To Miss with Love misses the mark

Teacher Talks's picture
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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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 07/03/2011 - 10:55

Truth or fiction? The diary is one-side whatever it purports to be. It's mostly horror. Oh, there are "inspirational" moments, such as when Dopey, described as being short of a few cogs, gets a grade C in GCSE English (thanks to Snuffy's story about the perky little engine). I'm sorry, but if Dopey got a C then this is not a cause for celebration but despair. GCSE C is supposed to be the equivalent of the old General of Certificate of Education Ordinary Level - it obviously isn't any more if Dopey achieved it. Snuffy should have been shouting for the exam to be recalibrated not congratulating herself on his achievement.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 07/03/2011 - 11:04

Yes, I agree there's a really troubling lack of understanding in the book about how children learn and no serious analysis of what they should be learning.

Kim Thomas's picture
Wed, 09/03/2011 - 13:58

It's odd. I've just been following a Q&A with Katharine Birbalsingh over at Schoolgate, and she says that the "husband" was based on a male friend she shared a flat with, and the conversations were real. Someone also asked her about the "tall" comment, and she said that in her view children could become more intelligent, ie that intelligence wasn't fixed. I find her a bit of a puzzle. She also said in the same conversation that she loved teaching in state schools, that "urban" kids were the best, but that if she had a child of her own she'd educate it privately.

Hoody's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 17:51

" 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 former point made i irrelevant to it being against your values and beliefs - do you think it is fact or fiction? Research says FACT - there is a limit to individual intelligence, but so too that most individual are capable of learning and performing well beyond how they did in education. So I do not care what you THINK, I care about what has been scientifically/ mathematically/ through observation been SHOWN/ PROVEN.

Cameron 'thinks' deep and fast cuts will save the economy... but who CARES, it's only what he thinks!

Regards the book, I found it vile. The monikers promote not only terrible stereotypes, but portray disliking, if not loathing for these kids. (Where was Neglected, Abused, In-Poverty, and Emotionally Wrecked in this dross?) But I want to move on from this book, and the attacking on its author.

I would like the issue to be viewed - no matter how exaggerated or not - with an element of reality, rather than the oh-so-human protective nature of 'not in my school' mentality that I keep seeing. If this really is the case why is it that 45.2% of state school students - ONE in TWO - left school with 4 or fewer GCSEs. Forget comparisons with anything - that figure SPEAKS FOR ITSELF.

Something is NOT right.- and please don't quote YOUR school's stats or the approaches YOU take; like the narrative of Katharine Birbalsingh’s that is simply anecdotal/ experiential - just with a different point of view! Are there HONEST, FACTUAL, and TRULY INDEPENDENT studies covering the realities of what happens in schools? And from the perspectives of STUDENTS and PARENTS and TEACHERS alike - with PROPER analysis? Rather than opinion, views, and anecdotes? This is not rigorous. If there is then please point me to it - so that I can somehow fathom out how the 45% figure fits in to all of this.

Till then, I'll jump on the storyteller's bandwagon and finish with some of my own experiences - true 'war stories' I could relay for hours at a time! My schooldays were as a pupil in a comprehensive on a housing estate. It was day to day disruption: many a lesson was simply bedlam, stink bombs going off, fights kicking off, teachers being insulted AND assaulted, and in one totally disrupted history lesson (as they ALL were) one by one each of the girls asked/ argued to be excused from class as each and every one of them had period pain! I lived these things, and so did many kids in MANY of the schools in my area - so the reality is harsh as learning INSIDE school wasn't an option, you just had to do it yourself OUTSIDE.

And as for the careers advice I had - if I could I would JAIL the education secretary and PM of that time. But that's for another day…

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 18:29

Maybe Hoody you could convince us that you are who you say you are, with some hard facts yourself: where exactly did you go to school? What estate are you talking about? Prove to us, you are real!

Hoody's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 19:47

Alas, where I went to school, who I am, etc doesn't matter - it's simply one datum. A hidden set of anecdotes in a world of other anecdotes. This is a waste of a question, and a total missing of the points I made. A lost opportunity.

My personal experiences - all of them were true, I assure you - were used ironically. I never said these experiences reflected the country, or that this meant ALL schools were like mine. I simply gave MY experience and the experiences of friends in the area and in other schools. No more, no less. No grand claims. Simply one datum.

I can't make grand claims, they'd be unfounded - on hearsay, anecdote, and personal opinions. Without sufficient and the correct data and analysis I personally can't draw accurate conclusions - only guesses. Me, you, and others could talk stories ALL day. Let's get them from students, parents, the neighbours, you name it. The more, the better. But I'd prefer a bit more rigor. For me rigour would be the HARD facts you mention.

Just because my anecdotes are MINE doesn't make the examples the highlight the general case (although they are TRUE)- and this is my point. Each of my anecdotes, as are KB's - whether negative or positive - are one offs from an individual (but they could even be from a group, the principle still holds). What I'm saying is that these don't reveal the 'truth' (and by that I mean root causes, real problems) as nothing's been done in earnest to reveal this. Opinions, views, etc are simply that. I offer no solutions offer no right or wrong, offer no generalisations from LIMITED anecdote. I'm simply calling for proper studying of this and a proper analysis of underlying causes - without assumptions and anecdotes and biases.

As I say, if you or others do have data on this please do pass on. I'll be interested in some, as you say HARD facts.

p.s. Regards my anonymity - I did so in keeping with KB's vile monikers. Looks like my second dose of irony was wasted too…

Carlosus's picture
Tue, 15/03/2011 - 15:37

I know what your schools are like because I went to one, and they were shit! surely best people to ask are the pupils? I have dyslexia, but wasn't diagnosed until i was 32, i hav an IQ of 137 yet left school with no qualifications. All your interest in me was why i wasn't wearing the correct uniform, not my failing academic performance or the Hell that was my Home Life. Yes, you do favour the Black Boys, they got away murder and were treated like special-cases all, I think it fits your Jesus Christ self-image so many of you have, made you feel you were special and not racist, kinda Hippy "cool", I hav respect for only one single teacher from 11 years worth of schooling. I am hoping that this new "School Voucher System" will take off and there be an infinite number of schools for an infinite type of pupils, Good riddance to One-Size-fits-All State-run Comprehensive Schools! Don't delete this post:

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 15/03/2011 - 19:07

It's interesting to note in this week's TES that KB admits to lying for years to Year 6 parents, claiming the schools she taught in were good when they weren't. But surely this begs the question, if she admits she lied then, how can we trust her now?

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 27/03/2011 - 11:09


We could equally ask why we should trust you when you used to write books about terrible state schools and how parents can avoid them, and you now claim state schools are wonderful. You're not really in a position to have a go at anyone else for changing their story.

Alex Jones's picture
Mon, 28/03/2011 - 20:43

Ah yes Andrew - spot on - changing your mind is exactly the same thing as telling lies. Following your logic could anyone ever be trusted?

M Creed's picture
Fri, 06/05/2011 - 22:05

I don't know why Carlosus left school without qualifications, but with an IQ of 137 it isn't surprising the dyslexia was never diagnosed.

My daughter's dyslexia was diagnosed late, because she had already worked out coping strategies for herself. Her dyslexia manifested itself in certain ways, but she remains an avid reader (though a poor speller). The spelling unfortunately seems no longer significant, since mis-spelled basic words and spurious apostrophes abound, even in educational website resources.

Robert Wills's picture
Mon, 15/08/2011 - 19:22

Calosour is spot on. I also went to one, as did my friends (who went to a different school to me) and they are absolutely rubbish. The Glasgow Herald prints an annual league table of comprehensives in Scotland as well as all private schools and the difference is literally like the Premiership in comparison to English League Division four.
There were disruptions, poor dress sense, stressed teachers and if you demonstrated any academic ability whatsoever you were called a swot and/or a snob by many other pupils.
At a young impressionable age, you really have to have a skin the thickness of an elephant to ignore insults and comments such as that from fellow pupils.
Katharine's accounts of school were like a mirror image of my experiences of school.
Thank goodness for teachers like her who put her career on the line to offer accounts of what life is like in a Comprehensive School.
They are, for the most part, absolutely rubbish.

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