The Blame Game

According to the Mail on Sunday, the school where Katharine Birbalsingh was deputy head at the time of her speech at last year's Conservative conference is closing, having been declared ‘non-viable’ after a fall in applications.

And the paper also reports that the leadership of the school are trying to blame Ms Birbalsingh's speech for this.

If this is true, it represents a disgraceful attempt to make her a scapegoat by people who ought to be looking more closely at their own share of responsibility. And if the chairman of governors actually made the remarks attributed to him by the paper, they were unworthy of a man of the cloth.

He is alleged to have said that her remarks were "unhelpful" to attempts to recruit more pupils and that "an inspection of the school held shortly before Christmas had shown that ‘nothing that she said was right’."

There is a rather serious problem with this disreputable piece of spin. Katherine Birbalsingh's speech, as you can see for yourself here, didn't mention the name of St Michael and All Angels in Southwark, where she had been teaching for a few weeks at the time she made the speech, or of any of the schools where she taught before.

Nor did she make any specifical allegations against any individual school or teacher. Her speech, polemical as it was, criticised a particular general approach to education and did not come over to me as suggesting that the education offered by either St Michael amd All Angels, nor any other school, was more particularly characterised by that approach than any other school.

Hence the most polite expression I can use to describe the "nothing that she said was right" remark is that it was complete and utter nonsense, since she had not made any allegations against the school for Ofsted to disprove.

I note that sources in the Department for Education, who were the funding authority of the school, dismissed in very strong language the suggestion that the collapse in applications was anything to do with the row over Ms Birbalsingh's comments, with a spokesman pointing out that there has been a problem with falling numbers at the school for several years. They could have added that the previous Ofsted report, a few months before the speech, was very disappointing - a fact that probably had more influence on applications than any number of speeches at party conferences.

And even if the row had an effect on the number of applications, whose fault was this? It seems most unfair to suggest that the whole responsibility for bad publicity was due to Ms Birbalsingh: some at least should rest with the authorities at the school who turned a speech which would probably have been a one-day wonder into a major row by sending her home, and thereby also caused the school to be identified in the media.

No prospective parent would have known from the initial TV coverage of the speech, or the following day's papers, where she taught. It was the row when the school "asked her to work at home" (their words) which identified St Michael and All Angels to the press.

And I note that the schools where she taught for the previous decade, where her experiences presumably payed a larger part in shaping the opinions she expressed about the state of British education than during the few weeks she taught at St Michael and All Angels, have wisely kept their heads down about the speech. Those schools have had no bad publicity at all.

Take the beam out of your own eye first, perhaps ?


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