clearly everything you descibed was complete fantasy and would never really happen?

  16. Andrew Old asks who actually believes OFSTED reports. OFSTED reports, especially the annual ones, have become politicised and an odd thing has happened. If OFSTED reports that a school is inadequate, then this is regarded as true. However, if a school is judged satisfactory or better, then this is conclusion is regarded as misleading. The Government has seized on the negative reports to justify its reforms and is helped by OFSTED when it says that 2010 inspections show “that teaching is still no better than satisfactory in half of secondary schools, 43% of primaries and 43% of colleges that were inspected this year.”

    In its fervour to show how UK education has “failed”, the word “satisfactory” (dictionary definition: meets the required standard) has been redefined as “unsatisfactory”, in the same way that OFSTED judgement of “bad” = “reliable”, while one of “good” = “misleading”.

    • I have been part of seven Ofsted inspections as a school governor in two different schools. The first one was in 1994 under the original Ofsted framework, the last one in November 2010 under the current one. I know Ofsted is unpopular with a lot of people but I have found every one of these inspections to be broadly accurate about the strengths and weaknesses of the schools concerned. I agree that the new ‘tick box’ method, with relatively little time spent in the classroom, can fail to spot inspirational teaching. I also worry about any inspection linked to raw test and exam results and which doesn’t take into account the progress made by individual students and their levels of attainment on entry. However the self evaluation process ( done properly) has helped schools to improve. All the Ofsted inspections of which I have personal experience have helped hold the governing body to account, and also helped the governors to hold the school to account. In every case, improvement has followed.

  17. Andrew Old says the UK has a “broken school system”. There is indeed much wrong with the system including constant interference by successive governments over many years. However, the assessment that the system is broken is not borne out by data as has been shown on this website. It’s a tribute to teachers that they have managed to educate the majority of schoolchildren despite years of top-down, high-profile initiatives.

  18. Having read some extracts of the book in the Sunday Times and read some of her telegraph blogs, I am confused. The whole tone (and choice of publications) seems designed to reassure parents who can afford to pay that they are doing the right thing by avoiding the dreadful state system and indeed encourage others to do the same. I just don’t see how this is helpful to her apparent desire to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds receive the same opportunities as those in private schools etc. Surely this makes it more difficult?

    The Sunday Times extract from a few weeks back focused on a tale of a middle-class-inner-city-comprehensive-supporting parent whose son ends up permanently excluded (after bringing a metal bar to school to defend himself against a bully, having had a previously unblemished record), not sitting his GCSEs and ultimately smashing a bottle over the bully’s head thus further ruining his life. KB wonders aloud in the book whether this parent is now berating herself for ever considering sending her child to this school. The article was illustrated by ridiculous crime scene reconstruction sketches of the boys involved, the metal bar, the fighting and hyperbolic statements about life-ruining and being excluded consigning you to a life in prison – you would really think this was a report on news rather than fiction!!

    That is my issue with the whole thing – is it fiction or non-fiction? Anyone who is a teacher or indeed alive in Britain can come up with extreme examples of horrible things they have seen or heard about. That doesn’t mean that they are regularly affecting every child in every school in the country. But these stories are held up by certain newspapers as being “the truth” about our schools despite a wealth of evidence that things are improving… No doubt, there are still things and specific schools that need to be improved but I just can’t see how KB whipping up a frenzy of anxiety amongst the middle class parent is really going to help anyone.

  19. Andy Smithers says:


    I have just read the article on Telegraph you refer to.
    There are a lot of questions for you to answer which I, and I am sure many readers of this site, would be interested to hear the answers to.


    • I am happy to answer the questions Toby Young has asked about me:

      Comprehensive Future is funded by donations from supporters. My website The Truth About Our Schools was paid for by me. This site was funded by the founding members. It has since had a small charitable donation but receives no funds from trade unions or political parties.

      There has not been a high turnover of heads since I became Chair of Governors at William Ellis. One head teacher has resigned.

      None of my children has had private tuition.

      The governors at William Ellis do not ‘dole out’ money to any individual students. Nor did my son get a payment from the school to go to Oxford.

      I have never tried to be selected as a parliamentary candidate , in Hampstead and Kilburn or anywhere else, so Melissa Benn can’t have acted as my ‘unofficial agent’

      I am not a member of the SWP.

      I look forward to reading a full retraction on the Telegraph website.

  20. I think my problem with books like this is, they are neither fish nor fowl, is it fact or is it fiction? It reminds me of some biographies that I have read and when you ask others who knew the place and time would say, “Yes it all may have happened but unlikely to have been at the same time and to just one person, more likely to have been an amalgam of a good number of people over a very much period.”

    I have been an inner City governor for 20 years and I recognise very little from Ms Birbalsingh’s blogs and confess to tiring of the constant decrying of state schools. There are a lot of very good schools out there but sadly that will not sell newspapers or, indeed, books.

    As to Francis moving on and changing his opinion, I for one applaud it. I certainly don’t hold the same opinions that I held ten or more years ago – why – because I have had more experiences which shape those opinions and frankly, I would rather be able to change my mind than feel constrained to think in the same manner that I did twenty years ago because of something that I had written which chimed with my beliefs at that time. Many years ago I believed in the tooth fairy, I don’t anymore, I put that down to gathering further evidence and being able to reach the alternative conclusion that it was my mother filching about under by pillow. Now that may make me look gullible but I think it just shows that I have matured.

  21. Thanks Ros to saying what I was going to say about changing my mind. I have changed my mind because I have been persuaded by my own experiences in the classroom and as a parent that state schools have got MUCH, MUCH better in the last ten years. The quote you refer to in the Standard was about my time in the 1990s as a teacher, when I wrote two books about my experiences. I was experiencing the fallout of the disastrous Tory party education policies: the under-investment and poor management of things. New Labour got a lot wrong, but I am increasingly realising that they got much right too. Most particularly, teaching in state schools has improved hugely since I first started teaching: the new recruits are better trained and really committed. When I first started teaching, things were desperate. I taught in a school which had 3% 5 A-C grades; that same school now regularly achieves 80% because the teaching is so MUCH better. I did send my child to a private school for a while but pulled him out, and now he’s much happier and achieving more highly in a state school. Birbalsingh taught for some years in a school which we know from objective evidence is MASSIVELY improved; her novel just doesn’t count as evidence. The Ofsted report does; it’s called using a sound evidence base, Toby and Andrew. I am sorry that you prefer to believe fiction above the facts.

  22. Actually Francis, I have a confession to make, back in the early 70s, I was part of a group responsible for putting a drawing pin in a seat which our Latin teacher was destined to sit upon – unfortunately our French teacher had a much larger derriere and suffered the consequences – although we were a girls only, Convent Grammar school in the home counties!

  23. Toby – my use of the term “patois” wasn’t intended as any racial slight (if that’s what you’re implying) but merely using a word to describe her unique style of writing.

    But it is true that her blogs constantly denigrate the state sector giving ammunition to private school advocates. Rarely, if ever, does she say anything positive about maintained comprehensive schools and her criticism seldom seems constructive which is why I wonder why she wishes to return as a teacher in the state sector.

    People like Fiona and Francis come in for stick from posters on KT’s blog and KT herself isn’t averse to sticking the boot in (sometimes quite unjustly) as I’ve illustrated on this site before.

    Subscribers to this blog know that I differ politically to most of the core posters on here and I have supported KTs views on the phasing out of EMA, so I’m nobody’s poodle.

    However, as I strongly believe in supporting local state schools, even if they languish near the bottom of the league tables, like the comprehensive school my kids attended, I think I share the central philosophy of this board.

    There was an article in the Telegraph recently about how oversubscribed popular state schools are, ie those at the top of the league tables, and how many working class parents couldn’t get their kids into these schools because they don’t have the financial means to buy a property in the catchment area or have the wherewithal to know the machinations of getting their children in.

    I think what people on this site are doing by sending their children to the less oversubscribed local schools, promoting community values, giving these schools more balanced intakes, raising standards from within and supporting the teaching staff is really admirable as it helps to elevate their standing. For that reason alone they will always (for what it’s worth) get my wholehearted respect.

  24. Plodder says:

    Don’t you lot have anything better to do? It’s a book. Get over yourselves. It’s an amalgam of experience. If what I’ve read is correct, KB has never pretended that the book is a chronological, real time account of the experience she had in one school. She’s said that all that happens in the book has happened to a number of people in a number of schools. Isn’t the issue that these things happen in some schools, some of the time & most state schools will recognise something of themselves in it. I don’t like the book, nor do I agree with the politics of it, but the aim to improve things for all, particularly disadvantaged, children must be a good one whatever its source. Stop sniping. Drop the political point scoring. That London schools have made massive progress in 10 years is undeniable. Things are better. But those of us in such schools know that we must keep doing better still. The gaps in achievement must be closed. Some of the commentators above should be using their time to find ways to do this rather than simply continue an already sterile debate. We’re better than this, I would hope. And what’s at stake is too important simply to point score.

  25. Plodder is right – it is a book. But it is a book that is being used to “prove” that state education is abysmal. The anecdotes (real, imagined, composite, whatever) are not being treated as specific incidents but regarded as generalised “home truths” about a “broken system”.

  26. Sorry Plodder but some of us are indeed Plodding On campaigning on a range of issues that will make our local schools even better. Nothing sterile in that. Nothing sterile either in carrying on pointing out key political facts that critics of comprehensive schools always fail to mention viz that the continuation of academic selection and covert social selection in many state schools harms the intakes of other schools; and that schools with mixed intakes do much better. Incidentally, I find this new line perpetrated by Birbalsingh and others that middle class families in inner city state schools are now the problem because they cover up the so called failings of these schools a rather sinister development . So would it be better if all middle class families went to expensive private schools and sneered from the sidelines? Or converted to Catholicism?

  27. Plodder says:

    Melissa, do you and the rest of LSN work as a tag team? I know I won’t get the last word. But your thinking, dare I say, seems faulty. You complain about covert selection and yet say mixed intake schools do better anyway. So why complain about the selection if it makes no difference to outcomes in other schools? The argument follows that covert selection limits the possibility of more mixed intake schools. But if that’s the case, why are so many schools in London doing so much better, regardless of intake? And if all the children in the independent sector were made to go to state schools, there wouldn’t be enough to ensure that all schools had a sufficiently mixed intake, would there? So that in itself isn’t the answer. We need schools to be as good as they can be with high standards, a rich curriculum and a belief that all students can become something meaningful. While the sniping continues – she’s wrong, we’re right – the status quo remains. When a comprehensive school student from London is regularly Prime Minister or running Lloyds or winning a Nobel prize, you can spend time pontificating as the cause will have been won and no one will care. In the meantime, those of us in schools are trying to make a difference and we have a real job to do before such changes happen. Don’t pretend you speak for us please. And what about all those schools which you suggest are ‘covertly’ selecting? The hard work of the staff & students in such a school is dismissed with the arrogance that you decry KB for. Cake and eat it springs to mind. Over to Team LSN.

  28. Sorry, but our Foreign Secretary, the leader of her Majesty’s Opposition went to a comprehensive school as do many other significant figures in public life, if that’s what you are worried about. And my point on selection is simple: we can’t say we have have a comprehensive system when so many schools select. Phase out selection AND improve standards …we’d have a world class school system then. I have no idea what kind of school you work in – so do let us know…

  29. To Plodder and Andrew Old, I have a problem with so-called “teachers” who can’t be identified. At the very least we can say we know that Katherine Birbalsingh is a “real” person. For all we know, Andrew Old and Plodder are not “real” teachers at all, but internet “trolls”, picking fights when they see fit. There’s quite a bit of evidence that Andrew Old does this. Identify yourself chaps (names of schools where you teach and your real names) and then we might take you a little more seriously.

  30. Plodder says:

    This ‘so-called’ teacher is too busy to be an ‘internet troll’ (whatever that is) and is off to mark Y13 work before school starts. Clearly what I have to say cannot be true if you don’t know my name. I’m probably a Tory agitator with no interest in education and an unhealthy desire to bait those who speak the real truth about our schools. But when you lift your eyes from the self-congratulatory forums you exist in, the real world has carried on: 2 figures in ‘main’ Government (and I’m you sure that you’re a great champion of William Hague as a state school boy regardless of his political views) hardly constitutes success for the system. We must do better. When 2 former state school students are at the top of every major national institution (Govt, business, everywhere) rather than as token evidence, then we will be getting somewhere and have a chance of sustaining real social mobility in the future. But you don’t know my name so that can’t be true or worthwhile as a view either, can it.

  31. In an area where there is selection, covert or otherwise, there will be a school, or schools, which are “creamed”. These schools will inevitably have results which are lower than their counterparts who have most of the academic students. As schools are judged on their academic results, then creamed schools find themselves at a low position in league tables. This in turn makes them less popular with parents. They are then locked in a spiral of decline: fewer pupils – falling rolls – fewer teachers – fewer subjects offered at GCSE – difficult to attract new teachers (because who wants to teach in a school perceived to be “failing”?) and so on. They are then pilloried as schools unfit for purpose.

  32. Plodder – Melissa didn’t point out 2 figures in “main” gov’t, only 1, since Ed Milliband (to whom she referred) is in opposition.

    As well as Hague – Fox, May, Pickles and Baroness Warsi from the Conservative Cabinet attended comprehensives (there may be more) and I’m sure one of the Labour stalwarts on here could give you a long list of politicians from the opposition bench who also enjoyed comprehensive schooling.

    • Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper spring immediately to mind. We have rehearsed some of these lists on the site before ( including people in show business and the arts ). However I think the important point is that the big expansion in comprehensive education came in the 1970s and that generation is only now becoming prominent in public life. I expect in the next two decades we will see an increase in the numbers of former comprehensive students in prominent positions. I I can certainly see some formidable young people among my own children’s 20-something generation, many of whom were educated in their local state schools.

      • At the end of last year, Lisa Nandy, a new Labour MP asked a question about the educational background of all MPs from the three main political parties. The answer was as follows:
        Conservative: 46% state educated, 54% privately educated
        Labour: 86% state educated, 14% privately educated
        Lib Dem: 61% state educated, 36% privately educated.
        It doesn’t distinguish between comprehensive and grammar schools but does show, at least in the Labour Party, that the balance is very much in favour of MPs with state school backgrounds and is approaching the split in the school population as a whole.

  33. What’s the big deal about telling us who you really are, Plodder? And yes, you said it yourself, your comments speaking “as a teacher” are worthless until you prove to us that you really do teach! As Fiona has already shown your general knowledge seems quite poor too.

  34. Plodder says:

    Ooh, now you’ve hurt my feelings. You’re all so sharp. I can now see exactly how knowing my name would ‘prove …(I) really do teach’. Don’t know why i couldn’t se it before. You’re all quite right to ignore the ‘bleedin’ obvious’ while ‘trolls’ like me continue to waste your time. It’s refreshing to see how up for a real debate you are. I can’t imagine why right wing commentators see you as easy targets. See, you’ve converted me. Now I’m writing about me rather than the real issue. Thank you.

  35. Plodder says:

    Apologies for the typos in the last piece. It was the emotion of the moment. And does the current number of MPs from ‘state’ schools (and I wonder how many of them are from deprived bakgrounds and I suspect not many, which was the point I was making but feel free to ignore it) prove that social mobility is growing? Or that the attainment gap isn’t growing? Or that the 9% of the student population in Independent schools don’t still take 46% of Oxbridge places?

    • This is work in progress from our point of view. None of us would pretend that the system is perfect or that we believe that outcomes for some groups of students are good enough yet. But one reason we set up this site, and all work hard in our own local schools ( as volunteers) is because we believe high quality , well resourced, well led, non selective, collaborative local school systems are part of the answer. Even after almost ten years of campaigning on these issues, I am amazed at how a) controversial that idea seems to be and b) how angry some people get at the idea that it is possible to get a good, well rounded education in your local school. That, I would have thought, should be a cause for celebration, not despair.

  36. Plodder, as you must know if you are teacher, order in the classroom is important, particularly in debates: my pupils are not allowed to make unsubstantiated comments, not backed up with hard evidence. It’s called PEAing; Point, Evidence, Analysis. In state schools you see, we insist upon high standards.

  37. Plodder says:

    Francis, I’ve always advised students to PEE their way to success – point, evidence, explain. I hope they also learn not to fear the unknown as doing so has blighted many a life. Fiona, I’m not sure that there is anything controversial about the idea of a good, local, comprehensive school. There are a lot of them, thankfully. I work in one and know many others. Or why the idea would make anyone angry. An odd notion. But even in my school, there is much we can do to improve things further. And in some schools, many things remain to be done. KB has not raised anything that isn’t true therefore. I suspect, like you, that there are better ways of making such points. But such issues remain with us and must be addressed. The system is not broken in the way she suggests. Who, outside the world of the Daily Mail, really believes that it is? But we do the students we serve an injustice – and not just the middle class children who will usually be OK even in a very challenging school – by saying that KB is lying full stop and therefore carry on as you are?

    • I don’t think anyone would advocate carrying on as we are. We have a number of reforms we would like to see in our school system. Nor are we suggesting that Kathaerine Birbalsingh is lying, because we all know these incidents she describes do take place. However they are rare in many schools, where a lot of very positive work takes place, as the school pupil who reviewed her book in the Observer this week observed. Hers is a very partial picture, which plays into the general media narrative about state schools, which is that the words ‘good’ and ‘ comprehensive’ can never go together. We are just trying to redress the balance and it is very heartening to see that there are many, equally realistic, but positive parents out there who agree with us and would like to help their local schools get better rather than indulge in trashing them.

  38. “The system is not broken in the way she suggests. Who, outside the world of the Daily Mail, really believes that it is? ”

    In adjacent areas of South London to where I live, there are a huge number of middle class parents (by which I mean those who can afford to go privately or buy million pound houses in the catchment area of the planned free school) who do seem to believe that what KB describes is the norm in our state schools.

    There is so much misinformation, paranoia and anxiety about sending their children to the existing good/outstanding local schools despite the fact that many people have never even looked round these schools!

    I’m just not convinced that KB-style shock tactics in newspapers generally read by these types of parents are the way to help our schools improve for the benefit of all those who go to them…

    • Here is a link to an article that Melissa and I wrote in the New Statesman two years ago on this subject. Unfortunately it doesn’t link to the accompanying column which carried answers from all the national newspaper editors about which schools they had chosen for their own children. All bar one had NO credible experience of what a modern comprehensive school was like, preferring to rely on the negative images portrayed in their papers. The editor of the Daily Mail sent his son to Eton.
      Laura has hit the nail on the head . This matters because it makes many parents very anxious, when in fact most people have nothing to fear from their local schools and often don’t look at what is on offer because of this wall of negative propaganda.
      Meanwhile we hear little in the media about what really goes on in some private schools. As I live in a part of London that has more state and private schools per square mile than any other part of Western Europe, I do pick up a lot of interesting stories and they are not always positive. Don’t expect to see any of this aired in the press though. There is a conspiracy of silence on this subject!

  39. Ms Believer says:

    Sorry but I’m with Plodder on this one. Citing how many MPs are or are not state educated is irrelevant as long as the poorest in society are failing educationally. And many are. The biggest covert selection in state schools in my experience is by the middle classes who know how to play the game. Francis, you even wrote a book about it. This is how the reputations of schools are won or lost yet even at many of the most socially cohesive comprehensives, it is the poorer children who are more likely to fail. My daughter is just coming to the end of 7 years at a state comprehensive. In that time it has gone from a good school, through special measures and into Academy Status. Not many middle class families lasted the course of special measures when the school was at rock bottom. Children who could moved to other schools, mostly independent. It is not easy finding a good school with spaces in some areas, so the rest had to put up and shut up. The real story behind the success is a committed headteacher who believes in and has the highest aspirations for all the children along with a focus on improving the teaching and learning. Isn’t this the point that KB is trying to make – even if at times her Telegraph Blog and Book don’t articulate it in quite the way we want to hear.

    • Yes we are totally in favour of brilliant heads, great teachers, especially in schools with very disadvantaged intakes and middle class parents who don’t play the system, although there is much more to covert selection than that,so admissions need to be radically reformed. As I understand it Katharine Birbalsingh previously worked in a school that had a good head, was popular, oversubscribed and with mostly good teaching, which is why her very partial picture in this book is so disappointing and leads people to be suspicious of her motives. It doesn’t help the least well off children to be educated in schools that are demonised and abandoned by their local communities.

  40. Thank you Plodder for your most recent points, which I think are interesting and valid, and your more civilised tone, which I appreciate. There are some complex points about KB’s book to be made because she’s saying it’s both fiction and not fiction — and because an analysis of her career history reveals that she worked in a good, improving comprehensive. Until the LSN delved properly into her career history, it was assumed she’d worked in a “sink” school for years. She hadn’t, she’d worked in a VERY GOOD school — a point she is most emphatically not denying and which she is on record as saying is good. Therefore, her claim that all state schools are broken just doesn’t stand up, even based on her own personal experience and testimony.

  41. BTW everyone: Ms Believer and Plodder are writing from the same ISP address, and I assume are the same person. Plodder/Ms Believer, I think you’re making some good points (so I am reluctant to kill your comments), but you’re not inspiring confidence with these silly games. Maybe just tell us who you are really?

  42. The book is BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week next week.

    It’s billed as “Revealing the extraordinary chaos, mismanagement and wrong-thinking that plague our education system”.

  43. May I suggest Nick Hornby’s ‘May Contain Nuts’ as a refreshing companion to KB’s tome? Even Ms Plodder/Believer would probably enjoy.

  44. Isabel Gittins says:

    Can you all hand on heart say you would’ve chosen the local schools you did for your children if there hadn’t been at least a core of middle class families choosing the school, regardless of it’s headline results. In some areas a year 6 class of 30 can end up at over 20 different secondary schools. Would you be happy for your 11-year old really be the only one from their school and then be isolated socially or culturally? And will your child be the one who does change things & make the social mix of the school improve? And what of the curriculum of that school. What if they do not offer a broad range of subjects. What if the only Science on offer was a BTEC or none took a language to GCSE. I fear that you will never convince people unless you address these issues. Granted it is not all schools but if it is the only one you’ll be offered in the current system would you stand by your principles?

  45. To Isabel, my son will be one of the few middle-class children next year at his local comprehensive; most of the other middle-class children have migrated away from the local comp. I don’t see it as a problem at all. Children are children no matter what social class or ethnicity they are; I don’t see that he will be isolated in any way at all. A good friend of his is going there from a very different background. And as for the notion that certain comprehensives have a very different curriculum offer, that’s nonsense; all LA schools are obliged by law to offer the “basic” GCSEs that you will find in the E Bacc.

  46. I’ve given up on Plodder/Ms Believer and I am trashing his comments as he/she/teacher/parent is clearly a joker.

  47. Andy Smithers says:


    It is great that you have chosen a local comp.

    It should be noted however that your track record would indicate a move to another more suitable school would be on the cards if your son struggles with any aspect of the school.

    Unfortunately most do not have this option.

  48. Michael Keenan says:

    Please don’t give these people the satisfaction of winding you up. There are important arguments going on here about how education is changing and they are being drowned out by the publicity driven drivel that is being spoken about Katherine Birbalsingh and Toby Young (and, watch this space, Jamie Oliver coming in just around the corner).
    We are not all bad teachers. Not all schools are bad. Ofsted is horrible but it is inherently not a bad thing, certainly not the way Katherine Birbalsingh describes it. However, there is definitely no such thing as bad publicity. Katharine Birbalsingh is on a publicity drive to sell her book. Toby Young is on a publicity drive to sell us this idea of his Free School saving the educational lives of children having to go through the hell of their local schools (but if there were 445 applications for September and families who applied have begun hearing if their child got a place, what do they do if they don’t get in? Will Mr. Young set up another Free School to cater for those poor lost souls?). Jamie Oliver is on a publicity drive to sell us his idea of celebrity teachers being the answer. I have no doubt Plodder and Mrs. Believer will turn out to be someone from the Telegraph or the Mail trying to show us how loony leftie this site is and it will probably end up in a book as well!
    Our education system is not perfect but I started teaching around the same time Francis mentions in one of the posts at the top and they really were bad times. This government is doing their best to take us back to those bad times – if you are lucky, they will give you £14 million to start a new school. Most of us are not and if like me you work in a deprived part of a major English city, you will be seeing first hand these children are already being let down and forgotten about. Playing publicity/political football with the lives of children – Katherine Birbalsingh, Toby Young, Jamie Oliver, Michael Gove, you should be ashamed of themselves.

  49. Oliver Stone says:

    I agree Michael. Not all schools are bad. I’d go further. Most are very good. But there’s much we need to address. I teach at a school which is good. I know we can make it better. How do you discuss this without scaring informed families about potential ‘weakness’? We need to avoid the polemics of Ms B but also we need to not pretend that there’s nothing wrong. Help please.

    • In my experience most parents know quite a bit about the strengths and weaknesses of their local school. There isn’t much you can disguise between Ofsted, league tables, the school gate and in some cases the local press. I think the important thing is for governors and the head to be open, and not defensive, about areas that need to improve and to make clear to parents what they are doing. I have always found holding open meetings for parents very helpful ( and as a chair of governors I give all parents my personal e-mail address so they can contact me directly). I have been at some meetings that are very difficult but in the end they can start to build trust and also give parents confidence that concerns are being acted on, even if it does sometimes feel that change is not happening quickly enough. And of course the direct feedback from parents is very helpful for the governing body.

  50. Isabel Gittins says:

    I am sorry you have censored the Plodder/Believer comments as even Francis felt they/he/she added to the debate. It seems to me that you all want to justify your politically driven ideology, rather than working for and with schools for real and sustained improvement or debating the opportunities and challenges presented to schools at the present time. You may be right Fiona that comprehensively educated people will increasingly make their way to prominence, thus proving the ideal. But I fear that those from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, including certain well documented ethnic groups will still be hugely under-represented. I am a firm believer in comprehensive education but I would be deluding myself if I believed that everything is ok. Listening to opposing views is a starting point for finding solutions.

    • I am sorry you think that, but maybe you are not reading what many of the people on this site are saying, which is that they are working for and with local schools for sustained improvement. Many of our contributors have pointed to examples in other countries where comprehensive systems deliver fairness and quality across the board more effectively than we do, which is not surprising since in many parts of the country we don’t yet have a comprehensive system.
      I agree with you that poor and disadvantaged young people will still struggle, in comparison with their more affluent peers, to get represented at the ‘top tables’ as it were, but is that really all to do with schools or are we missing a much bigger point about society in general, about poor housing , poverty, family breakdown, parents who struggle? I think we may expect too much of schools but blaming them is much easier than actually looking at the deeper reasons for our failure to meet those young peoples’ needs. I doubt the political solutions currently on the table for schools will really address these problems and will probably make things worse as early years funding gets cut, programmes to support families and extended services gradually disappear. Meanwhile young people will get segregated increasingly into different types of schools of varying status, and offering different subjects and qualifications. It could all be very different…

  51. Dear Isabel, I am glad you are firm believer in comprehensive education and I agree with you that we need to “work for and with schools for real and sustained improvement or debating the opportunities and challenges presented to schools at the present time”. I simply trashed Ms Believer/Plodder’s comment that he/she weren’t one person, which they patently were because they were writing from the same computer! But then again, for all I know, you are him back again writing from a different computer! But you’re writing some worthwhile stuff so go ahead!

  52. Isabel Gittins says:

    Fiona, the countries cited with successful comprehensives are very often less culturally diverse places with a smaller gap between the poorest and richest. I don’t believe they compare well with our most diverse inner cities where wealth & deprivation often sit side by side. You are right about the wider problems in society but schools are often the only point of stability so there is a moral imperative to the best we can. How will a variety of schools cause more segregation than we have already? There are grammars, partially selective, faith & academies already. Free schools are a fairly small addition to the mix, and possibly politically driven. Comprehensive schools as they are now have significant freedoms now to be creative and entrepreneurial. Funding may well be cut but schools can direct it to their specific priorities. Schools are already offering different qualifications & subjects, so what will change? The present government places emphasis on a particular set of subjects but I hope all heads, whatever the category of school offer a curriculum which meets the needs of their students. There are challenges and opportunities with the Education Bill but I would rather make the most of the latter.

    • I totally agree that there is a moral imperative to do the best we can Isabel.

    • One aspect of the current situation that we are trying to improve is the ‘segregation we already have’. I agree that free schools are a fairly small addition to the mix, although not if you live in a community where you feel a new free school will threaten existing provision, as we have seen from some of the comments by parent groups on this site.
      However the existing segregation is one reason why Melissa and I were actively involved campaigning for changes to the Admissions Code of Practice during the passage of the 2006 Education and Inspections Act. I believe the the Code was much improved as a result and wait with some trepidation to see what Michael Gove will do with it ( it should really be consulted on alongside the current Bill).
      Meanwhile we have always had concerns too about the way the curriculum was being degraded in some schools, in response to the league tables, in effect creating shiny new secondary moderns and grammar schools by another name. I note that Professor Wolf has aired similar concerns today. The schools concerns will now of course be publicly rebuked , but they were only responding to the perverse incentives built into our system of school accountability.
      I don’t believe resolving these issues has anything to do with whether we live in a more or less culturally diverse society. It is a matter of having a big vision for the sort of education system we would like, then pushing through the policies necessary to achieve that. I don’t think the sort of fragmented, semi selective, do your own thing model of schooling currently being promoted will provide the answers.

  53. Francis I hope you have not kicked a couple or some house mates off this website (whatever permutation they are)!

    Fiona I do not think what you are doing is wrong in principle. To support a local school, especially one judged as in some way at fault, to the depth of your own children, is a morally supportable position. But I do not think that it should be a matter of authority vested in levels above tax paying parents. Do you think there should be a local abortion authority, a local pub authority, a local plumbing authority, a local housing authority (in the sense you are told WHERE and IF to abort/have water/a drink/a place to live)? Which equate to rationing the provision against your will?

    It’s a woman’s choice right? You chose to live where you do in London? You choose if you and where you drink? You might get a bore hole or buy bottled water even if you have a tap?

    These examples may seem facile or even offensive: but I am trying to make a point about the limits of what the intervention of the state can do. It is best to push power down to the lowest levels and then intervene to raise the level where it is at the bottom.

    I do think that the upper class and middle class (we could say the both are rich/privileged) both have a duty to assist the other parts of society i.e. lower classes, by civil participation. I would argue they would but government has got in the way.

    Free schools should result in altering the dynamics of schools so that the social classes do mix. You gave the example of Albeta CA schools but glossed over the nature of choice there. Schools are more accountable there since they know if they do not deliver the children and parents upsticks! A class analysis of the Alberta schools would be very illuminating.

    There is a debate to be had here on the whole nature of our society but I am sorry I don’t can’t write more now.

    I will flesh out my profile later so you can see I am not a troll – but I did vote Tory last time!

    • Ben, I am not sure if you are actively involved with any schools at the moment but I can assure you that in many existing schools the ‘social classes’ do mix already. That is one of the great things about comprehensive education where it works well. Unfortunately the media prefers to present a very partial picture of schools in certain contexts. Other than than, I am not quite sure what your point is, or that we disagree fundamentally on local autonomy. Most schools are very autonomous now, power rests in the hands of the governing body which is often largely made up of parents, staff and other members of the local community. In my experience the local authority has a very limited role in decision taking at school level – another myth that needs to be busted . One of the great paradoxes of the Labour academies is that many are very tightly controlled by the ‘chains’ that run them and, from conversations I have had with friends who work in or for these groups, they often seem to interfere in a way that an LA would not dare to do .

  54. Thank you Ben for this comment. I am glad that you feel our principles are right: a great education for ALL children, great local schools for all.

  55. We seem to have strayed off-topic. Perhaps we should begin another thread about local autonomy. However, here are my comments:

    Fiona is correct about local autonomy in Local Authority schools: governing bodies run LA schools and there are laws governing the composition of these bodies. Nevertheless, LA schools must follow statutory requirements to follow the national curriculum.

    There are, however, no laws that control the composition of governing bodies for academies. Once a school becomes an academy, the elected members of the governing body lose control and the private sponsors are allowed to appoint a majority of its governors. This removes local autonomy.

  56. Francis: I would suggest that comments should be allowed from either Plodder or MsBeliever. Contributors are more than capable of engaging with diverse opinions. There must, of course, be community standards and as long as these are followed then all could contribute. However, the problem of multiple identities could be solved by allowing only one contributor from one ISP address.

  57. Back on topic now: Toby Young quotes from an article in which Francis described some schools as being unfit for learning. The key words here are “some schools”. The difference between Francis’s comments and those of Ms Birbalsingh is that that her views are used to “expose the failings of the comprehensive school system”. It is not true that the entire comprehensive system is failing since there are many good comprehensive schools.

    The difficulties faced by a small number of schools should not be used to denigrate an entire system. That is not to say that these difficulties should not be addressed. However, there should be a sense of proportion. To use these incidents as symptomatic of a “broken system” is misleading and unfair.

    When I was a teacher I, too, faced indiscipline. I have been sworn at and had pupils refusing to do work. I, too, have had to stop fights and deal with bullying. But I can counter these with far more examples of pupils learning, working co-operatively and being comfortable in the school.

  58. Janet, thanks for pointing that out. The main thing is to fight for great local schools for all.

  59. Having scanned through all the comments in this thread its good that Janet brings us the voice of reason – this is exactly the point – sweeping condemnation is neither accurate nor helpful. More interesting is why some schools do better that others in similar circumstances. I’m no expert but I believe recent evidence indicates the most effective tool for improvement, alongside leadership and management, is collaboration – both within and between schools. That is, local collaboration not competition. Free schools are a market intervention at least partly based on the view that competition is a good thing for driving up standards. I don’t think so, and certainly competition between schools on uneven playing fields is positively damaging. It sickens me when I look at the New Schools Network website and see all these offers of free stuff from business people on the pretence they are doing something for the local community – why on earth haven’t they been supporting the existing schools????

  60. Tanino Cinà says:

    Surely parents should have as much, as wide and as varied a choice as possible for their children?

    Is it not desirable to be able to choose between M&S, TESCO and so on when one opens his front door? Is such a settlement not preferable to the metaphorical soup kitchen of the comprehensive system that some would like to force upon all parents?

    The myth of the public sector unions defending the interests of the consumers was debunked years ago, it is clear that the trade unions and their acolytes seek only to ward their interests, to the dismay of parents, tax payers and students.

  61. Janet Downs says:

    Schools are not like supermarkets. If a shop closes through lack of custom then the customers can go elsewhere. However, if an undersubscribed school closes there may be no room in other schools for its pupilsl.

    The ability to choose between schools may be possible in a city, but in a town or village there will only be enough pupils for one school. This, then, needs to be the best possible school for the local children.

    The “some people” who wanted to force the comprehensive system on parents in the 60s/70s were middle-class parents who realised that a system which damned 75% of boys (and more girls) into a secondary modern school was unfair (and likely to work against their own children). This policy was supported by the Tories and it was Mrs Thatcher, as Secretary of State for Education, who closed more grammar schools than any other Minister.

    I should be grateful if Tanino could provide a link to evidence which shows that teaching unions do not defend the interests of their pupils. The interests of pupils are best served if teachers are well-rewarded thereby attracting the best candidates into the profession. I am sure that Tanino is not suggesting that teachers should be low paid and that their Unions should accept this.

  62. Tanino Cinà says:

    I would like to thank Miss Downs for her courteous and polite answer.

    Miss Downs mentions a hypothetical situation in which one school is under subscribed and the other schools in the area are all full. But would such a settlement not indicate that there are too many schools? If you have five empty bottles of 1l each and only 4.5l of lemonade you’ve evidently bought too many empty bottles, have you not? If students from the “full schools” were to leave in order to fill up the failing school the consequence would be of under subscription to the schools that were once full. Such matters always arise, schools do close because nobody wants them, it would be counterproductive and emotional for them not to close. To enable groups of teachers and/or businessmen to open new schools would be healthy for the system as it would probably mean weaker schools being edged out of the “market” were it not for the fact that, according to my understanding of the government scheme, these schools cannot open in areas where supply already outstrips demand.

    I’m sure Miss Downs is aware of the inaccurate nature of her assertion with regards to Mrs Thatcher and grammar schools. Mrs Thatcher didn’t close any grammar schools, she merely devolved competences in such matters to local authorities which then proceeded to close grammar schools.

    The teachers unions will, undoubtedly, maintain that they exist to protect the consumer, in the name of altruism (altruism in virtue of the fact that they are the suppliers). If the fast food workers union told you that it has its customers’ best interests at heart you would laugh and I believe a similarly healthy cynicism should be adopted when scrutinising the teachers’ unions.

    One cannot know the true intentions of the teachers’ unions and it would not be desirable to generalise, there are many teachers of noble intentions. We must recognise, however, that the vested interest [we cannot know whether a teacher genuinely – in his heart – believes that increasing teacher salaries will benefit the education of future generations but we can know whether the same teacher stands to benefit financially from such increases] of the teaching profession is to be paid as well as possible in exchange for as little work as possible, as is for all people. Let us avoid complicated debates about morality and nobility which lead nowhere in favour of an open, frank and perhaps cynical debate about the teaching profession. I shall end on the following note; American teachers are paid better yet than their British counterparts yet the American education system is worse (listen to Gore Vidal, Milton Friedman, Geoffrey Canada and many more for further information). French and Italian teachers are paid much less, however, yet both France and Italy have education systems that compare favourably to the education system of the United Kingdom. It comes as no surprise that teachers seek better wages but I have just given you examples of good education systems with badly paid teachers and bad education systems with well paid teachers. To suggest that all our education system needs is better paid teachers is almost as folly as saying that all it needs is amelioration in matters architectural (which has been said). However, I believe in meritocracy and if Miss Downs is suggesting a payment by results scheme to favour the deserving at the expense of the undeserving I would not exclude a hypothesis whereby a consensus emerges.

  63. Janet Downs says:

    Just as schools aren’t supermarkets, then children aren’t lemonade to be poured into bottles. The point I was making is that if an underscribed school is forced to close then where are the children from that school supposed to go if there are no spare places locally?

    I take Tanino’s point about Mrs Thatcher – she didn’t actually sign the death warrants for grammar schools but left it to local authorities to decide. Most local authorities decided to end selection.

    As far as education in France is concerned:

    ‘’The French education system is more and more dichotomous, with an increase in pupils failing at school, with little chance of obtaining a baccalaureate. The system is saved thanks to its elite, but the social inequalities continue to increase’’, says Eric Charbonier, responsible for the [OECD PISA) study in France.

    Many of the characteristics of unsuccessful systems identified in the study – doubling up of years, emphasis on testing, and lack of autonomy for schools – are all present in France. Indeed, France is the champion of re-sitting of school years, with 38% of school pupils who do so.”

    Which brings us neatly back to Ms Birbalsingh – her alter-ego Snuffy favours re-sitting of school years which the OECD has shown to be ineffective. It’s a pity detractors of UK state education don’t spend more time studying academic inquiries into education instead of regarding a novel as evidence-based research.

  64. Wm F McCormick says:

    I followed the link in your March 4 ,2011 peice (Left-wing nutters go bonkers over West London Free School) which was supplied to support the contention that Fiona Millar took 4 1/2 months to respond to questions put to her.
    The statement “you haven’t replied to my request that you apologise on the Telegraph website” would seem to indicate the article’s author is the one guilty of unresponsiveness and making misleading comments.

  65. I am a parent of a former student. ——- (name redacted) was not a bog standard comprehensive. They are actually very selective. They have to sit a test to gain entrance. They also gave preference to children who play a musical instrument. Who generally pays for a child to have music lessons?
    They claimed to take on a fair percentage different abilities. There were three bands of low, average and high. The low band was for children who achieved level four in their year six sats ( which is the national average) average was level five and high was a mix of level five and six. Hardly a bog standard intake or comprehensive.
    My son is now in his second year of university – we left after his g.c.s.e’s. He gained 15 in total and bizarrely enough one of the few he failed was her french class.

  66. Tanino Cinà says:

    Once again, I should like to thank Miss Downs for her response and apologise for taking so long to reply.

    Of course children aren’t lemonade but let us not be apocalyptic in our considerations of the closures of schools, schools close because, say, factories close so people leave the town, children leave their schools during reconstruction, schools close because nobody applies, schools can be merged so some students have to stop going to one building in favour of another, et cetera. I do not know how many children have to travel to reasonably (or unreasonably) distant schools because their local schools have either recently been closed or are full but I really don’t think the number is considerable and, at any rate, surely these children and their parents could constitute demand for the innovative free schools? There are people that travel one or two hours to get to school all over the world (indeed I was reading about an African boy who walks 10 miles back and forth each day – and smiles), surely it’s no disaster.

    The French system has its shortcomings, by the way, I do not deny it, but I should suggest that you go to France and talk to a French state schoolboy about history, about science, about literature (they probably won’t have the misfortune of knowing Carol Ann Duffy, but they’ll know Racine, a name foreign to most A Level French students), ask them the present participle of a verb, ask them about Waterloo (which I do not believe features in current British curricula) and you’ll see a degree of culture you simply don’t encounter in British comprehensives. With regards to re sitting school years, why, I think that if parents want to encharge the state with the education of their offsprings the state should make sure that students reach a minimum standard. Such standards are not met, in some cases, by people with three A Levels so I do think that much could be done in this respect. The proponents of the comprehensive system should embrace the state forcing students to retake their school years until they are proficient in mathematics, the English language and a few other subjects, what of those poor students who get no GCSEs and are doing nothing at the age of 16?

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