“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.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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Just face it, being a parent will never be cool

Traditional parenting terms are being rejected in favour of trendier versions, but it doesn't change the grunt-like nature of the work.

My children call me various things. Mummy. Mum. Poo-Head. One thing they have never called me is mama. This is only to be expected, for I am not cool.

Last year Elisa Strauss reported on the rise of white, middle-class mothers in the US using the term “mama” as “an identity marker, a phrase of distinction, and a way to label the self and designate the group.” Mamas aren’t like mummies or mums (or indeed poo-heads). They’re hip. They’re modern. They’re out there “widen[ing] the horizons of ‘mother,’ without giving up on a mother identity altogether.” And now it’s the turn of the dads.

According to the Daily Beast, the hipster fathers of Brooklyn are asking their children to refer to them as papa. According to one of those interviewed, Justin Underwood, the word “dad” is simply too “bland and drab”:

“There’s no excitement to it, and I feel like the word papa nowadays has so many meanings. We live in an age when fathers are more in touch with their feminine sides and are all right with playing dress-up and putting on makeup with their daughters.”

Underwood describes “dad” as antiquated, whereas “papa” is an “open-minded, liberal term, like dad with a twist” (but evidently not a twist so far that one might consider putting on makeup with one’s sons).

Each to their own, I suppose. Personally I always associate the word “papa” with “Smurf” or “Lazarou.” It does not sound particularly hip to me. Similarly “mama” is a word I cannot hear without thinking of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, hence never without a follow-up “ooo-oo-oo-ooh!” Then again, as a mummy I probably have no idea what I am talking about. If other people think these words are trendy, no doubt they are.

Nonetheless, I am dubious about the potential of such words to transform parenting relationships and identities. In 1975’s Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich describes how she used to look at her own mother and think “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” It is, I think, a common sentiment. Rejecting mummy or daddy as an identity, if not as an individual, can feel much the same as rejecting the politics that surrounds gender and parenting. The papas interviewed by The Daily Beast are self-styled feminists, whose hands-on parenting style they wish to differentiate from that of their own fathers. But does a change of title really do that? And even if it does, isn’t this a rather individualistic approach to social change?

There is a part of me that can’t help wondering whether the growing popularity of mama and papa amongst privileged social groups reflects a current preference for changing titles rather than social realities, especially as far as gendered labour is concerned. When I’m changing a nappy, it doesn’t matter at all whether I’m known as Mummy, Mama or God Almighty. I’m still up to my elbows in shit (yes, my baby son is that prolific).

The desire to be known as Papa or Mama lays bare the delusions of new parents. It doesn’t even matter if these titles are cool now. They won’t be soon enough because they’ll be associated with people who do parenting. Because like it or not, parenting is not an identity. It is not something you are, but a position you occupy and a job you do.

I once considered not being called mummy. My partner and I did, briefly, look at the “just get your children to call you by your actual name” approach. On paper it seemed to make sense. If to my sons I am Victoria rather than mummy, then surely they’ll see me as an individual, right? Ha. In practice it felt cold, as though I was trying to set some kind of arbitrary distance between us. And perhaps, as far as my sons are concerned, I shouldn’t be just another person. It is my fault they came into this vale of tears. I owe them, if not anyone else, some degree of non-personhood, a willingness to do things for them that I would not do for others. What I am to them – mummy, mum, mama, whatever one calls it – is not a thing that can be rebranded. It will never be cool because the grunt work of caring never is.

It is not that I do not think we need to change the way in which we parent, but this cannot be achieved by hipster trendsetting alone. Changing how we parent involves changing our most fundamental assumptions about what care work is and how we value the people who do it. And this is change that needs to include all people, even those who go by the old-fashioned titles of mum and dad.

Ultimately, any attempt to remarket parenting as a cool identity smacks of that desperate craving for reinvention that having children instils in a person. The moment you have children you have bumped yourself up the generational ladder. You are no longer the end of your family line. You are – god forbid – at risk of turning into your own parents, the ones who fuck you up, no matter what they do. But you, too, will fuck them up, regardless of whether you do it under the name of daddy, dad or papa. Accept it. Move on (also, you are mortal. Get over it).

Parenting will never be cool. Indeed, humanity will never be cool. We’re all going to get older, more decrepit, closer to death. This is true regardless of whether you do or don’t have kids – but if you do you will always have younger people on hand to remind you of this miserable fact.

Your children might, if you are lucky, grow to respect you, but as far as they are concerned you are the past.  No amount of rebranding is going to solve that. This doesn’t mean we can’t change the way we parent. But as with so much else where gender is concerned, it’s a matter for boring old deeds, not fashionable words.

 

 

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.