To Miss With Love
By Katharine Birbalsingh
Katharine Birbalsingh is a secondary school teacher who claims she hates being "famous". She achieved notoriety at last year's Conservative party conference, where she made a speech that sounded as though it had been written jointly by Michael Gove and Paul Dacre.
I missed her live performance because I was travelling to the conference at the time to take part in a fringe meeting with Gove. But judging by the delegates' state of near euphoria when I arrived, she had taken the hall by storm. She had knitted together a few personal anecdotes with the five or six clichés guaranteed to send right-wing journalists and politicians into paroxysms of delight. To summarise: "lefties" and "well-meaning liberals" are conspiring to "dumb down" pupils in a "broken system" in which "all must have prizes".
To support this soaring oratory, she showed pictures of and ridiculed some clearly troubled pupils at the academy in south London where she had been deputy head for five weeks. She was relieved of her duties. Applications to the school plunged (she denies responsibility for this). It is now being shut down.
To Miss With Love is based on Birbalsingh's experiences over the past 15 years in various London state schools. As I have been a parent, governor and chair of governors at several schools in London over the same period, and see a school system that is improving rather than deteriorating, I was interested to find out what evidence she would be able to provide for the hyperbolic claims that cost her the job.
Unfortunately it doesn't appear in this book, a fictionalised account of a year in the life of "Ordinary School", where Miss Snuffy (Birbalsingh) teaches English, referees fights between pupils and lies about the school's success rates to the few middle-class parents who send their children there. All this while living on tenterhooks for an Ofsted inspection that eventually judges the school to be not ordinary but "good", with outstanding features.
Many of Birbalsingh's assertions are not especially contentious. We all know that many children from poor backgrounds are being shortchanged by our school system. However, the reasons for that are complex and they are not fully explored here. With many children, the failure to thrive is less a product of their school than one of their home life. Results are linked to intake and the box-ticking approach to inspection can fail to spot inspirational teaching.
The problem is that the book does not work as fiction: the characters are one-dimensional and plot lines - such as the one about Cavalier, a middle-class white boy who gets permanently excluded for bringing in a weapon to defend himself against Furious, a "looked-after" black boy - are never fully developed. Even the attempt to examine the moral dilemmas that lie behind individual choices of school fails to rise above the banal. Bank and Compassionate, an affluent couple, are doing the "best for their child" when they decide to go private. The politically correct Ms Alternative sticks by "Infamous School", but is putting principle before her son's best interests.
Nor does the book work as non-fiction or as a polemic. There are too many sweeping statements, such as "Lefties become school governors, right-wingers do not", that are not backed up with facts. And the book fails to offer any interesting ideas about how to resolve the problems that Birbalsingh rails against. Moreover, the sincere warmth and affection she seems to feel for many of her students, and her acknowledgement that some of her colleagues are inspiring teachers, suggest that even Birbalsingh/Snuffy isn't quite sure that the monochrome version of inner-city school life presented to a largely white and elderly Tory audience is right.
This is a book about a group of pupils at a particular type of school in the urban education hierarchy that has developed in Britain over the past two decades. Many of the teachers at these schools work hard to comply with centrally imposed systems of accountability which Birbalsingh's hero Gove shows no signs of wanting to eradicate. However, this is not the whole story about British state schools.
To Miss With Love was evidently written by someone with an agenda, but by the end it is not clear just what that agenda is. l
Fiona Millar is a founder of the Local Schools Network (localschoolsnetwork.org.uk)