State schools: are they failing our children?

27 February 2011
The Observer
link to original

The state school depicted in Katharine Birbalsingh’s novel doesn’t resemble any school I’ve encountered recently – as a teacher, parent or researcher. Towards the end of the book, despite the school being riddled with poor behaviour and teaching, it’s judged to be “good, with outstanding features” by Ofsted. The comprehensive where I now teach was recently judged in the same terms by Ofsted. It couldn’t be more different from Birbalsingh’s fictitious school: results are excellent, pupils are well-behaved, teachers are committed and the school is well-run.

Birbalsingh insists that her fabricated school represents the vast majority in the country. From my experience as a teacher and educational researcher over 20 years, I would say my current school is much more indicative of the state of comprehensive education. Time and again, I found myself questioning the validity of points made in this book. The narrator claims that only the “old-school” teachers are effective; the new ones don’t have an “ounce of creativity and ingenuity”. We’ve had an influx of new teachers into my school, and I’ve been struck by how well-trained they are, and by the high expectations they have of the children.

This is Birbalsingh’s hate-filled, ill-informed diatribe against a profession she feels has rejected her. But none of her smears are backed up with evidence – because the facts are not on her side. Currently, Ofsted judges over six out of 10 schools to be good or better, with behaviour in 86% being good; research conducted by universities shows that state-school pupils consistently outperform their privately educated peers at university. Birbalsingh believes her own bias trumps all this research – and the positive experience of millions of parents, pupils and teachers: you need only log on to the Local Schools Network campaign website to see the testimonies of parents who celebrate and support the state sector.

It’s no wonder Birbalsingh has presented her arguments in the form of fiction: that’s precisely what they seem to be.


  1. I believe her as she is talking about a school I also used to work at the school she mainly talks about (name redacted until FG finds out more!) in London. People are on their best behaviour during Ofsted, give misbehaving students “time out” in other schools or alternative education during inspections. The staff never divulge what is really happening in schools to inspectors otherwise the results would be different.

    from Justin Carroll
  2. Birbalsingh is100 per cent accurate.OFSTED reports are a phoney game of hide and seek . Phoney schools with phoney pupils taking phoney subjects to get phoney qualifications in order to get places on phoney courses at phoney universities. State education is the most corrupt and dishonest area of the bloated public sector.

    from Terry Priest
  3. I can no longer even work out who you are trying to convince, Francis.

    Yourself, perhaps?

    from oldandrew
  4. I find Justin Carroll’s comments about OFSTED a little worrying. Is it true that if a school gets a good OFSTED report it is because the Inspectors have been fooled? Then is the opposite true: that Inspectors are fooled if a school receives a bad assessment? Do schools really collaborate to house each other’s misbehaving students while an OFSTED inspection is taking place? And do parents allow their child to go to another school just for a few days because the school requires it?

    When a local school was inspected last year, all the parents received a questionnaire to complete. If what Mr Carroll says about OFSTED is true – that they are fooled – then all the parents must support the deception and say that they believe the school to be good when actually they believe the opposite.

    What a strange Alice-in-Wonderland world we live in!

    from Janet Downs
  5. Who are you trying to convince? You’re certainly failing where I’m concerned!

    from francisgilbert
  6. I’ve read the Ofsted report in question and feel much more persuaded by it than the anecdotal, “fictional” evidence that you find in KB’s novel. This is because it has a much larger evidence base, and sets out to be as objective as possible. Obviously, “deceptions” may happen — although this has NOT been proved in this case — but inspectors are a wily bunch and know when the wool is being pulled over their eyes. They don’t hand out Grade 1s — which they did to the Sixth Form in this school — unless they really mean it. Basically, it’s a pretty good school, and KB’s novel is exactly that, “fiction”.

    from francisgilbert
  7. I would beg to disagree Terry. Ofsted reports are open to close scrutiny and are not pieces of “fiction”; they are, to quote Karl Popper’s famous test of validity, “falsifiable”. KB’s novel is “unfalsifiable” because it’s fiction: she’s always got a “get-out” clause. The Ofsted report is built upon the analysis of a great deal of evidence. The Ofsted report should be taken seriously, unfortunately, KB’s novel should not.

    from francisgilbert
  8. I’ve followed up on this and posted a blog on Local Schools Network about my findings. Needless to say, I did find out that she taught at the school for a number of years and that it appears to be rather good; she’s even quoted as saying so in Teacher Magazine.

    from francisgilbert
  9. I used to work for one of the top state schools in the UK (name redacted by FG), where children were trained on how to respond for Ofsted and the lessons were rehearsed by both staff and pupils. The idea that only ‘bad’ schools practice this kind of deceit is wrong.

    from Tom
  10. Tom’s comments about pupils in a “top state school” rehearsing lessons for OFSTED reminds me of when HMI visiting my girls’ bi-lateral school in the early 60s. We pupils were primed beforehand so that the school would be seen in the best possible light. When OFSTED inspected the school in which I taught, there was no way in which we could have rehearsed the pupils – they would have told the Inspectors that they’d done the lesson before. I applaud them for it. Perhaps the pupils in the “top state school” will be as honest next time they are inspected. It can’t be much of a school if it sends out the message that it’s OK to mislead and deceive.

    from Janet Downs
  11. I think you’re absolutely right Janet; at all the schools I’ve taught there’s been no way pupils could have been co-erced into telling porkie pies. That’s why I find KB’s protestations that Ofsted is a sham totally unbelievable.

    from francisgilbert
  12. I have not read this novel or ofsted report, but I have read ofsted reports of three other schools I know very well which the behaviour of their students, leadership and academic performance are not in line with their outstanding grades awarded to them by ofsted.

    from Nick Nunayon
  13. No idea whetgher Ms Birbalsingh’s views are correct. However, I think it is entirely plausible that schools may get good OFSTED reports whilst having generally poor behaviour. Students often turn on the ‘good’ tap during inspections and leadership teams are patrolling the corridors. Parents don’t really know what schools are like except for things like homework and events. Staff may lie on their own questionnaires, too at OFSTED times. When Itlak to supply teachers who come into the school on a casual basis, I get the feeling there is a lot of poor behaviour out there.

    from Tony
  14. […] her fictional diatribe against state education, To Miss With Love, and writing a review of it for The Observer,  I’ve been starting to investigate the truth about Katherine Birbalsingh and found out some […]

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