A popular vision for inner city schooling?

Keith Turvey's picture
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.
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Ian Taylor's picture
Sat, 25/06/2011 - 18:14

http://t.co/lTjpPzA http://t.co/kxsgcsR
I found this information on Free Schools to be worth a read.

The first is in response to Ms Birbalsingh's Telegraph blog.

The second is concerning a visit to Sweden where Free Schools operate. Up till now I had not seen anything from anyone who had actually been to Sweden and then commented on the schools.

When I asked my neighbour, she had not heard of Free Schools at all, and did not know about the change to Academies. My worry is that the general population has no idea about what is being done to their education system. People in education are aware. Citizens in places where there are school changes will be aware.

I remain frustrated that messages about the changes are not being widely debated openly with the population as a whole, with accurate information for and against. This does not seem to be a good example of democracy in action. We can share frustration on LSN but how do we involve the general public?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 06:47

Ian is correct - Government education policy is not being discussed properly. The warnings were there as soon as the Co-alition took power. The Academies Bill was rushed through Parliament with undue haste, and Mr Gove had written to local authorities even before the Bill was passed. Then the Government propaganda machine began: the overhaul of the Department for Education website (all stuff relating to the previous Government's policies was sent to the National Archives), the airbrushing out of community (local authority maintained) schools, and the marketing of free schools and academies. Then the Secretary of State for Education misinformed the public by using data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which the OECD warned was faulty and should not be used for comparison purposes. And he persisted with this misuse even after his distortion was made public before Christmas 2010.


Many secondary schools rushed to convert to academy status because they thought they would get more money. However, consultation was often little more than a letter biased in favour of conversion. Parents trust headteachers - where I live there was no opposition. However, when parents realise the downsides: that the attention of heads is on administration and legal functions rather than on educating their children, that the supposed financial advantage don't materialise (and may even be a disadvantage as in the case of the licences for IT), and that if parents with unresolved complaints about an academy discover they can't go to the local authority but must appeal to the Secretary of State, and that the right of appeal to the local authority was withdrawn from them with no warning, then I think parents are going to be very annoyed. Add to that the possibility that heads will buy-in to an academy chain which could lead to their having less autonomy than they did before conversion, and money being diverted from the schools to the chain's remote head office, then, again, parents are going to be angry.

But it will be too late. Academies can't rescind their status until seven years have passed by which time the support systems offered by local authorities will have long disappeared.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 07:23

I've just read the second link, Ian, it was most informative. Perhaps the most illuminating aspect was the author's rebuttal of the arguments put forward by Toby Young in his comment below the piece. The author regretted that Young hadn't provided links to the copious amount of research he cited but, nevertheless, s/he managed to track down most of them, although one was on Swedish so the author had to ask if there was a translation, and another couldn't be found.

Young also cited the latest LSE report about the academy effect which on neighbouring, non-academy schools. However, Young didn't mention that the LSE researchers said more time was needed to assess the academy effect fully. Neither did Young mention the Civitas report which advised the last Government to halt the academy programme until it was known whether the rise in GCSE results could be attributed to pupils having been entered for easier exams.


Sarah Dobbs's picture
Sat, 25/06/2011 - 18:31

Lets line up 100 parents and asked who they would want to teach their kids after reading the two blogs.
Who would win......?

Matthew Pearson's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 09:07

Thanks to people for taking the time to read the extended comment I had to append to Toby Young's comment on my blog which actually took longer to research and write than the blog itself. He actually cut and pasted the same comment underneath the piece on Swedish Free Schools and the lack of evidence that they make a significant difference to educational achievement, and the rather more direct piece aimed at Birbalsingh's latest Daily Telegraph sponsored blog posting, where she cited Toby Young as an authority on the free and charter school model.
One interesting thing here is that I don't want to set up a school, in fact I find the idea that any group can apply and set up a school and receive public funding for it (thus diverting money away from existing state schools which are open), a repellent idea. I guess I'm in good company here in thinking that :-)
But if we are going to have free schools and the coalition seems intent on following this policy through, along with an insanely accelerated programme of academisation, then at least we can hold the supporters of these policies (from Gove and Gibb downwards) to account when they fail to provide solid evidence for their claims.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 09:29

Much of the claims made by them is unsupported by evidence and if they do, it is highly selective. In this respect they are doing just as Michael Gove does, when he promotes the Swedish and American models as successful examples, and indeed inspirations for, schools reform. Another one of their claims is that "most people want it" but the problem with this is statistics proving this are unreliable and unfortunately many people do not understand how Free Schools are set up and what problems may occur further down the line with respect to admissions, complaints procedures, help from the local authority. When I spoke to some parents last week about Free Schools, none of them were aware that they were independent of the LA. With so much concealed compared with the grandiose claims by my Free Schools founders, it would not be surprise if parents were indeed swept along by the rhetoric of a false Messiah

Keith Turvey's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 07:56

Yes I agree Janet, Matt Pearson's response to Toby Young's rather slapdash use of research is excellent.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 08:08

Whlist I think Keith is right about a growing backlash, there are still many people who, though not supportive of the policies per se, accept both the status quo and the rhetoric that the government and Academies are feeding them. It is intoxicating to be told the government has the answers to our "broken" school system, that they are guaranteeing excellence, that there is to be no more excuses for failure, that red tape is being cut, that there will be no more "dumbing down" and rigour and discipline will return to the classroom. Faced with huge choices about which school to send your child to in your local area, exhausted with the daily demands of life, and besieged on every side with talk of Academies, parents will veer towards them, especially if local choice is being reduced by the dominance of Academies.

What is still not being communicated effectively enough is what regular readers and contributors to site like this already know about the negative and dangerous influences that these new types of school can bring not just into the classroom (including, I am certain of, free market freeloaders) but into communities and society in general.

The pace of reform has been staggeringly fast and protest and reaction has been slow, with the result that the coalition have had an advantage in spinning their education policies. But it is certainly not too late and what has been really encouraging is to see, even on this site, how more and more people are questioning or opposing the reforms, setting up effective local and national anti-reform campaigns, taking the government and Academy supporters to task, exposing the untruths propagated by the coalition and their lapdogs such as Toby Young and Katherine Birbalsingh, warning of the likely consequences of these reforms. And articulated by people with a well rounded perspective of education issues and who bring the rigour of evidence based research into their arguments.

I see this opposition being further harnessed and supported by more and more people who are beginning to question the longer term effects of these reforms. Politically, there is no doubt that the opposition have to challenge these policies and do so very publicly. The mainstream media should be doing more to reflect the growing discontent.

There is a huge amount of dishonesty behind these reforms and the way they are being promoted. The faster more people hear about them and understand the implications, the better the chances of defeating at least some of these policies.

Keith Turvey's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 09:42

Yes good points Allan. There's so much difference between Labour's setting up of academies to target deprived communities and the coalition's ideologically driven agenda to bring schools under central control whilst also leaving them exposed to the free market freeloaders. It would be good to see Labour exploit this. Essentially, I think Labour need to state their position on this and start building their case. They have to admit that LAs didn't always get thinks right but that local directly accountable structures are still the best way to manage education for all. I think people would be sympathetic to this argument. Labour need to seize on the success stories of locally governed schools such as inter-school sports, peripatetic music services for all and so on.

Keith Turvey's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 10:22

Also meant to add....whilst admissions under Labour's education policies didn't swing the tide of social segregation in the schooling system the pace perhaps wasn't as rapid as it could become if the increasing number of academies and free schools take up their new found freedoms to with regards determining their own admissions procedures. Gove's legislation to allow schools to reserve places for poorer students could well be no more than a smoke screen. How many will make use of this I wonder?

Rosemary Mann's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 15:02

I really do not understand the media's obsession with this woman and how she is perceived to be qualified to start up and run a school, which she is currently trying to do in Inner London. She has been teaching for 10 years; so what- most teachers have been doing it much longer than her. It doesn't signify an entitlement to dismiss the entire state education system which she has been doing. And I thought she was discredited anyway following a dismissal? So on whose authority is this person stating what should happen in state education?

I am a parent of a preschooler who is starting school this autumn. I don't pretend to be an expert on educational matters. What I do have however is a great deal of work experience and an ability to see through the marketing speak that seems to follow people like Ms Birbalsingh. Last week I went to my daughters introductory afternoon at her new school. This is run by a headteacher and senior management team of considerable experience. When he said why he thought things should be a certain way there was no doubt that this was experience talking and even though I may have thought otherwise I have/had no difficulty in deciding to accept his position. What was good about this headteacher is that he commands respect amongst staff, parents and pupils alike. He may not be a tub thumping superhead and probably doesn't get much of a media splash but he does convince me of his schools ability to give my child a fantastic education. The consistently excellent Ofsted ratings and chorus of parental approval in the community make me certain of that.

I would run a mile from heads like Ms Birbalsingh who clearly don't have the experience or to be honest the professional credibility to convince me that their school would last more than a day without the parents revolting and removing their children or the staff walking out due to unrealistic expectations and lousy treatment. The more I read about her and her ideas, the less she seems to be able to offer.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 17:19

To be fair to the media, I think Birbalsingh has had her fair share of direct robust criticism, at least in the print media (much more than Michael Gove, actuallty), where she can often come over as infuriating. Her unbridled histrionics don't seem the ideal qualities for a school leader, but I think what is really damning is her belief that an openly aggressive, outspoken and competitive persona are the best qualities with which to prove her suitability to run a school. Like Toby Young, her reluctance or inability to separate her private and her public persona does little to find common ground is a diverse but inclusive school community. Ultimately, she is offputting and a disgrace to her profession and not even because of her politics and ideology but because of her utter lack of professionalism in the way she conducts herself.

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