Scapegoat deputy was right to fight
Katharine Birbalsingh is a brave lady.
She's a deputy at St Michael and All Angels secondary in Camberwell, and she stood up at the Tory conference to describe how the education system is failing children, particularly in schools like hers. In her blog, she details how knife crime, violence and disaffection are part of her pupils' daily lives, both inside and outside school. She is a concerned, committed and hard-working teacher who simply wants to make things better for her pupils, but her outspoken speech was splashed all over the newspapers last weekend - and for speaking out, she was sent home temporarily from her job.
I have a particular interest in Miss Birbalsingh and St Michael's. Her school is just down the road from mine.
When I was appointed to Comber Grove 31 years ago, I was keen to forge links with local secondaries. St Michael's - or Archbishop Michael Ramsey, as it was then - was closest. It was a well-run, popular school at the time, and many of my parents chose it for their children. I arranged meetings with teachers who were keen to promote smooth primary to secondary transition, and for a couple of years my older classes visited for science and technology lessons, enjoying facilities we couldn't provide.
How quickly schools can change. Senior staff retired, and there were two rapid changes of headteacher, one of whom always seemed to be out of school. Behaviour rapidly disintegrated. I stopped sending classes there when my children were spat at from upper windows as they approached the building. Shortly afterwards, I was visited by the teacher I had worked so closely and successfully with. Her face was grey with worry. "I can't stand it any more," she said. "I shall have to leave."
I was reluctant to give up. A year later I helped pioneer a local authority transition project to help Year 7s settle quickly into local secondaries, and one of our meetings was in a room at Ramsey. The headteacher didn't appear, and nobody had any idea where she was. We could barely hear ourselves speak for the cacophony in the rooms around us. I don't know what was going on in those classrooms - I didn't want to look - but it certainly couldn't be called learning.
During the last 15 years, there have been constant changes of leadership at the school. It's hardly surprising. The building is ugly, the environment unwelcoming. To reach the entrance it is necessary to cross an acre of unkempt asphalt playground, surrounded by rusted metal fencing. The classrooms are dull and unenticing and the atmosphere tense. The last time I visited the school, it was to take one of my year groups to watch a pantomime. Before the show started, and because it is a CofE school, we were all invited to pray. What for, I wondered? Divine intervention?
In fairness, the local authority seems to have an insurmountable problem that just doesn't go away. Perhaps it won't, until we change the whole culture of secondary education and give older children the education they need. At the moment, the school has an executive headteacher drawn from another local school, a highly successful leader that I have much time for. But the school needs a totally committed top management team who are there all the time and who stay for years to see things through. That's asking a lot, but until it happens, my parents won't be choosing that school for their children.
Katharine Birbalsingh is right to make a fuss. It's hard, as I found when I challenged Ofsted, but the future of our children is worth fighting for, even if it means sticking your head over the parapet of indifference.
Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.