“Show, don’t tell” – the first words of advice given to aspiring writers. Unfortunately, Ms Birbalsingh ignores this. She tells.
The reader is told that Snuffy is wonderful, inspirational and passionate. She smiles, she chortles, she chuckles. She really, really cares for her pupils. She is the only teacher at Ordinary School who is fighting against a broken system. Ordinary school is not a real school – it’s fictional. But Snuffy fervently believes that the majority of children in England’s cities are in schools like this.
It makes Snuffy so sad that her pupils can’t escape the state system that she so loves.
She inspires her pupils with catchphrases: “Yes, we can! Choo, choo!” She inspires her Year 11 GCSE class (16 year olds) with “The Little Engine That Could”. She warns them that in other countries kids like them (the ones who are “missing a few tools from their toolboxes”) would have to repeat a year. She’s convinced this would make them work harder. Obviously Snuffy hasn’t read the OECD evidence
school systems with high rates of grade repetition tend to be school systems with lower student performance.
Undaunted, Snuffy fills her diary with generalisations – she presents specific incidents as being failures that permeate the entire system. She snipes at easy targets such as individual programmes for children unaware that these are expected in Finland
, the top performing European country. She introduces unsubstantiated statistics – “a third of teachers leave within their first term”. She panders to tabloid prejudice: “teacher-training institutions churn out teachers who have had any ounce of creativity and ingenuity squeezed from them,” and the NUT fights “for you to be rubbish in the classroom and not get fired”.
The characters are ciphers – there is no character development. They are given patronising names: Dumbo is one of her “cabbage kids”, Bushytail is an enthusiastic but struggling trainee and Ms Useless is ineffective. Not like, Snuffy – she works miracles.
For a teacher who portrays herself as idealistic and motivational, Snuffy shows surprising ignorance. One boy has foster parents, yet Snuffy discusses with them the possibility of his living in Nigeria with foster grandparents. Surely she knows that social services make decisions about where cared-for children live? A more serious lapse is Snuffy’s treatment of Beautiful who asks Snuffy to keep secret a relationship with an abusive boyfriend. So does Snuffy act in accordance with the child protection policy
that all schools must have? Does she warn Beautiful that she cannot keep the relationship confidential? Does she report the abuse to the designated person for child protection? No, as so often in this diary, Snuffy’s thoughts are with her own feelings.
And yet – there are nuggets of truth in Snuffy’s diary but they are not the ones which will be heeded by those who wish to use the book to demonstrate that “kids have been failed by State Education”. Teachers are under pressure to produce results. OFSTED has redefined “satisfactory” as “unsatisfactory”. League tables are unfit for purpose and have a divisive affect on the entire school system: “Any school that wants to do well… must select if they are to stand a chance…The over-arching reason results go up or down is because of change in the school’s intake” and, Mr Gove please note:
“Our understanding of learning for the sake of learning is long gone, lost in a sea of tables and corruption. Sure, schools should be judged but league tables are not the way to do it.”
I’ll second that.