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“A child is supposed to love learning”

Katharine Birbalsingh made her name when she wowed the Conservative Party conference last October. H

Katharine Birbalsingh taught me when I was a year 8 in secondary school, in 1999. Just about all I can remember is that we called her "Ms Singh" and gave her a hard time. On the end-of-year French trip, she also helped some kids in my year get a French girl's number.

It came as a surprise, then, when I saw her name in the media recently. Around 12 years after she had been my teacher, I discovered that she had just released a book, To Miss With Love, about her experiences teaching in the state sector, and had even been invited by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to deliver a speech at the Conservative party conference last year, an event that propelled her into the media spotlight.

"Ordinary School", the backdrop for To Miss With Love, is a fictional creation, but one that had often hilarious, often disturbing parallels with my own, which in the spirit of the book I will name "Average School". Knowing that Katharine had taught at Average School, I was very curious to see what she was saying about the state sector, and even more curious about why she was being associated with the Conservatives.

As I read To Miss With Love, familiar situations from everyday school life came back to me, but it also showed behind-the-scenes issues that I was unaware of while I was there. Suddenly the reasons for a series of ridiculous decisions and situations I witnessed were exposed, and I began to wonder whether the state system really is broken, as Birbalsingh asserts.

I met her at a small café in Brixton, south London. She is tall, thin and dark-skinned, with a fantastic explosion of hair and an accent of ambiguous descent. My own trajectory, as I described to her, involved five unhappy years at Average School, studying for A-levels at "Slightly Better Than Average School", and finally earning a degree from "Stuffy Russell Group University", a point she quickly picks up on.

"The irony of this is, you'll write this piece and people will say 'Well, you're a success, you're at the New Statesman, you got a degree from Stuffy Russell Group University, you got two A*s and 6 As', or whatever it is, and people will look at you and say, 'Well, how can we say this, how can we say that your state school education failed you?' But it did fail you."

Shouldn't school be horrible?

On this basis, I explain I'd be inclined to concur with the people who believe that if you can succeed at state school, it shows the system works. But Birbalsingh points out the contradiction in my reasoning, based on what I mentioned earlier about hating school – about being constantly scared, about not being able to learn, about hating many of my classmates.

"You sat in chaos for five years, you were miserable, you had to get out in the end. If that's how you think of your secondary school education then the system has failed you. A child is meant to be happy in school, a child is supposed to love learning. It's awful!"

I admit I'd never thought about it that way before. To me, school was supposed to be horrible, but perhaps that in itself is evidence of how I was failed. In this sense, Birbalsingh is very convincing.

"My point is that Ordinary School really does represent normal schools," she continues. "Average is considered to be a really good school. It's 'good with outstanding features', as Ofsted said – just like Ordinary School. You went to a 'good' school and yet you lived in fear every day! If that's true, then how can anybody say to me that the system isn't broken?

"I think that the criteria that Ofsted uses now – they're looking at the wrong thing, they're looking at 'Are lessons fun?', so that's one of the things that needs to change. The thing is, we all trust Ofsted. We all think, 'Oh, if they think this school is good, it must be good.' "

I offer that perhaps people who have kids at a nice, reasonably successful state school in Hampshire or Devon would disagree.

"That's what I find so outrageous," she continues, "because they're saying, 'It's all right for us so leave it the way it is.' I think even those kids are being failed, but they're not being failed as obviously. They're all taking exams that are being dumbed down, they're all learning skills instead of knowledge. All these things are still part of the whole system."

Birbalsingh has been criticised for putting the onus on schools rather than parents for creating bright, socialised young people. But when there are as many social problems as we have in inner London, what good is it to blame schools for failing children?

"I can't do anything about the families. I can't change those parents. If you've got an alcoholic mother, father's never around, I can't do anything about them, but I can change the school system. I'm just expecting us to be the very best that we can be."

A question of choice

But in her book, Birbalsingh comments that every child can be made to develop an appreciation of things like Shakespeare. Is this not too much to expect of kids?

"Middle-class kids in public schools aren't born loving Shakespeare!" she says. "You have to be taught to learn it. When you can understand it, you come to love it. But it's only through a hard slog that you come to the other side.

"If you give choice to children, then they'll always choose the easier option. Why wouldn't they? So you don't just say, 'Actually, you can take business, or you can take physics.' You say, 'You're taking physics,' and then you make physics as interesting as possible and you try and spark their interest and you help them succeed at it because children love what they succeed at."

But doesn't this mentality still alienate the archetypal dumb kid, like Dopey from the book?

"Well it depends. Remember, five Cs at GCSE is rated high – it's not expecting that much, and I think a vast majority of our children can get five Cs at GSCE. However, there is a small minority of kids who can't, and that's when BTecs are perfectly applicable."

The emphasis Birbalsingh puts on standards and respect for authority in the book is interesting. David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham and former education minister, wrote of her that "she reminded me of aunts back in Guyana. Hers is a small 'c' conservatism of the West Indian variety. It has a tough attitude to personal responsibility, underpinned by a Christian belief in personal salvation."

This seems reasonably accurate and when I was at Average School I thought that the strict reinforcement of standards that Birbalsingh so strongly supports – including tucking in your shirt and not wearing hats indoors – was petty, causing more arguments and lost learning time than was necessary.

"It's the broken windows theory," she argues in response. "You need to look after small things. If kids don't have a uniform at all, it doesn't matter, but if you do and the kids disobey, you are allowing them to undermine your authority."

Free schools have caused a lot of controversy since the idea was taken up by Michael Gove in government last year. Many have claimed they will increase social divisions by creaming off middle-class families from the local state schools, and the journalist Fiona Millar refers to the idea as the "comprehensive-grammar, secular-faith, Latin-speaking, liberal-education school". Free schools will be funded by the state, but as Katharine explains:

"They have to follow the admissions code. They cannot select. It's exactly like a state school except it's not set up by the local authority, it's set up by a group of parents or teachers. And obviously it's a very rigorous process to get approved, so it's not just like you can go and set up a school tomorrow."

But what if a free school is set up by the people Katharine disapproves of – middle-class lefties with a lax approach to discipline and choice – or just people who know nothing about education?

"Some schools could be set up that aren't very good. But the point about a free school system is that if the school isn't very good it can be closed. Now, people say, 'That's a bad idea. Where are the kids going to go?' They just go to some other local school!

"We're hoping that most of the free schools being set up will be good schools. If they're bad schools, then they close and we move on from that. I'm trying to make a difference. It's like the Titanic is going down – all I can do is take my little boat to the side and throw as many kids as I can inside it, and row away."

Mix it up

One controversial topic Birbalsingh touches on in To Miss With Love is the high level of failure among black children.

"In addition to schools failing our kids, there are two reasons for black failure," she says. "There's the whole family situation – there's a lot of absent fathers – that is a difficulty, but – and this is a big thing – the street culture: rappers, MTV, all that stuff, because they buy into it.

"You were the white kid at Average, but, in a way, you had an advantage being white, because you could culturally step out of that; you could just be the quiet white kid who didn't have anything to do with the black kids, whereas the black kids there, they have to buy into that, otherwise they're not 'cool'. They have a reputation, like when Furious says in the book, 'You don't understand, I've got a rep,' and I'm saying, 'What do you mean?!' "

After reading To Miss With Love and thinking about some of its criticisms, I began to wonder whether they were directed towards the actual ideas Birbalsingh was proposing – which, I can vouch, are based on 12 years of teaching in inner-London state schools – or more unfairly towards the fact that her views were considered to be those of a right-wing Tory.

"Well the fact is that everything Michael Gove is doing I agree with, and the fact is that I voted for the Conservative Party because I agreed with their educational policies. Unfortunately we have reached a stage where the Labour Party has abandoned good discipline and high standards in schools. If the Labour Party were to reclaim that, then next time, I would be voting for Labour.

"So it just so happens that apparently my views are right-wing. So I suppose I am right-wing when it comes to education. When it comes to everything else, I'm not – I'm a mixture of things."

"To Miss With Love" is available from bookshops, published by Penguin (£9.99). Read Fiona Millar's review of the book for the New Statesman here.