There’s an interesting interview in The Guardian this weekend with one of the most famous teachers, or ex-teachers, in Britain, Katharine Birbalsingh. You’ll probably know her. She’s the woman with fabulous hair who got a standing ovation at the Tory Party conference for a speech about a broken education system – ‘it’s broken because it keeps poor children poor’ – which confirmed the existence of ‘a culture of excuses, of low standards”. It was more or less a vindication of Michael Gove, then Education Secretary, and all he stood for.
Now she says she regrets that speech – ‘it ruined my life. I should probably have kept my head down’. She’s been the target of online misogynist and racist abuse; she withdrew from Twitter for two years. ‘Having given that speech it was then difficult to work in the world of education in the state sector. I got quite ill at one point. I got terrible eczema because of the treatment and the attacks.’ Funny that all this should come out in The Guardian, the house journal of the teaching unions. And yes, she does feel strongly about Gove’s departure from his job before his work was done. ‘It will not be done now.’
The interview tells us two things. One is the level of terrifying intimidation to which any teacher is subjected who does not conform to the orthodoxies of the teaching unions. It goes without saying, doesn’t it, that any member of the NUT could say what she liked to the Labour conference. But freely expressing support for Michael Gove attracted the kind of organised hate campaign that even a strong woman could not stand. That ferocious conformism in the profession is, I think, just scary, and I think we should note that the conformists didn’t shy away from racism and sexism in performing the lynching online. My children go to a state (Catholic) primary and their teachers are really good, but every time I see members of the teaching unions on the march, I just think how little I’d want my children to be anywhere near them.
The interview also reminds us just what a loss Gove is. Katharine is sticking to her guns on that one: he is irreplaceable. And while it would be just childish to measure the extent of his success by the extent to which he alienated teachers, he really did understand education as the crux of social mobility and really didn’t care who he angered by saying so.
A friend of mine has just qualified as a secondary teacher – she’s not political and she was baffled, during her training, by the hatred with which her colleagues regarded him. That’s partly because he didn’t pull his punches, partly because he really did address problems of underperformance that nobody else even identified. He really did want your local school, the kind that lots of Spectator readers pay to get their children and grandchildren away from, to be as good as the schools to which the escapees go. And it is precisely the children in poor, especially ethnic minority, neighbourhoods who need someone on their side who’s prepared to be unpopular to get that done. I’m sure his successor, Nicky Morgan, is an excellent person, but the cheer with which the unions regarded her arrival made me feel just a bit dispirited – actually furious – at the cowardice of David Cameron.
The good news is that Katharine Birbalsingh has set up a school of her own in Brent, which promises to be the kind of establishment that Michael Gove used to dream about – boot camp discipline, optional Latin and Mandarin. Bet it’s really popular with black parents. The teaching unions have condemned it on the basis that the area is already provided with secondary schools. Wouldn’t you just know it?