The other day Girl’s class found themselves with time to spare in the vast play area behind the Imperial War Museum.
The other day Girl’s class found themselves with time to spare in the vast play area behind the Imperial War Museum. The children looked wistfully at the swings, roundabouts and climbing frames. ‘I’m not sure we can go there,’ said the teacher. ‘I haven’t filled in a risk assessment form.’
Stories like this explain why I almost never go into Girl’s primary school these days. I can just about do those gourmet PTA fundraiser evenings where you stand around eating high-grade sausages and drinking chilled Czech beer, congratulating yourself on how aspirational and nicely spoken your fellow parents are. What I can’t bear, though, is anything that gives me the slightest inkling of what really goes on in the course of Girl’s school day. The truth just makes me want to go postal.
Sometimes, because she knows how to gladden Daddy’s heart, Girl will tell me anyway. ‘Guess what we did in PE today, Dad? We did recycling.’ I don’t believe her. No school could be that PC. But then Girl demonstrates how she was taught to bend first her neck, then fold in her arms, then bend at the waist, in imitation of a cardboard box being prepared for dispatch in a recycling bin.
On another day, she came back rejoicing over the ‘best news ever’. She had been about to have a half-hour health-and-safety lesson on the correct use of craft-making materials when, miraculously, she’d been rescued by a recorder lesson. ‘It would only have been crap like: “Don’t hold the glue gun at the hot end”, and “Don’t poke your eye out”,’ said Girl.
It is customary at this point to say that none of this is the fault of the teachers, who are ferociously dedicated to giving our kids the best education imaginable but are hamstrung by The System. But I’m not sure that this is true. I remember raising with one of Girl’s teachers a bête-noir of mine: that you’re never actually told how well your child is performing relative to the other kids in the class, merely according to bollocks ‘personal targets’ like ‘I will write more neatly’. And this teacher — one of the best Girl had ever had — seemed genuinely to believe that such a system would discriminate unfairly against the lazy, thick-as-pigshit kids. (This may not have been quite the phrase she used.)
Katharine Birbalsingh describes a similar scene in her new book To Miss With Love, recounting her experiences as a teacher in an inner-city state school. A colleague’s proposal that pupils should have their performances graded is greeted in the staff room with Batemanesque horror. (‘Sorry, Miss Sensible,’ interrupts the head of science. ‘I think you mean “students”. As Mr Goodheart has explained, “pupils” is far too patronising a term.’) Yet when Birbalsingh consults her ‘students’ on whether they’d like their work marked and ranked, most say they would. It’s not kids who are frightened of having their precious self-esteem damaged by the horrors of competition — it’s the progressives who have hijacked our education system.
There’s nothing in Birbalsingh’s book that most of us didn’t suspect: ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’, the ‘all shall have prizes’ ethos, the Ofsted inspectors who mark down teachers who actually teach. But the advantage Birbalsingh has over, say, Melanie Phillips or Chris Woodhead is that she’s a left-leaning teacher of Guyanan extraction. Her testimony has all the impact of a former mafia hitman breaking omertà at a capo’s trial.
Before To Miss With Love, parents could still delude themselves — perhaps using the ostrich ‘never ask your kid what they’ve been up to at school’ technique outlined above — that the state system offered a more or less acceptable alternative to the private sector. It wasn’t quite in the same league, as you could see from the Oxbridge intake. But still, it exposed kids to a ‘broad social mix’, enabled them to grow up ‘balanced’ and without the pressure of ‘hothousing’, and probably gave them a better all-round preparation for modern Britain than all those snobby, expensive places with tailcoats and boaters.
Birbalsingh has killed that bien-pensant fantasy stone dead. What she shows is that it’s not just a few dodgy sink schools and a minority of rubbish teachers at fault but the entire rotten system. It’s like a once-healthy creature which has been taken over by a hideous parasite, leeching every bit of energy and purpose from its body, sucking out its brain. Even if you are a good teacher (and there are plenty of them); even if you are in a nice catchment area with a splendid PTA; even if you have spiffy new buildings and surviving playing fields; even then the most you can hope for is second best, because you are working within a ‘progressive’ ethos which, by its very nature, promotes mediocrity over excellence.
This is why Birbalsingh is so hated by so many of her former colleagues. One, the anti-Gove-reform campaigner Francis Gilbert, has gone so far as to imply on his blog that because her last school’s Ofsted report rated it ‘good with outstanding features’, Birbal-singh must have been lying to exaggerate her case. I wonder if Gilbert has come across the phrase ‘shoot the messenger’. Or, if he knows what an ‘argumentum ad verecundiam’ is.
Britain’s state school system is a conspiracy against the public on an epic scale. Over a period of at least three decades, generations of children have been sacrificed on the altar of an entrenched ideology which — in the name of ‘progressive’ values — has successfully removed from a once-functioning system every last vestige of rigour, discipline, aspiration and competition. Thanks, Miss Snuffy, for telling it like it is.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 2, 2011