Monday, 18 October 2010

Too outspoken

Should a teacher who thinks schools are appallingly run speak out in public or should she be quiet and keep her frustration and rage to herself?

Katharine Birbalsingh, Deputy Head of St Michael's Academy in South London, gave a scathing speech to the Tory Conference, saying state schools were badly run, bureaucratic, dumbed-down and tolerant of unruly behaviour.

Fairly common opinions, you would think, shared by thousands of teachers and parents across the country. Not exactly controversial. Even Ofsted, the schools supervisory body, condemned her own school as "inadequate".

But she has now been sacked after the Head and school managers decided her speech was unacceptable and she should have kept her mouth shut and pretended school standards were just fine.

She has taught in state schools for over a decade, so she knows what she's talking about. She thought it was about time someone spoke up and told the truth.

"British education is not just broken, it is fundamentally broken. Teachers are too scared to speak out because they think they'll lose their job" she says.

Regardless of whether you think the Conservative Conference was the right place to speak out (she's a Conservative supporter), the question is whether she has a right to voice her revealing and thought-provoking opinions about a schools system that virtually everyone is dissatisfied with.

If her speech helps bring about some much-needed changes, then why should she be penalised for it?

She says she worked a 70 hour week "because I love children and I like making life better for them." I fail to see how sacking her helps either the children she's dedicated to or the "inadequate" school which clearly needs a good kick up the administrative arse.

Pic: Katharine Birbalsingh


  1. It sounds like the top of her head blew off having been told to 'suck it up' on prior occasions?

    Something similar happened to my daughter.

    You have to play the game politically and not vent the spleen publicly.

    The emperor is naked.


  2. www - This is it, she'd probably been told to keep quiet so many times she finally couldn't contain herself and had to go public.

  3. It's appalling that she should have been sacked for voicing her opinions. It's not exactly a surprise though. And as for this being the state of schools for the decade plus that she's been teaching, it's been the state of schools for much longer. It's been like that since I was at school in the 1960s. Nothing in the UK ever seems to change for the better.

    By the way, I deleted someone's email subscription to my blog by mistake a couple of days ago - didn't see whose it was just noticed one had vanished - and wonder if it was yours. If so, my apologies and do please resubscribe.

  4. Hmm . . tricky one because you don't get the whole story. Brave to speak out but who knows, she may have been warned in the past. Bit like one of m employees who berated the company on Facebook, we didn't sack her but we gave her a good talking to!

  5. I once got a talking to in an American school because I told the kids that the white Europeans that settled often made and then broke treaties with the native populations and stole their lands and resources...This was during a History lesson...

    The teacher was afraid of the parents and the head getting upset...

    The lesson in state run schools appears to be don't rock the boat, and keep anything you see and feel under wraps...

    Nothing changes out of fear.

  6. Val - Absolutely, her opinions are hardly a surprise, we've all known about the parlous state of British state schools for decades. But the Head obviously wanted to paint a rose-tinted picture of her school.

    No, the email sub wasn't mine.

    Baino - Berating your company on Facebook is asking for trouble, but she was criticising British schools in general and not singling out her own school.

  7. e - But what you were saying wasn't some extreme political slant, it was historical fact! Surely schools should be telling pupils the facts, not some feel-good fib that'll keep everyone happy?

  8. Sounds to me like she knew what she was doing and she went for the most public arena she could find. Hopefully her actions will effect a change.

  9. Eryl - She certainly went for a very public arena. She must be desperate for some radical change that will give her pupils a better start in life.

  10. She forgot the golden rule 'Silence is golden!

  11. I think you have an obligation to speak up if you have something to say that can benefit the people you serve. And the people she serves isn't the administration, but the children. And by extension, society.

  12. Grannymar - But if silence is golden, many of history's most horrendous episodes would never have been exposed or ended. Like the Nazi concentration camps.

    Secret Agent - Exactly. She just wants her pupils, and other pupils, to get the best possible schooling and not a third-rate substitute.

  13. The Empire strikes against itself? The same establishment that protected Salman Rushdie for his rights is now turning on one of its own? I think that this is the worst case of cutting one's nose off to spite one's face! I hope that the establishment will reconsider the decision.

  14. Ramana - Indeed, cutting off their nose to spite their face. They've got rid of a woman who seems to be a dedicated, conscientious teacher. How is that going to improve the school's performance?

  15. This is so depressing, Nick.
    People should always feel free to speak out....
    This is awful. It's like living in a dictatorship.

  16. I think we're collectively losing our voice as people in general. You can't say anything against the system anymore...

  17. Scarlet - It's very dictatorial. She was only giving her honest views about low standards in state schools. What's so threatening about that?

    Terra - British people are very docile these days, unlike the protesters in France. They (we?) allow all sorts of regressive policies to go through with scarcely a murmur.

  18. On a much, much smaller scale - one of my coworkers recently spoke out about some of the poorer performing employees that don't seem to get any penalty for their non-performance. Well, she spoke to human resources.

    And now she's asking the rest of us to back her up.

    I'm not scared, exactly, to do so, but...well, I don't know what to feel about it. Still dithering. Definitely some things need to change and definitely some people need to go, but, but...I don't know that I'd ever have had the courage to speak out like she did.

    Back to the topic of your post -- schools are a mess here too. What to do, what to do?!?

  19. Megan - Very difficult. Obviously something should be done about the poor performers but what might be the personal repercussions if you speak out about them? I would probably hesitate too in your position.

    State schools are in a mess all right, and nobody seems to have the nerve or the common sense to make sweeping changes.

  20. She was brave and so right. So much could be done, scary that there is no one willing to get on and sort it out. And now, with so many cuts (despite ring fencing) Things will only get worse. Children come to school with baggage, the financial state of affairs will only add to their problems.

  21. Suburbia - This is it, an epidemic of timidity among those in a position to tell the truth and get things changed. The cuts won't help, but I think what's really needed is a total change of attitude among school managers.

  22. I would have done the same. That said, my big mouth and considerable indignation over injustices of all kinds have often gotten me in trouble. If this had occurred in the US, I think she would have a good case against the school system for reinstatement, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc. It's not surprising that much of the world has become robotized, ripe for political and psychological takeover, when decent, caring people are afraid to speak their truths.

  23. Heart - I suppose she might have a case for legal action in the UK, though nobody has suggested it, certainly not her. As you say, the world is becoming robotized because people are too scared to say what they really think.