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#LWF11 Katharine Birbalsingh, Teacher & Author

Katharine Birbalsingh, the former Head Teacher famously sacked following her outspoken speech at the Tory Party conference.

Started with the story of challenging behaviour in Secondary Schools.  How have we got to this point, a dark age of education?  How can we move schools on into the 21st Century?  Need to equip children with a bag of goodies to enable them to thrive in the World.

One thought is to stop teaching so much content and to concentrate on skills, group work etc..  Basic knowledge though is necessary to be able to be creative.  Need to move back towards a more traditional form of teaching.  A middle class child already has this as they pick up so much at the dinner table, from the Maths tutor or from Dad reading at bed time.  Not so from less advantaged children who rely entirely on their schools.

Many reformers went to Grammar school and mistakenly think that most children are going through a similar education system.  Creating a system where children do not get access to the ‘bag of goodies’ that they themselves received.

We know that exams are being dumbed down. We are letting down many many pupils.

Many believe that an injection of tech is needed.  But this is reformers again misunderstanding what is needed.  Eton has only 2 interactive whiteboards.

Katharine continued talking along these lines, pointing out that Eton etc are very different to main stream schools, but without really going anywhere with her argument.

Argued that lack of technology not an issue as children are already skilled to the hilt from their own use.

“The education that is best for the best is the education that is best for all”.  Need to be educationally Conservative.  Argued that main stream schools reject what is successful in the likes of Eton.

There is no hiding from negative feedback in this room, the Twitter feed on the hashtag throughout this talk was cutting in it’s criticism.

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  1. I think that another term for this “message first, think later” vitriol would be “bullying”. It seems no different from the kind of name-calling, intimidation and chanting that one might find in a school playground by a mob who decide they dislike the opinion of another child in the class who is different.

    The irony is not lost on me.

    Here we have an audience of intelligent people who consider themselves interested in disruption who are suddenly shocked and appalled by someone who has a contrary disruptive viewpoint.

    The LWF event is not a club for people who are all in agreement with each other. It’s those kinds of clubs who have failed learners in this country.

    No LWF is, as advertised, a platform for disruptive thinkers who are passionate about improving learning and equality of access and Katharine Birbalsingh certainly qualifies on this point.

    Ill-considered hectoring on Twitter and cheap shots from a following speaker to win audience approval is not clever it is plain stupid and ignorant demonstrating closed mines unwilling to listen to new arguments. This is not what LWF is about.

    As educators we encourage the careful and considered use of social media channels amongst the young, explaining the risks that once you put something on the net it is there in perpetuity for all to see. Well now we have a permanent record of the intolerance of some members of the LWF community and their inability to listen, consider and debate contrary ideas without resorting to insults and bullying.

    Well shame on you.

    That kind of behaviour won’t lead to change it will simply ensure a small pond with a few big fish who are the “approved” thought leaders. But this will not happen on my watch.

    I welcome all thinkers, doers & practitioners from all sectors who are passionate about improving learning and equality of access in this renewed discussion about the role of technology & learning. I don’t have to agree with everything that is said but I do insist on mutual respect and courtesy.

    I am embarrassed that members of the LWF community didn’t show this politeness to Katharine who gave up her time, having already been penalised for her opinions by recently losing her job and being royally stuffed by the Conservative party, to share her views.

    It doesn’t matter if you don’t like her views there are ways in which we hold a discussion and the channels and speaking podium by at least one following speaker were abused.

    We can not in good conscience applaud the chutzpah and disruption of Evan Roth because we like it one moment and then rudely dismiss the disruptive intervention of Katharine Birbalsingh because we don’t.

    I suggest those who did not show common professional courtesy in their tweets and blog posts consider how this reflects on themselves.



  2. Graham,

    Many thanks for your considered comment and many thanks for an inspiring and challenging 3 days. After what felt like the chore of BETT today, the value of the last 3 days are brought more clearly into focus.

    I think you have a valid point with regards to the back-channel chat that went on at times. I’ve probably been guilty of this myself at times, and was certainly aware when trying to blog events so promptly yesterday to avoid too much comment and just relay the key points of each session. I’ll try and schedule some time in next week for some more considered reflections.

    I think that putting Katharine on along with Keri Facer & Stephen Heppel was a good decision and certainly stimulated a discussion and debate as I assume you intended. The nature of that debate at times was probably unprofessional in nature. I did feel uncomfortable at times reading some of the comments flowing past. I think it’s an interesting feature of such conferences now, and as with any disruptive technology, it’s taking some time for the Twitter back-channel to settle into it’s right and proper place.

    It’s a tricky one, as Lorna says (see blog trackback) the feedback was indeed ‘vitriolic’, and I understand very well why many people are so incensed by Katherine’s views. Having had a day to reflect (although BETT is not the place for reflection!), my overwhelming objection to Katherine’s views would be what appeared to be a view that lacked anything approaching evidence for it’s basis. I also think her use of the term But again there is irony here, evidence for the technology that so many of us at LWF love to promote is often sorely lacking. I disagree with her that the state sector is unwilling to look to the likes of Eton for inspiration and ideas. Our (inner city Comprehensive) school is currently looking towards the likes of Eton as inspiration for our new curriculum. We are seriously looking at the idea of reducing the number of qualifications which our pupils take (both ‘academic’ & ‘vocational’, and expanding the time available for non-examinable enrichment activities. Quality over quantity.

    I think her pet name for the unruly pupil (I forget the exact word that she used), although perhaps meant in jest, inflamed the room. However, as you say, the reaction on Twitter was probably no better.

    So should we all take a step back, a deep breath, and a few minutes before commenting? Or is this part and parcel of presenting in 2011? Twitter certainly is being disruptive!


  3. The nom-de-plume that Katharine used for the delinquent pupil in question was “Gruesome”.

    I live between Peckham & Deptford. I’ve also lived and worked in Jamaica – not in a gated community but in the heart of it. I’ve been stabbed twice, shot once, had my life threatened repeatedly and been cyberstalked for more than 5 years (http://www.digitalsafety.com/cyberstalking/).

    Without wishing to burst any Guardian readers bubble I have met plenty of “Gruesomes”.

    Until you’ve looked down the barrel of a hand gun or been outnumbered by a group of knife carrying youths I can imagine how easy it is to pontificate and theorise about the realities of inner city youth and schooling from the comfort of a living room chair and be offended by this particular choice of name.

    For those not wishing to have the authentic experience I would suggest getting hold of a copy of Noel Clarke’s film “Kidulthood” which is a pretty accurate depiction of the how things are in certain parts of Inner London. We are also witnessing, quite rightly, introduction of people into inner city who in UK cultural terms are children yet who have become young adults as a consequence of things they have experienced before joining this country. I draw on the experience of my wife who is a practicing psychologist working with young people and also those from countries where war and the use of weapons is part of the landscape.

    I’m not suggesting that I agree with all or part of Katharine’s talk but I do believe that she is drawing attention to a particular problem that hasn’t been solved by any earlier administrations. However there is evidence to suggest that, unpalatable as it may seem, a more rigid disciplinary approach can have a positive impact with certain students.

    Personally having reflected on Katharine’s talk I think there is something in her notion of how some sections of the community have access to what she calls “the goodies” because they have interested & engaged parents/carers whereas there are others that don’t. That she chooses to break down these divisions by class and also posits a solution based around a comparison between private and state education is based upon her own, valid, experience.

    We can get so wrapped up in political correctness that we are scared to speak, in case of losing our jobs or the respect of our peers, to point of paralysis with the learner ultimately losing out. I think this is what Katharine is getting at.

    I must confess to being more than a little frustrated at my young daughters inner city state primary school who refuse to allow competitive sports or the school in Lewisham who refused to distribute our flyers for the LWF Sunday Service because the head teacher thought it might offend on religious grounds.

    i came out of a state comprehensive which wholly failed me. Having had the opportunity to visit Eton as well as some of the harshest schools both in the UK and overseas I can say that the difference is that Eton and other private sector schools treat their students as leaders and prepare them for a world that is intensely competitive. That doesn’t mean I like Eton but it’s worth noting the difference and it’s true that, as Birbalsiingh pointed out, that many of our progressive reformers came out of a traditional and often private education system including those on the left of the political spectrum.

    But I digress.

    My point here is about the abuse of the back channel by community members combined with cynical platitudes by fellow speakers to gain cheap audience approval.

    Twitter was no more disruptive in this instance than when we used to throw pieces of paper with written notes on them across the glass, write insults on toilet doors or whisper insults about people behind their back. Just because we are operating in a digital medium doesn’t make it any more disruptive, innovative or positive. Neither does it change motive or intent..

    The difference is that it’s being viewed potentially by the world and trial by Twitter is unacceptable in my view particularly by an audience who are portraying themselves as progressive and able to embrace positive disruption.

    I’m glad that we can move this discussion on but I think there was a moment during the proceedings that was ugly and reprehensible from those who should know better.

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