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.
I wanted what was best for the underprivileged. So I decided to teach only in the inner city. Not much has changed, except that I no longer read Marxist magazines and I have stopped dabbling with the Socialist Workers Party. Why? Because my experiences in teaching have taught me that it is not lack of money or prejudice that keep my children poor, although clearly money is useful and prejudice is to be found everywhere. But over time, I came to realise how mistaken I had been in my understanding of the education system.
I remember once taking a white teacher colleague to Diane Abbott’s Black Child conference. It was Saturday morning and so dedicated was he, even after 20 superb years in the classroom, that he followed me there, always willing to learn from new experiences. As the speakers expounded on the inner racism in the teaching profession, on the fear white teachers have of their black pupils, I will never forget the sense of shame that consumed me. Why? Because not only were the speakers speaking utter nonsense, but I knew how much this teacher had done for black boys over the years, and here was I, dragging him out of his bed on a Saturday morning so that he could be called a racist, just for being white and for being a teacher.
For years, I soldiered on in the classroom, working hard to change the minds of children who were paralysed by a sense of victimhood. They found it impossible to believe that I had chosen to be their teacher, that I wanted to be there, that I loved being around them. Eventually, like any good teacher, I won them over by using all the tricks of the trade, from gold stars to phone calls at home with positive comments, to holding breakfast clubs in the early morning when I would spend my own money on croissants. My students felt grateful. Like me, other teachers give their life to the job, and we “succeed” despite of the shackles of the system.
The regular dumbing-down of our examination system is obvious to any teacher who is paying attention and who has been in the game for some time. The refusal to allow children to fail at anything is endemic in a school culture that always looks after self-esteem and misses the crucial point, which is that children’s self-esteem depends on achieving real success. If we never encourage them to challenge themselves by risking failure, self-esteem will never come.
I started to climb the professional teaching ladder, rising to positions of middle and senior management. There too I succeeded but often only by fighting against people’s innate liberalism. Indeed, I would sometimes find myself arguing with my own deeply-embedded liberalism: “Take pity on the boy. Don’t punish him. It isn’t his fault he didn’t do his homework; just look at his home situation.” Or “Why ask them to do their ties to the top or tuck their shirts in? What does any of that have to do with learning?”
I had become indoctrinated by all the trendy nonsense dictating that if children are not behaving in your classroom, it is because you have been standing in front of them for more than five minutes trying to teach them. If only you had sat them in groups with you as facilitator, rather than teacher at the front, then you’d have the safe environment conducive to learning that we all seek. The basic ideology is that if there is chaos in the classroom, it is the teacher’s fault. Children are not responsible for themselves, while senior management fails to establish systems that support teachers and punish children for not doing their homework, whatever their home situation.
I argued constantly with my colleagues and bosses. Often, I won and, almost as if they were inextricably linked, as the innate liberalism within people waned, the department or the school would improve. In every instance, I could see for myself that a move away from liberalism was a step in the right direction, a step that brought calm out of chaos, learning in place of trendiness, and success instead of failure.
At first, I had no idea that my natural inclinations were “right-wing”. I just argued for what I knew would work to improve schools. But at the start of 2007, I began to blog anonymously about my experiences, and people unknown to me, from around the country and indeed the world, would comment on my thoughts. The left-wingers insisted that I was bitter and twisted, that I hated children and was clearly disillusioned, while the right-wingers tended to support my natural inclinations. Writing my blog was a kind of therapy and I never sought to publicise it. I loved writing it because it allowed me to vent my frustrations. What I didn’t know at the time was that it did far more than that: my blog and its respondents taught me that my thinking was right-wing.
Eventually, the 2010 election came. While Labour’s education manifesto had a tone which reminded me of the “all-prizes” culture I had come to despise, the Conservatives were promising to abolish the 24-hour rule for detention (one cannot give a lengthy detention without 24-hour prior notice to parents). So I did the unthinkable: I voted Conservative and never told a soul.
Why did I choose to stand at the Conservative Party Conference and announce to the world that I voted Conservative? Because October 5, 2010, was the day I threw off the weight of the leftist ideology that had weighed me down for so long and shouted, “Free at last! Free at last!” The law says we have the freedom to think as we please. Social conformity says we do not. For more than a decade I have been fighting for my freedom and I have finally taken it back.
Back at the café, my Calcutta friend and I laugh at the absurdity of neither of us feeling comfortable enough to tell the other that we voted Conservative. She turns to me and says: “But just because I voted Conservative this time does not mean I will do so in the next election. These politicians need to earn my vote.”
Quite right. If only all of us, especially those of us in the teaching profession, could be free to think, how much better our schools would be.