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.