Katharine Birbalsingh’s new book, To Miss with Love, is nearly three hundred pages long, but her educational theories can be boiled down to this: private schools good, state schools bad. She expands on the theme now and then: Jamaican schools good, Indian schools good. But our schools are definitely, without doubt, bad. So bad, if you read her account without having been to a school recently, you’d be off to Delhi in a flash.
The story, written as a daily diary, follows Miss Snuffy - the book’s protagonist and Birbalsingh’s alter-ego - through a single academic year. It is gruesome stuff; an unremitting tale of tears, fights, stress, tension and dissatisfaction. The world she describes is a dystopian one. The school corridors are ‘grey’, the student’s work looks like it ‘might have been done by five-year-olds’, the building is ‘always freezing cold’ and the canteen is incapable of cooking ‘anything decent’. So depressing is her experience that rather than borrowing the title from E.R. Braithwaite, she should have turned to Private Frazer from Dad’s Army and called it: ‘We’re doomed!’
The system, she claims, is fatally flawed and designed to breed failure. And for ‘the system’ read pretty much everything: middle-class parents, materialism, modern technology, the school curriculum, educational experts, Ofsted, trade unions, school leaders, and teachers. No stone is unturned in her search for someone and something to blame. Of course, not every part of her analysis is wrong – even the wildest of machine gun fire eventually hits a target. For example, her view that the inspection regime is over-bearing is hardly controversial and would barely raise an eyebrow in the average staff-room. But her description of school life is so one-sided and so deliberately skewed towards the negative that it is hard to sympathise with, let alone support, Birbalsingh’s message – doubly so when she uses her own experience in this particular school to appoint herself as an advocate and a spokesperson for all teachers. This is what makes her such a divisive figure; no teacher worth their salt would argue against improvement (it kind of goes with the job), but to see next-to-nothing of value in our schools is a unnecessarily provocative. It is, however, a message tailor-made for the broken Britain brigade, which explains why her star shines brightly.
There is a deeper, more fundamental problem with the book: the blurring of truth and fiction. Miss Snuffy is the educational equivalent of Adrian Mole – there’s enough reality to make her imaginable to the reader, but this comes with a bucket-load of caricature and exaggeration, an endless twisting of words to suit the author’s needs, rather than to accurately and precisely recount events. The striking difference between the two, of course, is that Mole is harmlessly funny, whereas the stakes are a bit higher with Miss Snuffy. The jostling of truth and fiction is evident from the start of the book. In the foreword, Birbalsingh says the ‘characters and situations’ are her ‘creations’ (it is known, for example, that her husband in the book doesn’t exist). If people and events have been made up, how are we to distinguish in the book between a factual re-telling, a truthful composite of actual events or characters, and plain-old fiction? Whatever arguments she does make, it is hard to shake off the possibility that Birbalsingh is somehow an unreliable witness.
Her defence, however, is that everything in the book ‘happened’ – but how can a conversation with an imaginary husband have ‘happened’? Indeed, the strangest moment in the book is not her description of reading Karl Marx while wearing ‘very short shorts’ or when she describes middle-class parents as hypocrites for sending their children to good comprehensive schools, but when, after describing her school day at some length, Snuffy’s husband says he doesn’t believe what he has heard, calling her a ‘lunatic’. To be called a lunatic and a liar by your dearly beloved is revealing enough, even more so when that person doesn’t exist (he makes up for it later though, by sending Snuffy some imaginary flowers). At times, the dialogue doesn’t always ring entirely true, particularly when she is talking to someone who disagrees with her point of view; the words they speak sound a touch implausible, clunking and jarring like a badly written radio play. The overall result, the effect of the blurring of real and imagined, is unsettling.
And in terms of her pedagogical practice, there is something of the Starkey about her. On day one of a new term, she lays into her Year 8’s, describing them as having ‘a few tools missing from their toolboxes’, informs them directly that they have ‘failed’ and tells them, if she had her way, they would have stayed in Year 7. This, remember, is on day one. Later she tells a 12-year-old: ‘boys aren’t as clever as us girls’. Yet there is also a peculiar tinge to her pedagogy, when Snuffy reveals her theory of intelligence which runs as follows: ‘being intelligent is like being tall’. Think about that for a moment: height is pretty much pre-determined; does she really believe intelligence is too? To bring the message home, Snuffy concurs with a colleague when he says: ‘you can’t become tall if you have short genes’. Intelligence is in the genes, she seems to say. I found this exchange deeply odd and more than slightly disturbing. It runs dead against my values and beliefs as a teacher.
The nub of the problem with To Miss with Love is that Birbalsingh has used a highly personal and (to some degree) fictional account to generalise about all schools. This is deeply unfair. The fact that a former colleague has questioned her version of events only adds to the doubt about the veracity of her book – and its use as a manual for educational policy-making. Whatever the worth of the message, it seems to be such a partial account, delivered so clumsily that it’s impossible, for this reader at least, to rally to her cause. Everyone involved in education feels a certain frustration. We all want to make the world a better place; that’s why we do what we do. It’s just that some of us are deeply proud of our schools and our students – and see them as wonderful places, not examples of failure. We work hard to make them better, but believe they are worth fighting for, and protecting from those who seem determined to run them into the ground.
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