ABC TV Lateline
Reporter: Ali Moore
UK teacher and author Katharine Birbalsingh sparked a fierce debate when she criticised Britain’s state education system as failing many of its students.
ALI MOORE, PRESENTER: Now to our guest tonight, the UK teacher and author Katharine Birbalsingh.
Ms Birbalsingh made headlines last year when, in a speech to the Conservative Party conference, she denounced Britain’s state education system as failing many of the students it was supposed to support.
In particular, she has taken issue with a system that, she says, demands that all must have prizes, lacks discipline and stymies a teacher’s ability to teach.
Her forceful opinion set off a fierce debate in Britain, that’s resonated in this country. Katharine Birbalsingh has published a book called To Miss With Love, a diary based on her own blog about teaching in inner city London.
She is in Australia as a guest of the Sydney Institute and she joins us now in the studio. Katharine Birbalsingh, thank you for coming on Lateline.
To Miss With Love paints a truly extraordinary picture of, I guess, what is a range of schools, because it’s amalgam of all your experiences. Is it really as bad as the picture you paint, or was there selective editing to make a point?
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH, TEACHER & AUTHOR: I would argue that it’s far worse, actually. The book was meant to be anonymous originally. And when my name came out and so on at the Conservative Party conference, we actually had to cut many scenes for legal reasons – and even then, when I was writing it originally, I was being selective in keeping the worst stories to myself.
ALI MOORE: Well, what’s “worst”? I mean, you have violence, you have defiance, extraordinary rudeness, children who are completely out of control.
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Yes, well, I don’t know – conversations with children about STDs, pregnancies, that kind of thing. We cut – it can get much worse than what’s in the book.
Also, you don’t get the daily sense in the book of the kind of the real challenges that teachers have, because it would be boring to see that happening over and over and over again. I would say … well, I know the schools that I’ve been in – where I base these stories on – they’re good schools.
And there are many schools in Britain that are far worse than the school portrayed in my book. Teachers read the book, and teachers have said to me, “But no, it’s worse than this. You’re not showing the real gang culture in the corridors and things like this”, is what they say to me. It can be worse. That doesn’t mean all our schools are like this – there are some schools that are far better.
ALI MOORE: Is this the bottom 10 per cent, the average school, what is this?
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Well as I say in the book, this school in the book is considered to be good with outstanding features according to our inspectors, and outstanding is the top.
So, this is kind of not the top, but not too far from the top. So, I would argue that our standards are so low these days about what we expect from our public education system that, you know, if children sit quiet for a few minutes in their chairs and manage to learn something, we’re kind of pleased with ourselves; or if the children turn up to school at all, we’re happy.
And, I believe schooling ought to stimulate social mobility. The whole point about going to school is you’re able, as teachers, to transform the lives of children, and take our working-class children, our disadvantaged children, the ones who want to change their stars and enable them to do so.
At the moment in Britain, 17 per cent of our 15-year-olds are functionally illiterate. Nearly one fifth of our children cannot look up a word in the dictionary, and write a CV to apply for a job.
ALI MOORE: So what broke the education system?
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Well, I wouldn’t say it was one thing. And certainly recently we’ve seen in our riots across the country just how bad the situation is.
ALI MOORE: How much of that do you put back to the education system?
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: An enormous amount. I mean, clearly families have something to do with it. And I think there has been a breakdown of authority – both at home and also in our schools. The idea of adults asking children to do something and expecting them to do it – we’ve almost lost that.
When you talk about the prizes for all culture, that’s a real problem. Everyone gets a gold star, no matter what you’ve done. There’s no sense of a child … one child winning and another child losing. And yet in sport, we’re quite happy with it. Of course, when children run a race we understand that somebody must win and somebody must lose. Yet in the academic classroom, we somehow shy away from that.
And children want instant gratification. They see this because they watch MTV – there is a gangster lifestyle that can become quite cool and they want the fast cars and the bling and the women. And they want that quickly, for not doing much. And the riots were a bit of a symbol of that.
ALI MOORE: It’s amazing, because really what you’re talking about there is connected to another, very depressing, part of the book and that is the fact that there’s really almost a total lack of ambition.
That, as you say, they get their sense of self from their belief that they’re harder off – worse off than anyone else – but that’s not matched by a sense of ambition.
Is that tied to never making a child responsible for their own actions, because you have to be responsible for your own actions to believe you can change things?
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Yes, well, I wouldn’t say they were without ambition. They do want to become footballers.
ALI MOORE: Yes, that was the overwhelming… yes.
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Yes, but the idea of working hard and planning for the future long term and understanding that you need to get a certain qualification and have an ordered lifestyle and so on to get somewhere – unfortunately our media and our Hollywood films and all of that works against teachers in many ways.
So it’s not just about schools. It’s about our culture, generally. It’s about the size of our cities. It’s about a whole number of different things.
But people often ask me, why is it that you are critical of schools? I think, in order to change something, we need to look at our schools. I can’t change the families. I can’t change MTV. MTV is always going to be aired on television.
But what I can do is work within the school system to make that tighter, and to insist on high standards of discipline and teaching our children properly in a more traditional fashion.
ALI MOORE: It’s interesting you say “a more traditional fashion”, because you were under pressure, at times, to constantly entertain – to really mould your teaching to how they learn rather than the other way around.
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Absolutely.
ALI MOORE: But how easy is it to change things within the confines of a school system?
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Well, as a teacher, one can do something. As a school leader – principal, assistant principal and so on – you can do quite a lot.
I think what we need to do is change our culture around that. Like you said, the expectations of teachers are often they’re being judged on whether or not the child is engaged. And if the child is looking around, well that’s the teacher’s fault.
When actually we should be saying, “No it’s the child’s fault”. And it’s not the teacher’s job to be a clown entertaining them. It’s the teacher’s job to try to pull them out of their comfort zone and do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.
So yes, you might want to have a fun lesson where you’re doing maths on Nintendo’s and that’s fine once in a while. But that shouldn’t be the norm. Sometimes doing boring things teaches us skills that you need later on in life.
ALI MOORE: That sounds wonderful in theory, but if you have, say, just six of the children mentioned in your book in your class and you’re trying to teach one of the these lessons, well first of all you’ve got to get them to sit down. How do you approach that, particularly in this environment where “discipline” almost seems to be a dirty word?
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Well, it can be done, and if you hold your standards high … you know, I used to teach French – which, of course, is very academic. Very hard and so on. And I would have bottom sets full of boys who, you know, literally would be stealing mobile phones on the weekends, and yet they’d be chanting back their French verbs to me and they loved it.
If you hold your standards high and believe in the children, and then make sure that you jump on them for small things – you know, “Your tie isn’t at the top, it needs to go to the top now” – and you insist on it, children go to school to learn.
Children push, and we should push back. That’s our role as adults. And any parent out there will know that when they say to their child, “No”, and they mean it, then their child will stop because they expect that from us. Too often, we’re a bit too laid back about it and we say, “Well, you know, let them get away with this” and “Let’s give them a prize for that” and “Well done”, even though he hasn’t really done much.
And what that does is erodes the child’s sense of self. We think they’re building his sense of self, when in fact we’re doing exactly the opposite.
ALI MOORE: You sort of answered my next question, because one of the things about the way you teach that seemed interesting to me was that you do pick on the small things – take the earring out of your nose, get rid of that gum, go home because you’ve got the wrong shoes on. I would’ve thought you’d almost just want to pick your battles, as people say? Leave the small things.
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: No, no no no. That’s why uniform and so on is so important. Because children will always rebel. So, what you want them to do is to have a uniform that they can rebel with. So they feel like they’re being really cool and naughty by pulling their tie down. And then you can get upset with them: “Pull the tie up”.
When they see you walking down the corridor, they say, “Miss is coming, Miss is coming, put my tie up”. If you don’t have that, then what happens is they rebel by bringing knives into school.
You need to have the order around the small things – and parents, it’s the same thing at home. Have structure. Not allow them to sit in front of television for hours, not allow them to eat anything they want.
ALI MOORE: But they’re completely different to the parents you dealt with, who you would ring up to tell them about their child and they would absolutely abuse you, and say, “Stop picking on my child, what right do you have? They don’t have to wear the right shoes, they can chew gum.”
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Yes, absolutely. And unfortunately, this isn’t just the more working-class parents. Some middle class parents unfortunately can behave in that fashion. And parents don’t realise how they’re undermining their own children by fighting with the school.
ALI MOORE: Do you believe in benchmarking children – and by that I mean letting them know where they are in the class?
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Yes, absolutely. It’s one of the things, again, that’s considered taboo, that children shouldn’t know – and they always ask, who came first, who came second? They want to know how they’re doing. And so often they have no idea.
And, one of the concerns I have for children – in particular in our inner cities – is that all they know is what’s happening in their classroom. They don’t know what’s happening in the schools next door. In the private schools. They have no idea what the competition is like.
So when they finally leave school, they’re in real shock. Because they’re suddenly surrounded by children who have been taught in ways and who have learnt things that they have never had that privilege to be able to do. And if they’d known that from the start, then perhaps they would’ve worked harder. But there’s too much cotton wool around them. Children are resilient.
ALI MOORE: Interesting though, because in this country we do have national testing in three years, over a period of time, so they can benchmark against the state and against their own school …
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Yes.
ALI MOORE: …and that gives an idea. But I wonder, is it… on the plus side of children wanting to know where they sit in relation to their class, how do you deal with someone who tries really hard and is constantly bottom? I mean, at some point if you keep telling them where they are they’ll give up?
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Well, I don’t know about that. First of all the children … it’s funny, people seem to think if you don’t tell them where they are, they will be alright, they don’t know.
They’re not that stupid. They know – if they’re failing at something, it doesn’t need you to tell them. They know that they’re not understanding it. They know that they’re at the bottom. So, not telling all of the children in the class does not help the ones at the bottom. It helps no-one.
And, in fact, I would argue that those at the bottom even – when they’re working hard and they get to second from the bottom or third from the bottom then they manage here in English, but maybe not so much in science, they know where they’re doing better and how they’re improving.
It’s very difficult when you’re kind of working in a sense of blindness. But we do have kind of national testing and so on.
But the thing is, is that because our exams have been so dumbed down over the years? It almost becomes a nonsense. And so many children are coming out with As and they don’t realise that in the private sectors, they don’t even use those standard exams any more. They use a whole different set of exams because they’ve become so easy. It’s just not challenging enough.
ALI MOORE: I know that you visited some schools in Sydney today. Do you have a perspective on the Australian system? Do you see anything that you’ve seen in the UK reflected here?
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Well, I think all over the Western World – I visited many schools all over the place – and I think that there are similar trends everywhere. That we have this tendency to move towards what’s kind of fashionable and what we consider innovative, and we reject tradition in thinking that that’s “old fashioned” and “fuddy-duddy”.
And so we want to teach children more skills instead of knowledge, and so on. And it’s not to say that skills aren’t important, but when you teach knowledge, skills necessarily are part of that. When you just teach skills we often forget about the knowledge.
And then as you would’ve read in my book, you know, you’ve got situations where children don’t know, literally, who Winston Churchill is, and they think he was a dog on an insurance ad which is on television in the UK. So I think it’s really important that we not forget about tradition, and from what I see in Australia … I mean clearly, you don’t have any – most – of the issues, frankly, that we have in Britain, but I do think there’s always a danger in our Western societies to move down that route, and I think that the Australians would do well to look at Britain and learn from our mistakes, and make sure you don’t go down that route too.
ALI MOORE: Indeed, it’s a bugbear of one of our vice chancellors, with that very issue of really learning wisdom. And we learn skills, we teach skills, but do we teach the getting of wisdom?
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: That’s an important thing, and honestly, when you think about our top private schools – Eton and Harrow and Westminster and so on – in Britain, they don’t do that.
So we need to wonder – when 50 per cent of our Parliament has been privately educated in Britain, when only 7 per cent of our population is privately educated – we need to start questioning and thinking, why is the state system teaching everything in a very different manner to the way in which the private system does, if the private system serves its children so well?
ALI MOORE: Katherine Birbalsingh, so much to… I suppose thought for argument and for discussion. Many thanks for coming on the program tonight.
KATHARINE BIRBALSINGH: Thank you for having me.
Original transcript here