If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Friday, 8 October 2010

To Miss With Love

One of the first blogs I ever read was To Miss With Love (no link - blog has been removed). This was a blog written by a teacher in an Inner London school (using the nom de clavier of Miss Snuffleupagus) and detailed the everyday struggle of a good-hearted and talented teacher in dealing with the recalcitrant and often very challenging pupils, and the equally challenging attitudes of other members of staff and the educational hierarchy. As an ex-teacher myself (although never in such a challenging environment as Miss Snuffy dealt with every day), I appreciated the warmth and care of her approach to the most difficult kids, and her constant affirmation that they could be capable of so much more if we only expected it of them. Many of her little snapshots of life in the inner city (both in school and out) showed the vulnerability of even the hardest and most disaffected teenagers. Her penetrating observations about the left-wing orthodoxy that was strangling the achievements of the brightest - and least bright - rang very true.

Of course, the majority of the pupils she dealt with were black. It would have been impossible for a white person to write as she did, challenging the victim mentality of so many of the children and those who were supposed to support them, and criticising the anti-aspirational nature of so many of their backgrounds. So I guessed from very early on that Miss Snuffy herself was black. The posts were always beautifully written, and never named individuals - they were always known by names such as 'Excited' or 'Confused', and the little tableaux of life in the inner city comp were both charming and very thought-provoking. The over-riding impression of the whole blog was that she loved children, and always wanted the best for them - especially when others (white and black) seemed happy to condemn them, in a deterministic way, to a life of disaffection, violence and failure. It was a very life-affirming read.

Recently, Miss Snuffy was promoted to the Deputy Headship of another school, and decided to close her blog. Her new charges needed her full attention, and the blog was becoming too time-consuming. I was sorry to see her go, but fully understood the decision.

So I was amazed to read in The Guardian that she had appeared at the Conservative Conference:

A state school teacher earned a standing ovation at the Conservative party conference today for a scathing and eloquent attack on a "culture of excuses" in education, which she said had driven her from being a Marxist to voting Tory for the first time this year.

In a speech that appeared to update the adage that a conservative is "a liberal who has been mugged," Katharine Birbalsingh said that teaching in the state sector had led her to embrace "right-wing thinking".

Birbalsingh, who teaches French, earned right-wing plaudits after she wrote about her experiences anonymously – in a blog that will now be turned into a book, To Miss with Love.

She's obviously pulled no punches in her presentation:

She said standards had been so dumbed down that even pupils knew recent exam papers were easier.

"When I give them past exam papers to do from 1998, they groan and beg for a 2005 or 6 paper, because they know it'll be easier. The idea of benchmarking children and letting them know how they compare to their peers is considered so poisonous by us teachers that we don't ever do it."

The lady is going places. And it will be no drawback to her new media career that she is fairly easy on the eye too. You can watch her speech here (starts 1:17).

A shame, then, that her school has suspended her from duty (sorry, not 'suspended', but 'asked to work from home') and is threatening her with disciplinary action. (Her 'Exective Headteacher', Dr Irene Bishop, allowed her school to be used to launch the Labour Party's 2001 General Election campaign, which I am sure is completely unrelated to her actions regarding Katharine Birbalsingh.) Obviously, speaking your mind is considered a sackable offence in the Brave New World of education. Funny, it used to be the opposite - saying what you think and being awkward used to be in the job description.

Thanks to Woman On A Raft and Cranmer for the links.

UPDATE: just watched the BBC clip of the speech. Good - but she needs to learn not to smirk when people are applauding. It's a sign of inexperience, but it looks smug, and she would do well to remain a little more serious. The ovation was deserved, though.


  1. I saw her speech Richard and she was very brave right enough !
    She's right about the exams getting too easy.
    I showed my nephew my Higher Maths paper from 1979 and he was amazed. Working out complex integration formulae from scratch ? erk...
    He admitted he hadn't got a clue. I looked at the equivalent exams from today and it looked like my 2nd year tests when I was at school. The test that decided whether you could go on to do O levels or not.

  2. I'll never forget when I was marking English papers for the JMB back in the early 80s. "Write an essay about how this poem affects you. You might like to consider the poet's use of: rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, simile, choice of words, the sounds they make ..." a list about half a page long. It made the whole exercise 100% easier than if they had to think all that out for themselves. If they wrote a sentence on each of the 'suggestions' and didn't say anything stupid, they were almost bound to pass. Compare that to the typical 1960s version: "Read the following poem and write a critical analysis of it." It made me weep. Do we think so little of our children's ability to remember and think for themselves?

  3. Word of warning: Don't believe everything you read on the blogosphere.

  4. I don't. What makes you think I would?


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