“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.