Some time back I recommended my favourite British education blogs. (This seems to have been the kiss of death and only two of them continued to post regularly after I mentioned them.)
One of them was “To Miss With Love”, a blog by an assistant headteacher (with the pen-name “Snuffy”) which mainly through anecdotes, described the lunacy of what goes on in schools. Clever, touching and funny, it was probably the best of all the blogs written by teachers. The only issue I ever had with it (and I’m sure I didn’t make that big a deal about it, although Snuffy did once write a post about me claiming I had “driven her mad”) was over some of the politics, although even then it was more often with many of the people writing comments than with Snuffy herself.
A while ago regular blog posts ceased and then, after a long hiatus, Snuffy returned briefly to say she had become a deputy headteacher at a new school before disappearing again leaving a cryptic comment suggesting people should look out for her opinions somewhere else.
For this reason I wasn’t completely surprised when a few days later I heard about this:
I was rather impressed, which is not something I often say about speeches at Conservative Party conference. Snuffy, or rather Katharine Birbalsingh, is absolutely accurate in describing :
- a broken system which “keeps poor children poor”;
- ridiculous excuses for poor behaviour and low standards;
- dumbing down so blatant that even children can spot it;
- grade chasing, bureaucracy and a lack of structure and discipline;
But I still have issues with the politics. Katharine’s account, and it is not an uncommon one among Tories, is that the madness of the system is the result of an amorphous entity known as “The Left”. This seems to encompass Marxists, liberals, all wings of the Labour Party (particularly Labour ministers between 1997 and 2010) and almost all teachers.
My objection is not to the idea that Labour ministers bear responsibility for what’s happened during the last 13 years, or to the idea that much of the problems we face in schools are a result of ideology and often ideology of a left-wing hue. My objection is that it is a ridiculous simplification. Even if we ignore aspects of the mess (OFSTED, dumbing down, league tables, bureaucratic funding mechanisms) that blatantly date back to the 18 years of Conservative government before 1997, or the role of more recent Conservative politicians in local government (most of my career has been in schools in Tory run local authorities) we’d still struggle to identify a unified “Left” on which to blame everything else. It is only on the most extreme right-wing fringes of politics where Tony Blair is a noted left-winger promoting a Marxist agenda. The bile much of “the Left” has for Blair is legendary, and in the days before Iraq most of that hatred seemed to be mainly over education. It is pretty hard to find much ideological unity between Blunkett and Balls, the Labour government’s first and last education ministers, let alone consensus across a much wider left-wing constituency.
However, the idea that a speech at Conservative Party conference might not accurately reflect the shades of opinion within the Labour Party, or within the wider left, is not really shocking or anything to worry about. What concerns me is not that Labour politicians get the blame (what happened in schools from 1997-2010 was their responsibility even if it wasn’t necessarily the result of a deep-seated ideological agenda) but the way in which teachers get the blame. According to the speech the problem is that teachers are “blinded by leftist ideology” with a “loyalty to the left”.
This is not my experience. My experience is of teachers who will not take industrial action that their own union has voted for. My experience is of teachers who send their children to private schools and grammar schools. My experience is of managers who are utterly unconcerned about racism and homophobia in their schools. My experience is of a wide range of views among teachers and managers, with complete political apathy and a general disinterest in politics being the most common attitudes.
But even if my experience is not a common one, I would still worry about the picture being painted. In this picture we don’t have to worry that managers are incompetent, dishonest or unable to lead if they aren’t left-wing. In this picture we don’t have to worry about pseudo-scientific teaching methods that don’t work, or paperwork that overwhelms us, if the initiatives they stem from don’t seem particularly ideological. In this picture we don’t have to hold people to account for their actions, only their beliefs. It is a McCarthyist picture where the problem is Reds rather then heads. In reality it is not the case that everyone who has screwed up education is on the political left and everyone who has ever stood up for the kids is a card-carrying Tory. Efforts to distort debate in this way are an obstacle to genuine change. We need a coalition of the sane, not political polarisation.
One additional point: reports indicate Katharine has left her job. Details are sketchy but it is hard to imagine her school haven’t forced her out. If so, they should be condemned (although efforts in some corners of the blogosphere to paint this as the actions of a Blairite conspiracy have been frankly insane). I hope she gets back into teaching as soon as possible. Her passion and commitment to teaching shone through her every blog post. The blogosphere is a much poorer place without Snuffy, but I suspect that this pales into comparison with the extent to which classrooms are a much poorer place without Ms Birbalsingh.