Jabbed on the nose by Katharine Birbalsingh

Every now and then, you happen upon an argument so ridiculous that it resembles a jab on the nose – head spins, mind jars, words fail.

This week, an article this week by Katharine Birbalsingh had just this effect. In it, she eulogises the good old days of ‘old-fashioned teaching’, where children sit in rows, listen in silence and absorb known facts. Despite adopting the tone of retired-colonel-in-pub (“that Socrates fellow – all that talk and chit-chat nonsense, what rot!”), Birbalsingh is no bystander; she has taught for more than ten years.

Birbalsingh builds her case by contrasting the differing approaches taken by private schools and state schools. In doing so, she caricatures both. There is no nuance or subtlety here.

The modern state school teacher, she complains, is broadly clueless: they have been ‘brainwashed’ into teaching ‘skill-based nonsense’ and simply repeat this as if they are a ‘parrot-like machine’.

More specifically they waste too much time using technology and pointlessly allow children to work in groups (she seems obsessed with how long it takes to give out envelopes to these groups, with bits of paper in them containing instructions or an activity. I expect she saw this done badly, once – and has used this to generalise horrendously).

On the other side of the fence, the silent, sponge-like private school pupil ‘learns more in one lesson’ than state school pupils do in an entire term.

How depressing – and how utterly wrong – that someone who has clearly dedicated her life to education can be so simplistic and present the learning experience in such dismal and stupefying terms. How can anyone with even the vaguest of interest in the development of young minds reduce learning – reduce the complexity of the human brain – to such a simple act: sitting, listening?

Of course, every decent education does contain this ingredient; listening and absorbing wisdom from a more learned other. But what a tragically limited experience school would be if that was it – the beginning and the end. This would be a grossly insufficient preparation for an unknown future; this isn’t education for a mightily-complex 21st century, it’s education as regression, a return to a rejected past.

Aside from dumb-headed (state school) teachers who are apparently incapable of applying anything approaching professional judgement, Ofsted are also in Birbalsingh’s firing line. It is they who have prescribed, in some detail, the essence of excellent teaching and, in doing so, have reduced the pedagogical act to a process designed to do little more than fulfil Ofsted’s criteria.

There is truth here (and I am no apologist for Ofsted). But where you can easily build a case for Ofsted being heavy-handed box-tickers, the reality is hugely over-stated by Birbalsingh. Teachers, apparently, ‘have to’ teach a certain sequence each lesson for a set amount of time. No they don’t.

There is more on her ‘have to’ list, none of which I recognise as requirements. They may be contained somewhere in some obscure piece of guidance, or have been adopted by particular schools – but as much as she protests, this stuff isn’t compulsory. State school teachers do have minds of their own; we sussed out Ofsted long ago. We aren’t robots – the way I teach is different to the teacher next door to me, let alone the teacher in the school down the road.

But the real rub is the blatant inconsistency in her argument. If there is such freedom in private schools – if truly innovative teaching occurs only where the state sector is absent – why does she advocate a single method: sitting and listening. Isn’t this an example of the ‘sameness’ she uses to damn each and every state school and state school teacher?

In writing her piece, she not only dismisses state schools but – inadvertently I’m sure – private schools too. Are they not renowned for music, for debating, for sport, for discussion and argument? As if all they do is pay their money and sit and listen.

Sometimes solace can be found in the fact that these kinds of crude generalisations come from the far reaches of public debate. This allows a simpler response: ignore and move on.

But every now and then, an intellectual Luddite such as this gets listened to. They are no longer speakers of blindingly obvious pap, but are bringers of insight, providing the raw ingredients for public policy. This is what is worrying here: Birbalsingh, it seems, has the ear of Michael Gove. Be afraid; be very afraid.



Filed under Conservatives, Michael Gove, Schools

53 responses to “Jabbed on the nose by Katharine Birbalsingh

  1. Having met the ‘gruesome’ Katherine I can confirm that she has nothing more to offer than personal anecdotes, exaggerations and some seriously worrying attitudes towards children. She is an evidence-free zone, basing everything on her own experience (and failure) as a teacher. What is more worrying is the way she will happily betray the children she taught, by using them to further her mini-celeb status. I saw this at the recent Learning Without Frontiers conference where she castigated a child who she called ‘Gruesome’ for a full half-hour (she is always faultless – the children and the system are always to blame). There’s also the issue of her walking out on her school and disrespecting them and their parents in the public domain, leading to the closure of the school (she is of course blameless again). She should never be allowed to teach again.

    • teachingbattleground

      You do get that the more people try to smear her, the more credibility it gives her case?

      If what she said was genuinely missing the mark there would be no need to pretend she was a failure as a teacher or that she destroyed the failing school she worked at for a few weeks.

    • @donaldclark

      Thanks for commenting – very interesting. I know little about her, but one thing’s for sure – I don’t see how we will improve state schools by advancing an argument which says all these schools do is inadequate and all who work in them are unthinking robots.

  2. teachingbattleground

    She says “listening, , responding and serious concentration” (my italics).

    You say: “children sit in rows, listen in silence and absorb known facts”.

    If you can’t represent her views accurately, perhaps you could at least dispense with the insulting tone while attacking a straw man of your own creation.

    • @teachingbattleground

      Thanks for reading and for commenting. By implication she is suggesting the concept of listening, responding (point taken here) and concentrating is somehow absent from state schools and uniquely present in private schools. That’s nonsense – something I find preposterous and offensive. She seems to be very, very comfortable rubbishing teachers in state schools, misrepresenting what (in my experience) actually happens in many schools (particularly in terms of teacher innovation and commitment to improve practice). She picks out one or two silly examples (envelopes!) to make sweeping statements to damn a profession that I am proud to be part of. Her approach is crude and unhelpful.

      • teachingbattleground

        Silly examples? Are you serious? The envelopes thing is something that I have experienced at school after school. Similarly, micro-management that forces teachers to teach in particular ways has been normal in my experience (and has been well-documented since the late 90’s).

        You are leaving me baffled as to how your experience can be so different that you not only haven’t experienced these things, but you find the mere acknowledgement of them insulting to teachers.

      • Are there occasions when poor teaching of group work occurs? Yes, of course. But to dismiss a valid and highly effective teaching method – which is a good thing in itself (i.e. working in a team, resolving disputes, sharing ideas clearly etc) but has also been shown to improve subsequent individual test scores – on the basis that it is beyond the capacity of teachers to quickly distribute 7 or 8 envelopes throughout a class doesn’t appear to me to be the most sophisticated of arguments. The problem here is that there is insufficient group-work – not that it should be scrapped because the distribution of simple resources is an impossibility (I resolve this dastardly conundrum by putting resources on their desks before they come in or dish them out myself – which takes 5, maybe 10 seconds).

        The point here is Birbalsingh’s flawed argument – railing against sameness in the classroom (and being highly selective in how she demonstrates this) and then prescribing a single approach that suits her very particular and, in my view, limited, pedagogical approach. This, if anything, is an example of micro-management.

  3. teachingbattleground

    Sorry, can I just check, are you no longer denying that teachers are forced to do group work even where they see no benefit, and instead claiming that compulsory group work is a good thing. (I think both arguments are wrong, but they are also contradictory).

    With regard to resources and distribution, I can only assume that you have no experience of tough schools or that you don’t mind wasting lots of time in lessons. In plenty of schools it takes vigilance, determination and strongly established routines to get kids sat down and working within ten minutes when all that is required is a pen and a worksheet. She is utterly correct to talk about the nightmare of having to ” to get children huddled around in groups, quieten them down, give instructions on how to do the complicated exercise of not losing the bits of paper, making sure they don’t get bent out of shape, ensuring they get returned to the envelope, and so on.”

    • Let me keep it simple: teachers should decide how best to teach. But, just as it is wrong to say teachers ‘must’ teach a starter for precisely five minutes (not that I have ever been told to do this – but let’s go with her argument), it is equally wrong to say – as Birbalsingh does – that group-work, teaching skills, using an interactive whiteboard (etc) are somehow evidence of inadequate teaching (‘nonsense’ in her words) and the answer is simply to replace this with direct teaching. It is my view, for example, that group work has positive results – in individual test scores and in other areas. This is supported by evidence. I therefore choose to teach regularly (though nowhere near all the time) using this method. I have the freedom to do this, in a state school (I also stand at the front and teach directly how to do x or y, or x + y, in a state school). And, yes, it does take vigilance, determination and routines to make these things work – but you could say that of any aspect of school life.

      • teachingbattleground

        So all this anger is actually only about the fact that she used the word “nonsense” to describe the methods that are forced on teachers? You actually agree with her on the main point that teachers shouldn’t be forced to follow particular methods?

        Although I think you are utterly wrong about group work
        (See here http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2008/08/03/group-work/ ) and sorting exercises, do you understand how disporportionate your post seems if that is your only point? Why not try and make a positivve case for group work and sorting (perhaps tell us what your evidence is)? Why make it an attack on Katharine Birbalsingh based mainly of the straw man that she wants childrent o do nothing but listen?

        Still I am glad you now accept that sorting exercises aren’t trivially easy to organise after all.

      • No, I’m not annoyed because of the use of one word – I’m annoyed for the various and numerous reasons set out in my post, not least her caricature of state and private schools which I fundamentally disagree with (but listing all the points again is rather pointless as it’s still there to read). I would be more than happy to make a positive case for group work in more detail and will happily do so should the will take me – but, as for evidence on the benefits of group-work, do take a look at anything by Neil Mercer, Professor of Education at Cambridge.

      • i am afraid keeping it simple for teachingbattleground won’t be simple enough…he’ll argue with himself

    • Teachingbattleground says:
      Sorry, can I just check, are you no longer denying that teachers are forced to do group work even where they see no benefit, and instead claiming that compulsory group work is a good thing. (I think both arguments are wrong, but they are also contradictory).

      Sorry, can I just check… You are a troll aren’t you? Well perhaps not a classic troll in that you are at least vaguely on topic but you do seem to be stirring things up and deliberately misinterpreting and missing the point. Specifically your question, “Sorry, can I just check, are you no longer denying that teachers are forced to do group work even where they see no benefit add and instead claiming that compulsory group work is a good thing…” the italics are mine but I see no reason for using the word compulsory other than to stir up trouble because, no such claim was made or implied by paperandpenciltest. And for the record, I think it would be almost impossible to make a serious claim that teachers are forced to group work.

      I was going to reply to more of your points but I think it will be more fruitful to come back later and respond to the original article and the blog post. If I have called you a troll unjustly, please accept my sincerest apologise.

      • teachingbattleground

        The reason I used the word “compulsory” is because that is the heart of what Katharine Birbalsingh’s article was about: the formula which must be followed for a good or outstanding lesson.

        If you have never had outside pressure (or even orders) to include group-work in lessons then lucky you, but I certainly have and I think Katharine’s article is right to criticise that. The two straw man positions being debated on here (i.e. that the alternative is silent listening and that she is arguing that her preferred methods be made compulsory instead) seem to be being used as an excuse for ducking that argument and engaging in insults instead.

        As for the claim that we never have group work forced on us, either you are working in a very different type of school to the ones I have worked in, or this is straigthforward denialism.

  4. John Connor

    I cannot but agree with the sentiments expressed in the article. I don’t pretend that all was well in the best of all possible worlds in our system, but I do find it difficult to believe that a diet of sitting quietly in rows while “absorbing” the basics of Latin, capitals of the world, kings and queens of “our island story”, Dryden and differential calculus would have engaged “Gruesome”. The seminal presentation “Shift happens” tells it like it is – we are preparing pupils for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that have yet to be invented to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet. Half of what an engineering undergraduate learns in his or her first year of study will be obsolete by the time they graduate. Ms Birbalsingh and Mr Gove may not like it, but that’s the reality. Whatever you feel about technology, that particular genie is out of the bottle and won’t be put back. To retreat to an ivy-clad vision of Greyfriars in the 1950s simply won’t work. We have to remember, Billy Bunter did not wake up and check his Twitter feed first thing in the morning, download tracks from i-Tunes to listen to on his mp3 player, update his Facebook page and check his emails before Mr Quelch started swishing his cane. Nor was he cyberbullied by Frank Wharton, Bob Cherry, Huree Jamset Ram Singh and Coker. The world has moved on. It’s quite worrying and not a little dangerous that Ms Birbalsingh and Mr Gove can’t seem to see it. If further evidence for this is required, it may lie in the disgraceful fact that neither Mick Waters or Sir Ken Robinson are on the panel for the curriculum review. Probably because they would tell Gove things he doesn’t want to hear.

  5. Michael keenan

    Katharine Birbalsingh was a deputy head who couldn’t do her job or have I missed something? Her attitudes to teaching and learning from articles I have read point to the fact that she couldn’t engage with children at her old school using her method of teaching or again, have I missed something? In any other school up and down the country, the rigour and scrutiny of a lesson observation or an ofsted visit might have exposed this but she chose to talk about it at a Conservative conference where she was held up as a whistleblower but surely all she has done is show everyone what a failure she is – I don’t see many people lining up to give her a teaching job, let alone one in leadership!
    Or am I missing something?

  6. Laura McInerney

    Andrew, it’s a rather specific point, but in a school like mine where the majority of students don’t speak English at home meaning that their language seems ‘fluent’ but its lack of sophistication impedes their ability to understand and apply knowledge. Being able to verbalise and discuss issues is therefore an important part of (a) developing language, and (b) developing subject specific vocabulary. If you have ever learnt another language you will know that speaking tends to come first because it is less formal than writing (one of the last skills). By practising through speech we tend to be able to ‘wipe away’ errors and reorganise our thoughts in a way that is less intrusive than if we have to keep writing out.

    Speaking to others about work also helps learners develop vocabulary (for both english as first and second language learners). Because speech is significantly quicker than reading (for most people) students experience more words and hear more sentence constructions. This builds their language and the associated thinking that comes with developed language more quickly. For this reason, activities that encourage students to speak to one another (while also reading and writing) are hugely supportive and all research into EAL learners supports this fact. (Literally *all*, I don’t think I have ever read a book on the matter that says children working in silence will learn a language better).

    This doesn’t mean it is easy to do, nor that it always has to be fashionable ‘group work’. It does mean that our classroom tends to have more talking, more paired or small group activities and more opportunity for regurgitating knowledge informally before writing it formally. Of course, it takes great behaviour management to be able to get students into these routines and it needs to be planned well to be effective. But that’s also true of a teacher stood at the front, or getting students to work in silent. And while I agree some schools have gone OTT in requiring things from teachers, in the main most people realise that as long as your planning demonstrates a purposeful learning environment where students are progressing then you are just fine.

    Finally, while these points relate to students of English as an Additional Language, I would say that it carries for most students. We all have varying levels of vocabulary and understanding, interacting with more words and hearing other ideas sharpens the knowledge of other people. If it doesn’t, why does Oxbridge use a tutorial system where two students and a tutor ‘discuss in a group’ over a system of twice-as-many lectures?

    • teachingbattleground

      It is certainly not enough to have a purposeful learning environment to be “fine” in state schools. Micro-management is common place and most teachers I know have stories of being told to do three part lessons, group-work, mini-whiteboards and all the rest.

      With regard to group-work, you seem to be addressing the straw man of perpetually silent students. Nobody has said students should sit in silence, and that is hardly the obvious, or only, alternative to compulsory group-work. That said, your claim about EAL students probably should be challenged for not necessarily giving the full picture. Pretty much every training I have ever had on helping EAL students has talked about the “silent period” where they are mainly listening rather than speaking, and how they shouldn’t be forced to try and speak in English before they are ready.

      • Laura McInerney

        Andrew — I think most people are in agreement with you. We are ALL saying that you should be allowed to teach in ways that are diverse; the only difference is that I, unlike Birbalsing, believe that groupwork, discussion, envelopes, etc can be used to ensure that learners get the best experience. If students only ever work in one way that will be necessarily limiting – and that’s equally true if EVERY LESSON they have to use mini-whiteboards and elaborate forms of group-work, just as I think a teacher who every lesson makes students hear them drone on for 30 minutes before answering questions is also limiting their learning.

        Ultimately me and the author work in state schools (and yes, mine is a challenging one) but find that as long as the lesson plan is purposeful, provides adequate structure to the learning and all students are supported to progress, then we are treated as professionals and left alone. You, and Birbalsingh, say that schools require misguided time-wasting nonsense and make compulsory all manner of unjustifiable things in a classroom. Maybe the truth is that most schools fall somewhere between these two scenarios. Or perhaps you’ve both just been unfortunate in the schools where you worked.

        As for EAL, my students are far past the silent period! As I said, they often appear fluent because they have always spoken English at school but, actually, because they don’t speak English to adults or read English books at home, (and rarely watch English TV programmes/films) their language development is not as sophisticated as for an English Mother Tongue speaker. Formulating complex sentences can therefore take a bit longer and it is helpful if practised in speech first – though, again, this doesn’t have to be through elaborate groupwork.

      • @teachingbattleground i think i understand your argument now. you have mistaken advice given to poor teachers as something that we ‘force’ all staff to do. Good teachers offer a variety of teaching methods to engage the students in different ways…is that what you think is wrong? As i pointed out to you in previous arguments that we have had, i honestly feel sorry that you have working in such poor schools, but also still wonder why you didn’t do anything about it

    • Laura – thanks for this comment, I agree with every word. In my experience, I’ve found that effective dialogue in pairs or in small groups has considerable benefits (I’d highly recommend Neil Mercer’s ‘Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking’, if you’re not familiar already). This approach of course complements effective ‘question and answer’ between teacher and pupil.

      • Laura McInerney

        Thanks — haven’t seen this book, but sounds interesting. I think we might actually be in agreement with Andrew when talking about dialogue in pairs and small groups as he says above that he isn’t on about silence as the only approach possible.

  7. teachingbattleground

    “No, I’m not annoyed because of the use of one word – I’m annoyed for the various and numerous reasons set out in my post”

    We have already discussed the extent to which these points are straw men, ad hominems or claims that don’t match up with the experience of a lot of state school teachers. Nothing much seemed to hold up except the fact that she used the word “nonsense” to describe teaching methods you approve of; so it’s rather irritating that you now seem to want to “reset” the discussion back to square one again.

  8. teachingbattleground

    Laura, requiring teachers to teach in a variety of ways is still telling them how to teach.

    As for the point about our experiences of teacher autonomy, perhaps the difference is that you are already doing what they want you to so they don’t have to enforce their agenda on you? Back in the early noughties when under the National Strategies interactive, whole-class teaching was mandatory I could have said that I wasn’t being restricted either. But when the fashion changed we were all expected to change with it and any illusion of choice was soon gone. Katharine Birbalsingh is spot on about the methods being forced on teachers, and it is noticeable that all of the people here who are denying the compulsion just so happen to agree with those methods anyway.

  9. Katharine Birbalsingh

    Hello there Pencil
    I am not criticising state school teachers. I am trying to expose the madness of the system that they are forced to work in. By no means do I believe private school teachers are ‘better’ than state school teachers. I wrote explicitly in the article about how good state school teachers teach as they see fit behind closed doors. As a teacher, surely you have been told time and time again to do things that appear to you absurd? Surely you have been ‘marked down’ for other box-ticking nonsense? Of course good learning isn’t just about children listening! It is necessary but not sufficient. The article does not suggest otherwise. I have even had a current Ofsted inspector write to me to say that I was spot-on with what I said in that article! The Ofsted that exists nowadays is a terrible beast. It isn’t what it used to be.

    You now have my email and I’d be happy to talk about this in more detail with you. I am on your side, and I want the same things as you do, whether you recognise it or not.

    Best wishes

    • @katherinebirbalsingh

      I believe what all of us are waiting for is for you to:
      1. Stop running state education down based on your narrow experience. What happened in the month you were at St Michael and All Angels? Or is all this vitriol this really based on Dunraven school, where you gained the majority of your senior leadership team experience?
      2. What is your solution to the problem of poor teaching? I say this as all of the things that you quote are interventions we will do with inadequate teachers. Give them a structure etc. Good teachers use a variety of teaching methods over a series of lessons. Some reading, some group work, some independent research, some presentations, some white board, some assessment…or do you feel this is wrong?
      3. The box ticking exercise you describe can only be the ofsted lesson observation requirements, so is your critical aim off and that is who you should be targeting? I am glad that one current ofsted inspector has congratulated you. What is your solution? Do we judge student progress or the entertainment factor of the teacher? Ofsted is flawed in many more ways than just how it judges teaching.
      4. Having met you on a number of occasions doesn’t all of this point towards your inability to effect change on the schools that you were a senior leader in? You certainly seemed to struggle with the concepts and practices of effective pupil intervention when we discussed them. What were your reasons for leaving Dunraven and to St Michael and All Angels? What did you see in the later, that personally you weren’t getting in the former?
      Sadly i think we all recognise that you are an effective publicity seeker and i expect that sales in your book will do well. However, we also all can see that your comments and attacks coincide with deadlines for publishers. Jeremy Clarkson for education, so to speak. You carry on; those of us still effectively in education will continue to do the job that you were once paid to do, enable students to progress.

    • Hello Katherine,

      Thank you for your comment – you have certainly stirred a lot of debate in recent times! A few thoughts in response:

      If your article were purely an attack on an over-bearing Ofsted, I doubt it would have raised much of an eyebrow – I think all but the most ardent of Ofsted inspectors would agree that their organisation has its flaws. But your article, in both content and design, is much more than a bit of easy Ofsted-bashing.

      You say that state school teachers are constrained by an Ofsted-devised formula they ‘must’ follow, with precise instructions on the time spent on different parts of the lessons, as well as many other ‘musts’. If I was unfamiliar with state schools, reading this as a lay-person so to speak, I would rightly be appalled by this and think schools were under some kind of Stalinist control. But I haven’t seen a current Ofsted document that requires this. Quite the reverse in fact – most of the rhetoric I’ve seen around ‘excellent teaching’ highlights outcomes (i.e. children make excellent progress) with much less emphasis on the ‘how’.

      I was also very confused by the following statement : “(in state schools)…standing in front of the class and teaching is frowned upon”. Your implication is that this is widespread and commonplace, yet I have never, ever heard or read of such a thing. This bears no relation at all to any class I have ever observed (or taught), nor is it something ever even whispered during my teacher training (again, the reverse – this was positively encouraged).

      You describe state school teachers as ‘parrot-like machines’. Admittedly you do squeeze in the conditional ‘some’, but if your aim is to encourage teachers to engage positively with your arguments, do you really think this is helpful, collegiate language?

      You also say a private school can teach more in one lesson than a state school does in one term. I find this very hard to believe and it seems to sit uncomfortably with your claim that you are ‘not criticising state school teachers’ – how is that comment supposed to be taken, if not as criticism?

      Your tone when describing your experience of group work also comes across as very critical. It presents (state) school teachers as incompetents wasting time with envelopes, unable to manage their classroom environments. This kind of activity is taught very successfully in lots and lots of state schools. If your desire was not to criticise, it would have helped to balance your comments with some positives, rather than pick the one example where it hasn’t gone well (without a more measured analysis, it’s a bit like saying you saw a pen leak in a lesson, so it would be a good idea to get rid of pens).

      I was also confused by your criticism of state schools for introducing the concept of indiviudalised/personalised learning (which is about focussing on a child’s individual learning needs) and, in the same breath, blaming state schools for teaching in a way that leads to ‘sameness’. I really don’t follow your point here – it just sounds like you are criticising for the sake of it.

      It is also unhelpful (and unnecessarily provocative) to make simple comparisons between a single public school and the state sector as a whole. They are very different beasts and this should be recognised.

      I am constantly striving to improve my class and my school (along with my hard-working colleagues) and, as such, I was offended by much of the language you use (I am neither a puppet nor a parrot, nor do I feel ‘under seige’) and also the way you so easily dismiss teaching practices which I believe are of value. If we do share common ground and ‘want the same thing’, I respectfully ask that you find a way of communicating your beliefs without alienating the people you supposedly want to reach.

      • teachingbattleground

        Given that you obviously teach in a completely different education system to Katharine, or myself, or any teacher I know, what makes you think that you are somebody she wants to reach?

        Still, I admire your audacity in defending your own abusive post by claiming that her post was somehow offensive or impolite.

  10. Laura McInerney

    Andrew, fair point, I understand what you are saying more here. I agree that if the expectation was that I would go to everyone being in silent and working on their own then I would feel constrained, but at present I don’t have that so I don’t. Bur are you honestly saying that teachers shouldn’t be encouraged to vary their lesson format? For my own subject, I actually don’t see how I could teach the variety of examinable skills students need to develop by continually using the same format.

    That said, the three times I’ve been inspected my classes lessons were what I would define as ‘interactive whole-class teaching’ (the interaction comes through modelling, providing a task for students to do in pairs then on their own before discussing answers, etc) and there’s never been a problem.

    • teachingbattleground

      I don’t want to make out that variety is a bad thing, but there is a lot to be said for consistency, well-established routines and sticking with what works. When a teacher has a class learning effectively I see little point in encouraging them to change how they teach the class.

  11. teachingbattleground


    You appear to have mistaken insults for debate.

    • kalinski1970

      @teachingbattleground insults to you or Katherine? To you I am afraid there is no debate. Just obviously your opinion wrapped in the pretence that someone has said to you or told you etc. You describe schools that I don’t recognise, that I wouldn’t work in, being run by people who would be laughed at by all teachers that I have worked with. As I have stated the prescription you have described are strategies that I would suggest to a teacher that is struggling, amongst a range of teaching methods. I have never, and never would suggest prescription to an teacher who’s students make outstanding progress. As naturally they use a range of methods. I don’t believe a one size fits all, but I will direct, support, help a member of staff that is struggling to use tried and tested methods of enabling students to succeed.

  12. I’m so confused!

    What is it that everyone is arguing about? Is it that teachers are told what to do? Or is it that teachers who vote Tory don’t like teachers who vote labour and visa versa? Or, is it that no-one likes Katherine? Or, maybe it’s an argument about teacher autonomy? I just don’t get it!

    I’m not going to Birbal-bash (I just thought that up! Or did I? Probably not) ,as everyone comes across differently when they write, i.e. I’m probably sounding very dense, so I will dip a tentative toe in the pond of teacher autonomy.

    As someone who has been trained post-1988 the idea of teacher autonomy is laughable. There is no purpose for the government telling us what to teach without telling us how to teach it. I was trained as a ‘teacher-technician’, delivering the curriculum in the approved manner and allowing it to sink in.

    Since my training days I have been left totally alone, barring INSET, CPD and observations by senior colleagues and HMI inspectors. It is only on these occasions that I get any feedback on my technique, so that I can improve my delivery of afore-mentioned curriculum. I appreciate this feedback, as otherwise I wouldn’t get to pick up a new trick of, say, questioning techniques. Of course I spice up my lessons when being observed – I want to make a good impression to my employer, and I want to give them something that they can give me feedback on!

    Teachers are autonomous, within the narrow confines of the curriculum. If that does not agree with you, perhaps a government controlled school is not for you? There are plenty of alternatives, no?

    • Mr Watson – your comment made me chuckle…it can be a tad confusing to follow, particularly when on some things we have come full circle. My original beef was with the tone, language and content of Katherine Birbalsingh’s article – which I found (and still find) objectionable. I take a very similar approach to you – welcoming feedback and working to understand what works best (and changing my practice accordingly). I think with most professions there’s some gap between the day to day practice/reality – and what happens when the same profession is under some kind of external scrutiny; that’s just the way of the world. Teachers get this, I think, and as a result have a huge amount of scope to be creative and develop their practice in a way that doesn’t fit with Birbalsingh’s view that we are puppets or parrots (or maybe a parrot puppet?). Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!

    • teachingbattleground

      “Since my training days I have been left totally alone, barring INSET, CPD and observations by senior colleagues and HMI inspectors.”

      There’s a strong element of “what have the Romans ever done for us?” in this comment. We have complete autonomy except for all the times we are told what to do and checked up on to see whether we are doing it.

  13. But I’m not told what to do, I’m told how to do things.

    Just because I’m a teacher, doesn’t mean I can’t be taught, does it? I LIKE learning!

    As with Monty Pythons famous sketch, it’s just about which point of view you choose to take – You could see the Roman occupation as being oppressed by them, or you could see the benefits of sanitation, viniculture, safe streets, etc… I guess the confusing thing is that both points of view are valid.

    My problem is that I’m not a fan of politics generally, and it seems to be political allegiance that gives one the answer to these double-ended questions – the correct answer is the one in chosen-political-party’s manifesto/bill.

    • teachingbattleground

      It’s all very well claiming that it is down to politics, but often it is down to experience. It is hard to miss that the way we are supposed to do things has changed every few years, for no discernible reason. Once you have been teaching long enough to notice this then it would take a huge amount of “doublethink” to believe you are simply being told the best way to teach, rather than the latest unproven, but compulsory, fashion.

  14. kalinski1970

    @teachingbattleground so how do you help a colleague who is struggling, if you never see them? What would you tell parents of children let down by poor teaching, that you did nothing because it is all best left alone? Do you believe in improving over-time or just stopping once you have got to your own prescribed ‘petfect’ level? Who is best placed to judge other professionals if it isn’t colleagues? How would you help a member of staff who can’t teach like you do? The problem is that we have polarised opinions on what being a professional is about. I welcome comments on my teaching, management and leadership because it continually helps me improve…what are you exactly against?

    • teachingbattleground

      I am against the culture of dictating fashionable teaching methods to all teachers regardless of how much progress their classes are making. This is not to let poor teachers off the hook, but the system as it stands is not about effective teachers helping ineffective ones; it is about managers, inspectors and consultants who can’t even hack it full-time in the classroom telling everyone else how to teach according to the latest fad. (And apparently then going onto the internet and pretending it isn’t happening and insulting anyone who says that it is.)

      • kalinski1970

        @teachingbattleground sorry full time Deputy Headteacher, with responsibility for teaching and learning because I wanted to make a school the best it could be. Not lurking in the staffroom undermining, being cynical and not adding to the whole school. I actually think that you and teachers like you hiding away from the hard work of school.improvement are the problem. Insults are written in my own time.

      • What do you mean when you say ‘can’t even hack it full time in the classroom?’ Do you mean ‘hack’ as in’ do a job imprecisely’? Or do you mean that managers, inspectors and consultants should be full time in the classroom?

  15. oh and it isn’t happening in my school. Where staff work together to improve their teaching…but you would hate it

  16. teachingbattleground


    More insults? Don’t you get that insulting people who disagree with you makes the claim that at your school everyone “works together” happily seem particularly unlikely?

  17. teachingbattleground…

    Okay, so the system is broken, we’re all going to hell (or have already gone) in a handcart, mere puppets of state control, automatons with no free will, churning out identikit copies of ourselves to provide grist for the mills of nail bars and fried chicken restaurants across the land…

    If I wanted to change that, what should I do? How do I, (and by implication, we), make this deplorable state of affairs go away?

    • teachingbattleground

      The straw men are getting pretty tedious now. Is less micro-management really so unthinkable?

      • kalinski1970

        We keep trying to explain that what you describe doesn’t happen in the schools we teach in. Only struggling teachers require micro management…oh…

      • I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you mean by Straw Men.

        No-one wants to be micro-managed, but what I’m saying is what can I do? I’ve tried what I can think of, but now I’ve run out of ideas. I would appreciate some help on this one.

  18. teachingbattleground

    Bu straw men I mean a position wrongly attributed to somebody else as a debating tactic, i.e. “we’re all going to hell (or have already gone) in a handcart, mere puppets of state control, automatons with no free will, churning out identikit copies of ourselves to provide grist for the mills of nail bars and fried chicken restaurants across the land”.

    • Okay, point taken, that was an example of black and white thinking. There are clearly shades of grey here.

      What I’m asking is can you, (or anyone!), please, offer any advice on what can be done about the unpleasant situation we find ourselves in?

      To clarify, that is the position of teaching in secondary schools a this point in time, suffering from ‘initiative fatigue’, goalpost-moving and lack of student engagement. By engagement I mean interest in what they’re doing.

      • teachingbattleground

        With regard to the topic of this blog post, I think what should be done is that people should stop demonising anyone who tells the truth about what goes on in schools. I thought that was clear from what I’ve said.

  19. teachingbattleground

    “We keep trying to explain that what you describe doesn’t happen in the schools we teach in.”

    You can’t remain polite and tolerant when people express opinions you don’t like about teaching on the internet. Are you seriously expecting people to believe that teachers in your school are not subject to the same attitude from you in real life? That opinions you can’t stomach from strangers are actually respected when they come from the people you manage?

    “Only struggling teachers require micro management…oh…”

    As far as I can tell you think every teacher who disagrees with you is struggling, so this is hardly reassuring as a claim.

  20. kalinski1970

    No just the ones who need micro management

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