Katharine Birbalsingh’s vision for successful inner city schools goes like this according to her latest blog in the Telegraph today (25th June 2011):
‘They have an extended day; they encourage fierce competition amongst their pupils; they benchmark and put the results up on the wall where all gather to see how they have done in comparison to their peers. They have high standards of behaviour and they expect their pupils to reach for the very best. As such, there isn’t a ‘prizes for all’ culture and children are allowed to lose. As Toby Young pointed out the other day when speaking at a Free Society event about the advantage of free schools, from the charter movement in America, to the free school movement in Sweden, there is a general model of schooling that has proved itself time and time again to be successful in the inner cities. And that is the one that I have described above.’
The main problem with this vision is that thousands of parents and children do not share her views and would not want their children’s education reduced to such a simplistic and callous scramble for success at all costs. I wonder if all children’s scores would be posted on the wall to give them a good dose of humiliation? Clearly, the approach she describes can claim some limited success for some children in some schools. But she is wrong to believe such a model would work for all inner city schools, children and parents. For example, there is a significant number of parents, children, teachers and the public in general who just don’t accept that playing politics with education by exposing schools to more and more market-place competition is desirable or acceptable. There is a growing backlash to government policy encouraging more schools to supposedly cut themselves free and float themselves in the burgeoning mixed economy of education, as this group
from Brighton shows:
Whether one supports academies and free schools or not, to claim as Ms Birbalsingh does that ‘we know what works in schools,’ as if academies and free schools are some kind of panacea for all issues education, is naïve at best. It also completely contradicts the one piece of weak (Radio Five Live) evidence she cites in her own article, that a third of academies have seen their results fall.
Much is made of Ms Birbalsingh having taught for over a decade by the Telegraph as if this gives her some kind of special insight. Unfortunately the vision that has been borne out of Ms Birbalsingh’s relatively short time at the chalk face in comparison with many, is a vision that is unlikely to be shared by the majority of the parent and school-age population.
Twenty-three years in education has taught me that children and young people of all backgrounds can achieve and gain a thirst for learning without such humiliating tactics as posting their test results on walls for all to see, or pitching them into some kind of reality-TV-style competition to beat each other to the top grades. It takes good teaching, which is at once an art and a science, and cannot be reduced to a handful of simplistic behaviourist tricks that sacrifice the self-esteem of many children and brands them ‘losers’ to use Ms Birbalsingh’s own choice of terminology. This is the 21st century Ms Birbalsingh, not Victorian Britain. Some parents may well be drawn to your ‘tough talk’ on education but many will also see through its naivety.
As a parent who is very content with the education my children have received and are receiving in the state education system, Ms Birbalsingh’s vision falls far short of what I would expect for my own and others’ children. She should also know better than to selectively cite research to support her argument second hand via Toby Young. It might convince some, but not many.