The Babeling of Miss_Snuffy

 “Katharine Birbalsingh was the teacher who exposed the failings of the comprehensive school system at the Conservative Party Conference last year” is the preface to her blog on the Daily Telegraph website.  She used to just be called Katharine Birbalsingh, but her exploits at the Tory conference have been appended to her given names so often that it appears impossible to mention her without this fact also being mentioned.  I imagine her passport has two extra pages to fit her full name on.

The way the media have portrayed Birbalsingh (the teacher who exposed the failings of the comprehensive school system at the Conservative Party last year) is as a solitary hero, a valiant whistleblower. She alone, it seems, had the tenacity to speak up and expose the failings in English schools, she alone was not afraid to speak her mind and bring the failings of the comprehensive system to a wider audience. This portrayal suits the Tories who gave her a standing ovation at their conference, and it suits the right wing press too who love to hear someone expounding right wing values in education and explaining why the current system is so so terrible.

But remember that Birbalsingh exposed the failings of a single school, the school where she was working, and where discipline does seem to have broken down along with other major problems. She has taught in a total of 5 schools and draws on this to explain that the system is ‘broken’ because it keeps ‘poor kids poor’.  Whilst any failing school is a major problem, particularly if your children go there or you have to teach there, it’s hardly a representative sample of all of the comprehensive schools in England. And making a generalisation ‘the comprehensive system is broken’ from a particular case is surely not the most sensible thing. We didn’t suddenly start thinking that all GPs were mass murderers once the Harold Shipman case came to light, and we don’t think that all hospitals are ‘broken’ because poor practices emerge in one or two because of bad management, poor governance or low expectations. So why is comprehensive education broken on the basis of what has happened in one school?

Anyway, in her latest blog posting Birbalsingh(the teacher who exposed the failings et etc etc) returns to the favourite theme of Free Schools. In this posting she blithely cites another free school buccaneer:

As Toby Young pointed out the other day when speaking at a Free Society event about the advantage of free schools, from the charter movement in America, to the free school movement in Sweden, there is a general model of schooling that has proved itself time and time again to be successful in the inner cities. And that is the one that I have described above.

It’s worth picking out the phrase: ‘proved itself time and time again to be successful in inner cities’ for special emphasis, as it is a *very* confident statement of the efficacy of free schools by any measure you make.  Now in a previous blog posting I did my best to look at evidence that Free Schools in Sweden have made a major difference to results and found that the evidence is not there, particularly in relation to the ‘poor kids’ of which Birbalsingh so often speaks. I am currently reading the research about Charter Schools in the US and so far no findings have stood out as being remotely able to back up Toby Young’s comments.

So here’s the thing, saying something once does not make it true. Claiming that the Charter and Free School movement has been successful does not make it so. Repeating that statement over and over again without producing any evidence to back it up does not make it true either. Repeating Toby Young repeating himself that free schools and charter schools have raised results does not make it true as well. If we are going to spend public money on Free Schools in the name of raising standards, can we at least have a debate on them which is not based solely on the opinions of politicians and celebrity education pundits and which has at least some empirical evidence to allow informed debate.

Author: mjp6034

Education consultant specialising in educational technology and change management.

13 thoughts on “The Babeling of Miss_Snuffy”

  1. Excellent article Matt. As others have pointed out here one gets the feeling Ms Birbalsingh is being manipulated:

    Her arguments are so confused and contradictory. I also wonder what parents would want to send there children to a school where children’s results are ‘put up on the wall where all gather to see how they have done in comparison to their peers.’ AND children are labelled ‘losers’ to use her own words if they don’t reach the expected standard. Can’t exactly see parents and children queueing up for that!

  2. Matt,

    I welcome anyone to this debate who’s prepared to base their opinion about academies and free schools on research evidence rather than ideological bias, but you need to broaden your reading.

    In Sweden, no less than five separate studies – Bergstrom and Sandstrom, Tegle, Bjorklund, Ahlin and Bohlmark and Lindahl – have found that examination results are better in free schools than municipal schools and that municipal schools in municipalities that contain an above average number of free schools obtain above average exam results. The schools operated by Sweden’s most ubiquitous for-profit free school companies – IES and Kunskapsskolan – consistently get the best test scores throughout the country. And it’s false to claim that the introduction of free schools in Sweden in the early 90s has led to increased social segregation in Sweden’s public school system. The 2009 PISA survey included a table ranking all the school systems in the developed world according to how socially segregated they were, with number one being the most segregated. Sweden was second from bottom, just above Norway.

    The same picture – education reform leads to higher attainment – is emerging in England with regard to academies. I’d refer you to a recent piece of research by Stephen Machin and James Vernoit at the Centre for the Economics of Education at the LSE. After studying all the secondary schools that converted to academies under the last government, as well as their neighbouring schools, they reached the following conclusion: “Our results suggest that moving to a more autonomous school structure through academy conversion generates a … significant improvement in pupil performance and … significant improvements in the performance of pupils enrolled in neighbouring schools.”

    Machin and Vernoit also note that three similar studies examining the impact of charter schools on neighbouring schools in Michigan, Arizona and Texas that have come to the same conclusion. Here’s their summary of that research: “The question of whether a charter school has an impact on the performance of their neighbouring schools has only been addressed by a few studies. Examples of this kind include: Bettinger (2005), which looks at the impact of charter schools in Michigan on neighbouring public schools, Hoxby (2002), which evaluates the impact of charter schools in Michigan and Arizona on their neighbouring regular public schools, and Booker et al. (2007), which looks at the impact of a high concentration of charter schools in Texas on the student achievement in traditional public schools. All three studies find improvements in the traditional public schools that can be attributed to the introduction of charter schools.”

    1. Toby, quite a few of the papers you cite here are ‘grey’ literature in that they are discussion papers or online reports and haven’t been subjected to peer review to validate the methodologies used. I haven’t had time to read all of Machin and Vernoit’s report (again as yet not peer-reviewed unless you can guide me to the appropriate journal). However, reading the conclusions they are fairly circumspect using words like ‘relatively positive’ to describe their findings. Also they talk about an improvement in the ‘quality’ of Y7 intakes after conversion to academy which is one reason I guess they qualify their fairly cautious findings with words such as ‘relative.’ They also talk about the need for further long term research into the effect of academy conversions as more schools are encouraged down this route. This is completely uncharted territory as this study only looked at the educational climate under the new labour with relatively few academies compared to the high number of conversions we are now witnessing. It seems highly unlikely to be the last word on the issue Toby. Perhaps when we’ve had 5-10 years of large numbers of autonomous schools being established then we might be in a position to make some kind of research informed judgement on the effect such autonomy has had on the educational landscape for all. The readings you suggest to broaden one’s view Toby would not constitute anything near a meta-review of the literature on autonomous schools. You conclusions are somewhat premature.

  3. Do you have any evidence other than wishful thinking that Katharine’s experiences are unrepresentative of the experience of ordinary classroom teachers?

    They seem to match my experiences. They seem to match the experiences of hundreds of teachers who comment on the TES website (particularly on the behaviour section). They seem to match the experience of the teachers I know both in real life and online. They seem to match the stories told by other teachers who have written books or blogged anonymously. They seem to be consistent with the huge turnover rate of teachers. They seem to be consistent with the surveys unions carry out of their members. They seem to be consistent with the beliefs of the public when surveyed about education policy. They seem to be consistent with the footage filmed by those journalists who have tried to lift the lid on the Behaviour Crisis. They even seem to be consistent with what Diane Abbott said about her reasons for sending her son to a private school.

    The only thing Katharine’s experiences don’t seem to represent is the gloss put on the broken school system by the education establishment and denialist political groups like the Local Schools Network.

    Personally, I don’t think free schools are the answer to the problems of our broken school system. To me the first step is admitting that the system is broken and not victimising everyone who dares speak out.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and first of all this is a tiny little blog in the far flung corner of the internet. To suggest that it is victimising anyone is perhaps a rather grand statement. It’s true I was a little rude about Katherine Birbalsingh, but she put herself up at the Tory party conference to speak out and has traded on this claim to fame ever since, so she really should have expected that people would disagree with her, and do so in robust ways. She is also part of a group of media friendly pundits who seem to be able to get a high profile in the media in order to advance their particular educational ideology, which is convenient as it fits very closely with the current Conservative party thinking on education. My post merely pointed out that her blog posting quoted Toby Young who has talking about the efficacy of free schools with precious little evidence to support this statement. In my own way I am leading a little counter revolution to this, piffling you may say, but it is founded on the principles of free speech. To suggest that just because Birbalsingh is a whistleblower means she should have a special platform to speak and anyone who attacks her is ‘victimising’ her is patently absurd, this is a debate about education so it is very important that people get their points across. I happen to believe she is badly mistaken in drawing the conclusion that the comprehensive system is broken solely on the basis of her personal experience.

      On the issue of the evidence of ordinary classroom teachers, I have read the TES forums and what I see there is very similar to your reading; many teachers who are struggling with a very demanding job and with a discipline situation which in many schools is very hard to cope with. Some of the teachers who post there do have some rather extreme views, in fact some call for a return to corporal punishment. But what you see on the TES forums is often the result of teachers who are teaching in poorly managed schools and who cannot rely on the SMT to implement an effective behaviour policy and bring about other school improvements to raise the standard of behaviour. And as you say yourself, the TES forum is formed of hundreds of teachers. The best data I could find from 2008 suggested there were 441,200 teachers in the state sector in England, so the TES forums would have to be an awful lot busier for it to be anything like a representative sample of English teachers.

      So my point was that some schools are badly managed (as some pubs are badly managed, as some GP practices are badly managed, as some football clubs are badly managed, as some government departments are badly managed) and need to be turned around. If you want to claim the entire system of public education in England is broken then you’ll may have to do better than Birbalsingh as a lone voice of dissent, coupled with your own voice and a handful of people posting on the TES forums.

  4. Toby – I’d argue that you are trying to use an unsuitable research paradigm to evaluate the quality of education in various places. I’d advise you to read some of the works of Lawrence Stenhouse. – Here’s a start :

    Teaching Battleground :

    “Do you have any evidence other than wishful thinking that Katharine’s experiences are unrepresentative of the experience of ordinary classroom teachers?”

    A million times yes – I’m an ordinary classroom teacher – and it doesn’t represent my experience – I’ve not met many (if any) teachers that think along Katharines lines. I’m not even sure she does when she steps away from the influence of the Telegraph. I have, I will admit, wondered more than once about some of the extreme views on TES Forums – especially the behaviour ones. They seem out on a limb to me – and certainly not very knowledgeable about approaches to managing behaviour.

    1. Your Twitter profile says you are a special school headteacher, not an ordinary classroom teacher.

      Way to make my point.

  5. I did not accuse you of victimising anybody. I simply pointed out that the first step towards dealing with the problems in our schools would be to let teachers speak out without being victimised. Is that really too much to ask? I am not asking that Katharine should be beyond criticism, merely that there be enough freedom of speech on the issue that people can’t dismiss the few teachers who get the message out as “unrepresentative”.

    Speaking of which, I am not sure how you think sampling works. It is not that a sample is so large that it can be considered as covering most of the population that is being sampled from. The idea of a sample is simply that it is big enough that what we observe about it is statistically unlikely to have ocurred by a fluke. I do not claim to know the views of more than a tiny minority of classroom teachers. However, I do know that for those hundreds of teachers to all be saying the same thing simultaneously would be a ridiculous fluke. If I throw a dice ten times and get a 6 every time then this is a tiny sample of all the possible times the dice could be thrown, but we can still deduce that the dice favours 6. It is the case that as soon as we give teachers anonymity we get a torrent of voices reporting that Katharine’s description of a broken system is accurate and that needs to be explained not ignored a priori as unrepresentative.

    Incidentally, the last poll I saw of teachers showed that about a fifth favoured the return of corporal punishment, which if anything is probably more than the proportion of contributors to the TES forums supporting it.

    With regard to free schools, if your case against the policy includes dismissing the everyday experiences of teachers as “unrepresentative” don’t you think that this will only win support for free schools? I’m not particularly inclined to agree with Katharine and Toby about Free Schools, but if they, unlike you, aren’t trying to deny the reality of what I have seen almost every day for the last ten years, where do you expect my sympathies to lie?

    1. I do understand how sampling works, and I guess by this we are talking about statistical sampling, namely the selection of cases needed in order to extrapolate research findings to cover conclusions relevant to the entire population. As there are about 450,000 teachers in England, a calculation suggests that for confidence level of 95% with a margin of error of 2.5% the sample size would need to be around 1500. But those samples would need to be taken randomly from the entire population. As I am sure you know, the contributors to the TES forum as a self selecting sample so would be unsuitable for this kind of work. Put simply those teachers who want and need to talk about discipline issues are drawn to the TES forums, so even if there are hundreds of them you still have a very skewed picture of what the entire population of teachers think. So the conversation about the problems of discipline is not a ridiculous fluke as you point out, but nor is it something we can confidently believe represents the views of the hundreds of thousands of teachers who never post or even read the TES forums.

      On the last part I really don’t have a case against the policy of free schools per se but I do want those who are putting the case for the policy to try and base it on the soundest evidence possible. So far I feel that Katherine Birbalsingh has been much better at creating a media profile and sensationalising her experiences, than taking part in a reasoned argument about schools.

      1. I said you don’t understand how sampling works because you seemed to think that population size was important. You still don’t seem to have grasped that point.

        With regard to what you are now saying about sampling then I’ll ask you why, in order to know whether Katharine’s experiences are “unrepresentative”, we would need data with a margin of error of 2.5%? That kind of margin makes sense for predicting election results, it makes no sense at all for finding out whether somebody’s experiences are common or rare. If you easily find teachers who agree with her then her situation can’t be very rare. If we can easily find hundreds of teachers who agree with her then it must be common. If we are overwhelmed with teachers who agree with her whenever we give ordinary classroom teachers an opportunity to speak anonymously (and it is hard to find a dissenting voice who isn’t a school manager or in a posh school) then we can assume that it is normal. The fact that we don’t know the precise proportion of teachers for who it’s normal is irrelevant to everyone, accept those grasping for excuses to ignore what’s going on.

        Do you not get how absurd it is to go from dismissing someone as “unrepresentative”, to merely claiming that you can’t know how representative she is to the nearest 2.5%?

      2. Population size is important, if you can show me any kind of argument which suggests that the population size is irrelevant then I would be happy to reassess everything I think I know about research. Population size is important because If there were only 100 teachers in England then we could simply ask them all what they thought and they could tell us and we could be sure that we would have the views of the entire profession at our fingertips. We could poll the entire population. If there are over 450,000 then we can’t ask them all, so we have to use sampling if we want a statistically meaningful way of polling a smaller number of that population and then from that sample be able to apply those results to the wider population. Most statisticians prefer to work with numbers, so margin of error and significance (at 95 or 99%) are frequently used. I don’t know many statisticians who would be happy with the terms ‘common’ and ‘rare’ which you use in your comment. They would argue that once you introduce vague terms like these which cannot be quantified, you have moved from statistics and into qualitative work where opinions and views given in narrative form are what counts.

        Your evidence to this blog, and I admire your tenacity for coming back time and time again, is qualitative in nature, you are voicing your opinion. If your experience is the same as Birbalsingh’s and you believe the system to be broken then so be it. If you are one of those 20% of teachers in the poll you cited (but did not provide a reference for), who think corporal punishment is a solution to discipline problems in school, then once again so be it.

        To return to the topic of my original post, for I fear you have may have hijacked this comment thread a little. I made the point that Birbalsingh repeated Toby Young’s claims that free schools and charter schools as a general model of schooling have proved ‘time and time again successful in inner cities’. I took exception to that as I can’t see where the evidence for this is. So far in response to that posting, no additional evidence appears to have emerged. You have taken exception to the fact that I called into question Birbalsingh’s position on reporting on the chaos in her school and how far that is representative of many other schools in the country. I’m sorry if that upset you, but we have to be able to question the motives of ex teachers who put themselves into the public spotlight in a highly politicised way. I make no apology for doing this either in this blog posting or any future ones I may write.

  6. “I don’t know many statisticians who would be happy with the terms ‘common’ and ‘rare’ which you use in your comment. They would argue that once you introduce vague terms like these which cannot be quantified, you have moved from statistics and into qualitative work where opinions and views given in narrative form are what counts.”

    I couldn’t have put it better myself. I am glad you are now admitting that we cannot reasonably dismiss Katharine’s opinions on statistical grounds. Given that she may well be reading this, you may want to apologise for your earlier error.

  7. It’s quite a hot day in the UK today, but you must be feeling nice and cool beneath that bridge of yours. I am afraid your wait for an apology will be a rather long one. Happy Trolling.

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