“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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Stop saying identity politics caused Trump

It's a wildly unsophisticated analysis that ignores the fact that all politics is inflected by identity.

Look, I don't mean to be funny, but is there something in the water supply? When Mark Lilla wrote his jeremiad against "identity liberalism" in the New York Times, it was comprehensively picked over and rebutted. But this zombie take has risen again. In the last 24 hours, all these tweets have drifted across my timeline:

And then this (now deleted, I think, probably because I was mean about it on Twitter).

And finally, for the hat-trick . . .

Isn't it beautiful to see a Blairite, a Liberal Leaver and a Corbynite come together like this? Maybe there is a future for cross-spectrum, consensual politics in this country.

These are all versions of a criticism which has swilled around since Bernie Sanders entered the US presidential race, and ran on a platform of economic populism. They have been turbocharged by Sanders' criticisms since the result, where he blamed Clinton's loss on her attempt to carve up the electorate into narrow groups. And they are now repeated ad nauseam by anyone wanting to sound profound: what if, like, Black Lives Matter are the real racists, yeah? Because they talk about race all the time.

This glib analysis has the logical endpoint that if only people didn't point out racism or sexism or homophobia, those things would be less of a problem. Talking about them is counterproductive, because it puts people's backs up (for a given definition of "people"). She who smelt it, dealt it.

Now, I have strong criticisms of what I would call Pure Identity Politics, unmoored from economics or structural concerns. I have trouble with the idea of Caitlyn Jenner as an "LGBT icon", given her longstanding opposition to gay marriage and her support for an administration whose vice-president appears to think you can electrocute the gay out of people. I celebrate female leaders even if I don't agree with their politics, because there shouldn't be an additional Goodness Test which women have to pass to be deemed worthy of the same opportunities as men. But I don't think feminism's job is done when there are simply a few more female CEOs or political leaders, particularly if (as is now the case) those women are more likely than their male peers to be childless. Role models only get you so far. Structures are important too.

I also think there are fair criticisms to be made of the Clinton campaign, which was brave - or foolish, depending on your taste - to associate her so explicitly with progressive causes. Stephen Bush and I have talked on the podcast about how hard Barack Obama worked to reassure White America that he wasn't threatening, earning himself the ire of the likes of Cornel West. Hillary Clinton was less mindful of the feelings of both White America and Male America, running an advert explicitly addressed to African-Americans, and using (as James Morris pointed out to me on Twitter) the slogan "I'm With Her". 

Watching back old Barack Obama clips (look, everyone needs a hobby), it's notable how many times he stressed the "united" in "united states of America". It felt as though he was trying to usher in a post-racial age by the sheer force of his rhetoric. 

As Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates during his last days in office, he thought deeply about how to appeal to all races: 

"How do I pull all these different strains together: Kenya and Hawaii and Kansas, and white and black and Asian—how does that fit? And through action, through work, I suddenly see myself as part of the bigger process for, yes, delivering justice for the [African American community] and specifically the South Side community, the low-income people—justice on behalf of the African American community. But also thereby promoting my ideas of justice and equality and empathy that my mother taught me were universal. So I’m in a position to understand those essential parts of me not as separate and apart from any particular community but connected to every community."

Clinton's mistake was perhaps that she thought this caution was no longer needed.

So there are criticisms of "identity politics" that I accept, even as I wearily feel that - like "neoliberalism" - it has become a bogeyman, a dumpster for anything that people don't like but don't care to articulate more fully.

But there are caveats, and very good reasons why anyone pretending to a sophisticated analysis of politics shouldn't say that "identity politics caused Trump".

The first is that if you have an identity that any way marks you out from the norm, you can't change that. Hillary Clinton couldn't not be the first woman candidate from a major party running for the US presidency. She either had to embrace it, or downplay it. Donald Trump faced no such decision. 

The second is that, actually, Clinton didn't run an explicitly identity-focused campaign on the ground, at least not in terms of her being a woman. Through the prism of the press, and because of the rubbernecker's dream that is misogyny on social media, her gender inevitably loomed large. But as Rebecca Solnit wrote in the LRB:

"The Vox journalist David Roberts did a word-frequency analysis on Clinton’s campaign speeches and concluded that she mostly talked about workers, jobs, education and the economy, exactly the things she was berated for neglecting. She mentioned jobs almost 600 times, racism, women’s rights and abortion a few dozen times each. But she was assumed to be talking about her gender all the time, though it was everyone else who couldn’t shut up about it."

My final problem with the "identity politics caused Trump" argument is that it assumes that explicit appeals to whiteness and masculinity are not identity politics. That calling Mexicans "rapists" and promising to build a wall to keep them out is not identity politics. That promising to "make America great again" at the expense of the Chinese or other trading partners is not identity politics. That selling a candidate as an unreconstructed alpha male is not identity politics. When you put it that way, I do accept that identity politics caused Trump. But I'm guessing that's not what people mean when they criticise identity politics. 

Let's be clear: America is a country built on identity politics. The "all men" who were created equal notably excluded a huge number of Americans. Jim Crow laws were nothing if not identity politics. The electoral college was instituted to benefit southern slave-owners. This year's voting restrictions disproportionately affected populations which lean Democrat. There is no way to fight this without prompting a backlash: that's what happens when you demand that the privileged give up some of their perks. 

I don't know what the "identity politics caused Trump" guys want gay rights campaigners, anti-racism activists or feminists to do. Those on the left, like Richard Burgon, seem to want a "no war but the class war" approach, which would be all very well if race and gender didn't intersect with economics (the majority of unpaid care falls squarely on women; in the US, black households have far fewer assets than white ones.)

Those on the right, like Daniel Hannan, seem to just want people banging on about racism and homophobia to shut up because he, personally, finds it boring. Perhaps they don't know any old English poetry with which to delight their followers instead. (Actually, I think Hannan might have hit on an important psychological factor in some of these critiques: when conversations centre on anti-racism, feminism and other identity movements, white men don't benefit from their usual unearned assumption of expertise in the subject at hand. No wonder they find discussion of them boring.)

Both of these criticisms end up in the same place. Pipe down, ladies. By complaining, you're only making it worse. Hush now, Black Lives Matter: white people find your message alienating. We'll sort out police racism... well, eventually. Probably. Just hold tight and see how it goes. Look, gay people, could you be a trifle... less gay? It's distracting.

I'm here all day for a discussion about the best tactics for progressive campaigners to use. I'm sympathetic to the argument that furious tweets, and even marches, have limited effect compared with other types of resistance.

But I can't stand by while a candidate wins on an identity-based platform, in a political system shaped by identity, and it's apparently the fault of the other side for talking too much about identity.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.