Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The price of speaking out

Britain used to be a society which understood what Voltaire was getting at when he said "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Within reason and the law, obviously - there is and should be a law of libel, and as another famous saying has it, freedom of speech does not confer the right to shout "Fire" in a crowded space (unless there really is one.)

But freedom to express controversial opinions does not seem to be what it was, as the case of Katharine Birbalsingh demonstrates all too well.

I was in the conference hall for the speech about education at Conservative party conference by Ms Birbalsingh, who at the time was a deputy headteacher working in a school supported by the diocese of Southwark.

Her speech was passionate and controversial, along the same lines as the Melanie Phillips argument. (She used the line "All Must Have Prizes," which is the title of Ms Phillips' book, early in the speech.)

My experience as someone who has been a governor of three schools over the past 23 years, has two school age children, and has met a fair number of teachers either because of one of those two things or through my political activities, is that it would not be hard to find either people involved in education who strongly disagree with her comments, or other teachers and governors who equally strongly agree with her. My late mother was a teacher for the whole of her working life, and I'm pretty certain that if she had been alive and in the hall she would have jumped up and cheered at the end of the speech.

I don't believe the generalisations in which Ms Birbalsingh spoke apply to every teacher or every school, but neither do I think she meant them to be taken as doing so. And I think there was enough truth in her opinions that we try to suppress those ideas at our peril.

Although she took no prisoners in her criticisms of many ideas which are popular in education in general, I didn't hear her attack a single individual colleague. She had permission from the parents of all the children whose photographs she used. Her speech did not identify either the school where she had recently started work, nor that where she previously worked, and there was nothing in the speech which could remotely be described as actionable.

I do not accept that any reasonable person who heard the speech, as I did, and who supports free speech within the law, could possibly believe that any part of that speech justified disciplinary action of any kind. Judge for yourself here.

So I was utterly horrified when I heard that she had been sent home, and that the suggestion was being made that she had brough her school into disrepute.

The Diocese of Southwark denied that they had suspended Ms Birbalsingh, stating that she was being asked to "work at home" for a few days while the matter was being addressed. In one of the most hypocritical, weasel-worded statements I have read which purported to be issued on behalf of what is supposed to be a Christian organisation, they justified this by saying that they were concerned that "the position of the academy" (e.g. the school where she worked) "should not be misrepresented".

Nobody in their right mind who had seen the speech could possibly imagine that Katharine Birbalsingh was claiming to speak on behalf of the academy, which as I have said, she did not name, or to be expressing anything other than her own personal views, or that those views in the main were specifically about her current school given that she had been teaching for many years but had only just started at that school.

A couple of weeks later she left the school, in circumstances which the BBC described as "unclear." At no point have I seen in the press that either the Diocese of Southwark, or the school, has given any justification for sending her home which holds water for twenty seconds.

Cranmer's blog has his take on the story here,
illustrated by a picture of the head teacher of the school standing next to Tony Blair. "Cranmer" argues that it should not have been Ms Birbalsingh who resigned but those responsible for the way she was treated. And frankly, if the facts are as he describes them, he has a case.

1 comment:

Jane said...

I listened to Katherine Birbalsingh's speech live on television and at the time agreed with every word. I also thought she was a impressive speaker. Informed and passionate she cares about the welfare of her pupils.

Like Ms Birbalsingh I read Marxist literature as a student, but experience has taught me to see the world differently. It was quite clear that she was speaking generally or using specific examples to make a general point. For example the "I am anger management" boy who was incapable of taking responsibility for himself. She criticised a culture that keeps poor children poor and encourages low standards particularly amongst black boys, because teachers are so afraid of the race card being pulled on them that they dare not reprimand them. The result sets a bad example to other black boys, who make heroes of underachievers. She is also correct that generally an exceptionally talented child will achieve, come what may in the state system, but what about the ordinary ones. Heads are shackled by bureaucracy and targets set by the previous Government. No wonder she is disillusioned with Marxism!

Ms Birbalsingh expressed legitimate views at a Conference she had every right to attend with her Conservative hat on. She never named her school, criticised a teacher personally and certainly did not bring her academy or her profession into disrepute. She had a right to free speech.

I was shocked when I read in the Telegraph the weekend following the Conservative Party Conference that Ms Birbalsingh had been "sent home", which is New Labour speak for being suspended. Now I am saddened to hear on this blog that Ms Birbalsingh has left the school.

We now have a Conservative Liberal Democrat Coalition, which is committed to reforming education at the same time listens to professionals like Ms Birbalsingh. It is however a slower process for administrative cultures to change under a new government. Clearly the administrating authorities/bureaucrats that Ms Birbalsingh was subject are still stuck in the New Labour time-warp. This has had sad consequences for Ms Birbalsingh and probably removed an exceptional teacher from children who would have benefited from her educational standards and philosophy.

Fundamentally for the rest of us, it is a tragedy for free speech and victory for New Labour hypocrisy. It shows how much the administration of this country has been politicised and our language hijacked to distort reality.

I can only hope and pray that Ms Birbalsingh will find a new position and that her professional career has not been ruined. As she quite aptly said: "Success is never final. Failure never fatal. It is courage that counts".