October 25, 2010

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.



  1. Excellent points Andrew and you’ve summed up my opinions on her quite succinctly. Whatever happens/has happened/will happen Snuffy was an excellent and commited teacher and teaching needs her. I think she’s back in post (or so I read somewhere) which is great news if she is.

    There is a problem with all this though and it is entirely political. Because Snuffy has gone so partizan, because she’s nailed her colours to the Conservative mast her excellent points can (and have been) either entirely ignored or demolished as the rantings of an overzealous Tory. What struck me is that the coverage of this story was pretty much restricted to an article here and there. Even the Guardian who now have comment and live blogs every day about a footballer’s efforts to get a better contract didn’t open a comment thread about it. Labour and ‘the left’ can ignore her and dismiss her straight away while ‘the Tories’ and the right can blame the left and not do anything about it.

    Snuffy’s speech should have caused shockwaves through education and worked as a wake up call to everyone. Instead it has just become another part of the constant games played by the main parties of Westminster.

  2. You hitthe nail on the headyet again. Sad to say your blog remind me why I am an ex-teacher, I still sometimes feel bereft but there you go.

    Just one point of crtiticism though OA. I was startled to see Melanie Phillips” All must win Prizes amongst your recommended books. If anyone has worked harder to denigrate the profession with the haory old “Reds not Heads” myth, it is Melanie with her strident agressive tone. In a recent daily Mail article she referred to the “Unsackable Profession”.

    Its because of the likes of her I switched political allegience and voted Labour in 1997. Only to be bitterly disappointed when “Name and Shame” Byers took office.

    • All I can say is that the book was written back when she was writing for the Observer not the Daily Mail and did say a number of things that I think were very accurate. As I recall the only thing that annoyed me at the time I read it (and I probably should reread it) was the defence of grammar schools.

      I don’t neccessary endorse anything she has said since.

      • I give credit to Ms Phillips’ “All Must Have Prizes” for forcing me to slaughter my sacred progressive cows. It’s the only book of hers I’ve read.

  3. This ‘blame the Left’ notion has always perplexed me. A great number of the barmy notions about how schools and teachers should work have originated in the USA. And it’s mostly been driven by the politics of starving schools of funds – mainly but not always by rightwing ideologies (right-wing by non US standards, that is.)

    Even though Oz and UK schools are not funded the same way, the ideas have percolated through the education faculties and into the literature. Probably because the USA institutions aren’t fully aware of how their approaches are coloured by their circumstances, they treat the ideas as being universal rather than culture driven.

    (I used to have a couple of really good examples of this but my brain’s in cottonwool mode at the moment.)

  4. Glad to read somebody defending teachers. Sometimes I read about bad discipline and it almost sounds as if the teachers are being blamed: as if it was their fault or as if they were encouraging it. I always want to remind people that if a class is badly behaved it is the teacher who bears the brunt of it. First through the stress of trying to control the group and then they often spend their evenings blaming themselves and worrying about the pupils (who have probably forgotten all about the teacher as soon as they walked out the door)

    • Looking at what I said about teachers in this post, some of it is some of the harshest things I have ever said about the profession.

      But I guess that is still far more positive than the suggestion that teachers are some kind of leftist mafia too blinded by dogma to care about children. Some of the reactions to this story on blogs and newspaper websites are truly scary.

    • Which shows that nothing is going to get done really. Her points have been subsumed in the story of her personality and her politics. Not what she intended and not what she wanted.

  5. Snuffy wasn’t forced out, she resigned. If she hadn’t – literally – named and shamed at least one child none of this would ever have been a problem.

    • By “forced out” I meant “forced to resign”.

      (As opposed to “thrown out of the window” or whatever else you think I might have met.)

      Agreed her actions meant that they would have had the necessary leverage to get rid of her, but then that probably only means she was naïve not to realise they would try to get rid of her.

  6. Brilliant post oldandrew.

    Snuffy coming out as a Tory – a missed opportunity. I wasn’t too surprised, as soon as I heard there was a speech by a member of SLT at the conference I wondered was it her. However I was shocked that she was a Marxist at Oxford. Suddenly she sounds like a teenager herself swaying from one extreme to another unable to appreciate the subtleties of the middle ground. And with a woeful ignorance of the welfare system in Sweden.

  7. If you read Snuffy’s blog, her conversion to the Tory cause was a gradual thing, not an overnight switch. I read she plans to maybe teach in Sweden. From her blog, she appeared to bully her students quite a bit – like to see her try that in Sweden. If she tries to get a class of 16 year olds in Sweden to take their coats off before starting a lesson, they’ll walk out and tell her they will be back when she’s able to treat them with mutual respect.

    • I don’t know when I started reading Snuffy’s blog, at least from early 2008, but she was clearly Tory-inclined for the whole period that I read it.

      The “bullying” claim sounds like nonsense. I can’t comment on Swedish cultural norms, but keeping your coat on indoors is bad manners in this country, and in a school with a uniform policy it is inevitably breaking the rules.

  8. Teachers are seen as left-wing because of the coverage of confences and the antics of the delegates at these along with the mode of dress. Admittedly, it is not all delegates but the NUT and NASUWT do have more than their fair share of these. Of course the media focus on them. It is historical and the media has perpetuated this-it makes good copy – and has become an accepted ‘truth’. Those who come into contact with teachers on a frequent basis, in my experience as a primary teacher, recognise this media myth.
    However, a lot of education utterings from within the teaching profession has smacked of left-wing nonsense to many people over the years. Back in the late 70s/ 80s, many people saw left-wing, scruffy, bearded (even the females?) teachers as the norm.

    • Some of that is simply an inability to differentiate between trade union leaders, academics and classroom teachers; something the media seems far more able to do in the case of other professions with (more) leftwing unions like firefighters or civil servants.

      That said I’m not really sure that what bothers me is that teachers are seen as left-wing. What bothers me is that this narrative is then used to swamp the actual education issues and even actual ideological conflicts, which are rarely of a simple left/right nature.

  9. i thought her speech outstanding.
    i am fairly unpolitical myself so have no comments on the left/right thing.
    she did paint a slightly simplistic picture- but one has to when public speaking like that i guess.
    i actually think it will make a difference- most parents I speak to are in agreement with many of her points
    it could be a major vote winner I suppose.
    Myself i like the bit about exams- why indeed can we NOT examine kids at the end of the year?

  10. Well I’ve just watched her on Newsnight. She thinks that getting put into special measures is “fantastic” because you get “lots of help”.

    Her article in today’s telegraph she says “We should not be surprised by Ofsted’s claim that teaching standards are not good enough in half of secondary schools”

    When actually OFSTED informed us that teaching is satisfactory or better in 92%of Secondaries. She has of course jumped on to the Orwellian bandwagon that says satisfactory =not good enough. I’m used to that form journos, politicians and chief inspectors. But from a former teacher?

    • Hang on, the OFSTED report declares: “Too much teaching in schools is still not good enough and does not deliver what we now expect of it”.

      I think Snuffy is wrong to blame teachers rather than managers, but she is not misrepresenting what OFSTED say. It is OFSTED who are being Orwellian by treating “stisfactory” as indicating a deficiency.

      Can’t agree with her on the Special Measures thing, although I have to admit that I have no experience of it (the worst I’ve seen is “notice to improve”) and I think she does.

  11. “It is OFSTED who are being Orwellian by treating “satisfactory” as indicating a deficiency.”

    Correct, they put a negative spin on their own evidence, and she happily concurs.


  12. I think your point about education conflicts and issues not being of a left/right nature is correct. It has just occurred to me that I became a labour sympathiser after a number of years in teaching where I got fed up with being labelled a lefty by the right and the right wing press. This may account for my antipathy to Mel Phillips which we discussed above. I voted Labour for the first time in 1997 after 8 years in the profession. Perhaps teachers political allegiances are informed by the mess politicians are making of the whole system during their formative professional years

    Snuffy has had her entire teaching career under Labour and therefore went the opposite way to me as a consequence. It may well be that had she started in 1989 she may well have rolled up alongside Blair in the 1990s.

    It took me two days after the ’97 election to realise that nothing was going to change when “Name and Shame” Byers got started on the teacher bashing front.

    Snuffy may well be just as disillusioned with the Tories come the next election and feel as I do that they are all interfering tossers. Unless of course she has by then carved out a new career for herself.

  13. andrew hit the nail on the head when he lays the blame on managers.
    i think ofsted are too kind- most schools are appalling. violence, disrespect, low standards are still rife.
    but its NOT the teachers fault in %99 of cases.
    the blame is parents and weak MLT and SLT.
    you can put all your crappy initiatives and targets and burn the lot.
    You just need senior teachers patrolling corridors and classrooms and taking back ownership of the school.
    simple rules- no negotiation- just simple rules
    1. put your hand up for permission to speak
    2. show courtesy (please and thank you is not middle class)
    3. no running in the corridor
    4. etc etc you know the rest
    get the basics right- then have a discussion about pedagogy

  14. Hi Old Andrew
    Only just reading this now. I have never thought half of the things you say in this blog post! As I just said to you on Twitter, I think you and I tend to agree, and I know you to be very much on the Left!

    I have to say that my experience of teachers (that includes the senior ones) is vastly different to yours. There are many teachers who will not speak to me because of my ‘treason’ in having sided to the Right. I have been told I will never work in the state sector again because of my betrayal in going over to the Dark Side… And it is true. I do think you are not seeing something in the teaching profession – something which is pernicious and wholly unhealthy that does not allow anyone to think outside the box.

    Having said that, of course poor management is a HUGE reason why schools are not as good as they could be. Did you see the footage of me at the Education Committee? Did you not hear me talk of the incompetence of senior teams and how they should be held to account?

    You seem only to see the failures of management teams and nothing else. The system fails for a number of reasons. I may only ever point to one reason at any given time, but I am pointing to them all one by one, and by no means do I think it will all be solved by everyone becoming right-wing.

    In fact, I am baffled by your interpretation of my thinking. I don’t remember you driving me mad ! HA HA.

    • I’m not sure I am “very much on the left”, but I do vote Labour.

      With regard to the left-wing leanings of teachers, I suppose as a member of SMT you might know more teachers who are of the generation who were teaching under the last Tory government, who I do think are more left-wing. There may also be a difference in London, but I really don’t see it myself.

      I haven’t watched your select committee performance yet, as I do try to watch the whole of the proceedings of the Education Select Committee from start to finish (sad I know, but I have once heard my blog being quoted) so finding time can be difficult. Also I am not sure I can cope with the views of two of the people you appeared alongside. Funnily enough it was two of the sources of quotations in this post: https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2008/09/14/the-bisected-teacher/

      You did say I had been driving you mad. It was in a post entitled “Oldandrew”.

      I am not only interested in the failings of management teams, but I do think that management at all levels is a major problem, thanks to the trend towards micro-management, the many layers of the system, and the performance management culture. I don’t believe that improvement is possible without the removal of a large part of the management structure in schools. There are too many managers, not enough leaders, making genuine change virtually impossible.

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