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Katharine Birbalsingh: Free us to think for ourselves

I am the teacher who spoke at the Conservative Party Conference and then found herself out of a job. Some might argue that had I criticised the education system at a National Union of Teachers conference, I would have been cheered on by the delegates. Had I blamed our broken education system on lack of funds, institutional racism or the challenge of private education, I would have been the darling of the Left and all would have been well. It was the fact that I sided with the Right that has turned me into a mortal enemy. 

But we are all in pursuit of the same utopia, aren't we? We want every child to have the best possible education, to feel safe and happy to reach for the top and for schools to provide environments where this is possible. Or do we? It is interesting that teachers come up to me in the street, voicing their support, agreeing with everything I've said yet refuse to tell me their names because they are scared to speak out "given the current climate". By "the current climate", they are pointing to leftist ideology that insists that private-style education for a comprehensive intake of students is simply a contradiction in terms. The Left has a stranglehold over teachers and gives them little freedom to think outside their ideological box. For a long time, I have been a victim of that ideology. 

The other day, I had tea with a friend to bring her up to date with the details of my personal drama. She is originally from Calcutta, married to a very liberal Scot, and has two children. I begin, as I always do these days, defending my actions. I try to explain my reasons for voting Conservative, why it doesn't mean that I'm a bad person, why I believe right-wing thinking is what we need in schools. 

My friend leans forward. "Well, you know, Katharine, I never told you, but I voted Conservative, too."

Such is the state of political freedom in this country. We may believe we all have freedom of speech, but when we diverge from the pack we don't tell even our closest friends. Peer pressure is not only the main force that keeps children in gangs, walking as if they're constipated, speaking as if they've never read a book and permanently playing on their portable video-game machines: it is also the principal reason most adults vote the same way from the day we were born until the day we die. Political persuasion is tribal and no one is ever meant to change their minds. 

I grew up in a very left-leaning family and went to a state school. Fresh out of Oxford, where I read Marxism Today, I began teaching, firm in the belief that racist, white teachers were responsible for black underachievement. I thought that state schools had no money and that the poor (both black and white) were left to languish. 

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February 6th, 2011
5:02 AM
I agree with the general comments about an often unthinking left-bias in Education. Of course, the children most damaged by this culture are the poor and vulnerable, the very population which these orthodoxies are supposed to help. A related 'dumbing-down' issue is the unwillingness of many teachers to use structured phonics in reading instruction, because this is seen as doctrinaire, or old-fashioned, or because it undermines the cosy certainties of 1970's teaching fashions.

January 15th, 2011
3:01 AM
"That aside, whenever I hear the right lamenting that the left has a stranglehold on the teaching profession I find myself wondering why we don't have more teachers coming from the Right. " The "stranglehold" may have to do not with sheer numbers but with the career track. The chalkface teacher is one (invisible) thing: the department head, the Union activist, the middle and upper management promoted teacher quite another. I have been a teacher all my life, am now 49 and terminally ill, living on a pittance in Ecuador in spite of having a first class honours degree from Oxford. Maybe I'm just a very bad teacher; maybe, on the other hand, my inability to mouth the current PC shibboleths may have something to do with this lack of career advancement and consequent lack of, shall we say, "influence". You decide, At any rate, as the writer says, we soldier on regardless. And this soldiering on includes, needless to say, that basic piece of kit in the teacher's armoury which is the ability to be professional and objective and to refrain from anything that smacks of indoctrination. I pride myself that none of my students would guess in a million years that I am "right wing"; I wish the same careful lack of ideological parti pris applied to the syllabus they are taught at school.

Paolo, Italy
January 14th, 2011
12:01 AM
Dear Anonymous (Dec 29) - forgive my possibly bad English - it's very easy to explain why "Right Winger" like me didn't join the teaching profession. The reason is the 'teaching club' is, as it were, very intolerant of different views and they let you understand the fact very well: I live in Italy but probably the situation is not so different in England. Some 15 years ago I've been a professor's assistant in mathematics for some time: during the institute elections that year I discussed my point of view with some colleagues and, as soon as the news spread, I began to be insulted and avoided, my papers on the office desk thrown to the ground. A friend of mine, assistant of philosophy, had to hide his Christian faith to avoid losing his position: he regularly went to Mass in a distant church; for his academic career - he told us - he could only choose certain topics and authors, not others. How would you like being called Nazi, just because you think the students ought to be more responsible and have to be seriously put to test, that each subject of study has its own logic which the student must apprehend, that the problem is not mainly insufficient funds, etc. So I opted for a liberal profession, where I teach on a daily basis for serious people, with great fun and mutual satisfaction. PS: I come from a very progressive family, where I learned my ethic about learning. An old style very progressive family, I guess.

December 29th, 2010
7:12 AM
You say you came to the teaching profession based on your leftist upbringing and commitment and that you were transformed by your experience in it. I don't think the system is perfect, but isn't that what it is supposed to do, both for students and professionals? That aside, whenever I hear the right lamenting that the left has a stranglehold on the teaching profession I find myself wondering why we don't have more teachers coming from the Right. I find myself thinking that the provision of public goods is something that those on the Right would rather not concern themselves with except in a policy sense, to produce the next generation of compliant workers. That is the same whether you are are New Labour or Conservative. For all you other whinging Right Wingers, put your money where your mouth is and join the teaching profession.

Kevin Bell
December 6th, 2010
5:12 PM
As a father of five children, now long since adults,it became abundantly clear many years ago that the majority of teachers with whom I had contact could be generally labelled (distrust that term) left wing. Sadly that does not mean they espoused the good socialist principles to which I believe all three of our main parties subscribe, but rather the more extreme Marxist ideas in one degree or another. Therefore Katherine Birbalsingh's lament depresses rather than surprises me

Rosemary Dewan
December 6th, 2010
12:12 PM
Moves are afoot for those wanting every child to have the best possible learning experiences while at school. In the Coalition's Schools White Paper 2010 issued at the end of November, governors are to be encouraged to ask the fundamental question, "What are the values in our school?" A charity set up in 1995 by a primary school teacher provides fastrack materials, praised by teachers, pupils, parents, carers and school inspectors alike and which are helping to transform teaching and learning all over the world - see

November 29th, 2010
11:11 AM
Congratulations to Katherine for this article, which neatly encapsulates, and nicely explains a personal enlightenment based on experience, and political realignment from left to right.

Donald Myles
November 28th, 2010
11:11 AM
At the Diane Abbot Conference, did you stand up and say that teacher racism the reason for black underachievement was utter nonsense. I am sure there were many others who felt the same way and sat embarassed and said nothing. When I stood up and defended teachers who were being demonised by students now in the PRU, instead of those students taking responsibility for their own behaviour and coming to school ready to learn - I watched as other teachers sank in their seats. I am glad you have finally had the guts to speak out!

Archbishop Cranmer
November 25th, 2010
9:11 PM
"I voted Conservative and never told a soul." O, but you did, Ms Snuffy, you did. Unless His Grace be not a soul.

November 25th, 2010
7:11 PM
Surely you're not suggesting you voted conservative solely because they got rid of 24hour notice detentions? This piece could have been so much better if you had said specifically what you liked about the conservative policy compared to labour education policy. You have a nice writing style but you need to substantiate your opinions for it to be really insightful.

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