Katharine
Birbalsingh, the author of this revealing and disturbing book, came to
prominence at the last Conservative Party Conference in which she attacked the
teaching and standards in state schools in the UK. As a result, she lost her
job as an English teacher in a London comprehensive. Subsequently she began a
lively blog about the tribulations of modern state educational theory and
practice – and found time to write this revealing, autobiographical ‘diary’ of
a typical school year.

Written
semi-humorously – perhaps to disguise her sense of despair at what she has
witnessed in the classroom? – the book makes painful reading. It invites the
question: how could successive governments have so failed our children’s future?
 The author puts this failure firmly at
the door of the Department of Education with its rigid Left-wing, egalitarian
ideology. This has had a dire, knock-on effect on the way state schools are
run; she comments, “About half the schools in Britain are mixed ability [i.e.
unstreamed] and have no intention of ever changing.” Competition is frowned on,
even though, as she observes, “Children want competition: to know where they
are in class and where everybody else comes.” The ideology is further
entrenched because “Lefties become [school] governors. Right-wingers do not.”

Birbalsingh,
herself a product of comprehensive education, and steered towards Cambridge by
an inspirational teacher, has clearly wanted to give the pupils in the state schools
she has taught at the same ambition and goals. In this she has been constantly
frustrated by a combination of the low educational standards expected of the
pupils, the absence of a proper system of punishments for bad behaviour and the
schools’ inspectorate’s demand that teachers must be seen to ‘perform’ in the
classroom rather than teach. At a pre-inspectorate meeting in her own school
staffroom, she actually heard the head teacher tell his staff: “We simply
cannot have a situation where teachers are teaching and children are
listening.”

The exam
boards, she explains, invent “easy” subjects and sell them to schools which
then get “easy” results. Five “C” grades at GCSE is the goal at “Ordinary
School” where she teaches; this is considered a “good” school compared with
“Basic School” and “Infamous School” nearby. Friends and colleagues prefer to
send their own children to private schools; the “sharp-elbowed” middle classes,
as David Cameron has described them, would not dream of sending their children
to the kind of schools the author teaches at –thus compounding the problem; you
cannot have truly comprehensive schooling if children from a variety of
backgrounds are not educated together. Birbalsingh watches polite and
conscientious 11-year-olds enter the secondary school system “and its
excruciating web of madness” and notes that within a couple of years they have
become sullen, aggressive, lazy and truanting.

To disguise
the identities of her subjects she has given them the names of humours and emotions:
“Seething”, “Furious”, “Beautiful” and so on. This can make them seem somewhat
one-dimensional, defined by their dominant personality traits, but it serves
its purpose. “Stoic” is the exception to the general rule; quiet, well-behaved,
hard-working, seemingly impervious to the mayhem around him. In conversation
with the author he tells her that, aged 11, he made a decision to work (and be
lonely) rather than to have friends and get into trouble.

On holiday
in Jamaica where her own parents live, Birbalsingh visits a private girls’
school. There are few of the facilities and equipment that her London school
boasts of, with its white boards and computers, but the ethos is entirely
different: disciplined and respectful pupils in a serious learning environment.
In a conversation with “Cent”, one of her troublesome rogues, the author learns
from him that in Nigeria, where his family has come from, discipline in school
is also enforced.

The author
is obviously a committed teacher herself, putting all her energy and long hours
into trying to help her students, whom she deeply cares for, “make something
better of their lives.” Yet she feels impotent to change the system. Most of
her colleagues talk only of “survival”; fights happen all the time between
pupils, occasionally resulting in hospitalisation. Although seeming mentally and
emotionally tough, she confesses to relief that a parent, who has come to the
school to discuss her son’s bad behaviour, “isn’t going to hit me.”

Reflecting
on all the problems in the educational system, the author concludes, “The
eradication of the old-school teacher is the single most destructive
‘improvement’ that is taking place in our schools today.” By this she means
teachers actually teaching – rather than entertaining and containing their
classes – and pupils capable of listening and learning. The Coalition
Government is currently trying to tackle the abysmal situation described in
this book, with the Education Minister, Michael Gove, taking on the teacher’s
union. The question is, will he succeed?

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in
the UK.