Grade Deflation

To Miss With Love by Katharine Birbalsingh

So how would you describe a “good” school? What pops into your mind, if you hear that inspectors have designated the school to which you are thinking of sending your child as “good, with some outstanding features”? 

Do you imagine quiet, orderly classes where the teacher can be heard? Homework, plentiful and marked?  Bad behaviour dealt with promptly and consistently? At the very least, evidence of high expectations of students, within their ability, and access to challenging exams which mean something in the outside world.

A “good school” would not see disruption in classes so engrained that teachers daily approach their work with pure, cold dread. Or teachers who cannot punish wrongdoing unless they have a second witness to the act; who have to cajole their charges into learning with games and treats, like jesters trying to humour a bored tyrant. Or who are told, come Ofsted time, “We need to see more fun in lessons. Games are always a good idea. We simply cannot have a situation where teachers are teaching and children are listening.”

You do not imagine a “good” school setting its pupils such low expectations that one of its best teachers finds herself yelling “Let’s go get those Cs!” as her class charges into the examination room, as though she were exhorting them to reach for the moon. Meanwhile, at the private school down the road, parents pay for their children to be given homework and told to behave. At the private school, success is judged by how many students get ten A*s at GCSE, because both school and parents know that GCSE A*s are the first benchmark for Russell Group universities. 

By contrast, Ordinary School, with its Bunyanesque cast of descriptively named characters — teachers Mr Hadenough, Ms Alternative, Mr Cajole; students Seething, Furious and Deranged — will keep its “good” ranking as long as 100 per cent of the students get at least one GCSE at grades A* to C. So in Ordinary, grades B, A and A* are not even discussed: as far as the children are aware, there is nothing higher to aim for than a C. Because a single solitary C per child, while of negligible use to the child, will get the school into the same category as one where half the year group has nothing but A*s, As and Bs. 

This school was described by Ofsted as a “good school with some outstanding features”, according to Katharine Birbalsingh. Or was it? Birbalsingh’s problem is that, to bring together experiences which make her point, without identifying individuals, she fictionalised the school. For this literary device, she has been criticised. She talked about her beliefs at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference. For this, she lost her job. 

Since then the persecution of Birbalsingh has gained frightening momentum. Former Blair aide Fiona Millar and teacher-turned-author Francis Gilbert have joined the hue and cry (Observer, February 27). Both are presumably (Millar is married to Alastair Campbell and Gilbert to the literary editor of The Times) well-off enough to live in affluent areas if they so choose. And so they think the local comprehensive system is just fine, thank you very much. 

The latest swipe was a nasty little article in the Guardian (March 5) by a “former colleague” calling himself simply “Aladin” who seemed bothered that Birbalsingh — who now finds herself excluded from the profession in which she excelled for years — has also published a saucy online novel about a mixed-race woman looking for love in London. She used a pseudonym, Katherine Bing. Why the hell should she not? 

Birbalsingh is hated because she notices hypocrisies and points them out. The fact that our profit-driven exam boards compete with each other for schools’ business by making their exams easier. The way well-behaved primary school children turn into unteachable monsters as they gradually discover that “while school says that X behaviour will result in one losing one’s place at the school, in reality, rarely, if ever, does a child get permanently excluded.”  

This book arrives just as Oxford and Cambridge are being pressed to allow more state school students in, as though it were the universities’ fault that schools such as Ordinary are rewarded for indifferent GCSE grades, but never for setting aside a budget for an Oxbridge entrance class. A mere 7 per cent of British children are at private schools (where such classes are standard) but if you look around the City, the medical schools, the Law Courts or Parliament, you would never know it. Social mobility has stagnated in this country, and the stagnation began with the rise of the neighbourhood comprehensive.

If people like Millar, Gilbert and “Aladin” can’t get their heads round the value of fiction in politics and debate, then we have only their English teachers to blame.

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