Towards an Improved School System in England: Facing the Challenges of Inequality and Woke Culture

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Towards an Improved School System in England: Facing the Challenges of Inequality and Woke Culture

DATE: 3pm, 21 January 2021

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Katharine Birbalsingh, Tarjinder Gill, Mark Lehain




Mark Lehain  00:00

I have to say I’m quite enjoying being on a panel where I am the only white middle aged going well it’s exactly as it should be I know my place. But you know we could we be any more woke as a panel in that regard, also known so.

Dr Rakib Ehsan  00:21

So now that has been our recording and gotten live Oh to those who already joined us, so just bear with us for the next two or three minutes as we wait for more people to join the event. Thank you so we could make a start for tonight’s event. Firstly, I’d like to thank everyone who’s joining us for tonight’s event towards an improved school system in England facing the challenges of inequality and woke culture. And I’d like to provide a special welcome to our excellent panellists. Tonight, Katherine Birbalsingh was saying Tarjinder Gill and Mark Lehain very pleased that they’ve been able to join us for tonight. Just to make some brief introductions. Catherine Babar Singh is the head minister, Headmistress and co founder of Michaela Community School in Wembley, London. And Michaela is well known for its tough love behaviour systems, and its knowledge driven curriculum. And as Katherine likes to say, kindness and gratitude as well. Katherine herself read philosophy and modern languages at the University of Oxford and is always taught in inner London. She appears frequently on TV and radio and has also written for top flight publications such as the Telegraph and spectator, as well as offering two books of our own. She also edited the recently published book, The Power of culture, the Michaela way. And then we move on to mark lane, Director of campaign for common sense, which is a campaign which is designed to bring people together her interest in having open discussions on it. Admittedly socially sensitive topics he campaigned to open an was principal of a new state secondary school in Bedford, which is not too far away from me being based in Luton. He also led the parents and teachers for excellence Group, a grassroots campaign, which is looking to promote, encourage the adoption of best practice in schools when it comes to behaviour, discipline, knowledge driven curricula, and also rigorous assessments. And he has also previously written for the Telegraph and spectator. And last but not least, we have Tarjinder. Gill is an experienced primary school teacher has taught in deprived areas in London, the Midlands, and Norfolk, having a master’s in political science. She’s especially interested in education, policy, and matters of ethnicity and social class. She’s also the CO editor of the all in Britain website, which publishes blogs, which look to promote fresh thinking on matters of ethnic and racial identity. And she’s also involved in the don’t divide us campaign, which looks to prevent the spreading of divisive identitarian ideology. So I’d like to thank all three of them for joining us for tonight, just to just provide a brief outline of the event. I’ll be inviting our panellists to make introductory remarks in the region of seven to eight minutes, then we’ll move to having we’ll move on to having a free flowing discussion. And then we’ll be taking some questions from our online audience. So firstly, I’d like to invite Katherine to make her into to provide her introductory remarks, especially just touching on what has been, you know, 2020 in particular, very testing year for the education system, especially the covid 19 pandemic, people have talked about how the shift towards greater virtual learning the exam cancellations, how that might feed into widening social and economic inequalities. Also with the wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and then we’ve seen campaigns such as decolonize, the curriculum black the curriculum, there are social faultlines emerging over the continent structure of teaching methods and teaching materials in general. So Katherine, I’d like to invite you to kick us off. Thank you.

Katharine Birbalsingh  07:18

Thank you. Um, well, uh, yeah, you said a lot of things there. I think 2020 probably hasn’t been a great year for people who think like me with regard to what we believe should be happening in education. And, I mean, the stuff I want to talk about right now is more to do with kind of woke culture, and the effect that it’s having on the education system. I mean, you mentioned just COVID, generally, there is also all of that stuff with regard to cancelling exams. And the progressives as I call them, people who stand in opposition to what I would call myself, which is a traditionalist, would, I would celebrate the idea of cancelling exams, not just this year, but forevermore. And actually, that leads well into what I want to say, which is that we need to think to ourselves what the purpose of school is. And there’s sort of two options and the option one is that we can, some people think that schools should be making children into revolutionaries, that that’s the idea that and you will hear progressives, as I like to call them, wanting schools to teach children how to question everything, and, and how to be creative. Now, I don’t believe it’s possible to teach how to be creative. And the progressives have an idea in their head that there is an establishment which is evil. And what we need to do is inspire children and get them to kind of fight the power as it were. And those of us who are more on the traditionalist side, don’t think that’s the purpose of school. They, we think that the purpose of school really is to teach children how to read and how to write and do basic maths, and also do some socialisation, a variety of different subjects, but it’s really to teach them some knowledge. Now, in that, you know, it’s not just knowledge. Our motto at school here at Michaela is work hard, be kind. And we stole that motto, actually, from KIPP charter school in America that does extraordinary work with inner city kids across the country in America. And their motto was and I need to say was because it’s no longer this. Work hard, be nice. And we decided how to be a little bit different than just copy them. Exactly. So we changed it to work odd because now I say was because in 2020, you’re talking about BLM and so on. They sadly came under A lot of pressure to change their motto from work hard, be nice. And they’ve got rid of it. And now we are holding fast to our motto work hard, be kind, because I believe 100% that this is these are two things that you want all of your children to be able to do. You want them to be able to leave school with you, as people who work hard, and who are also good people, you know, the good human beings, they’re kind. Now, the reason why BLM and the sort of campaigning, they’re around this might have made KIPP feel uncomfortable about having this notion of being nice. Because you think yourself, Well, why wouldn’t you want kids to be nice? Why wouldn’t you want them to be kind? Well, it’s because it comes along with this idea of you are, if you’re nice, then you’re sort of subservient, and you’re subservient to the white rich master. And actually what we want our our children to be revolutionaries, like I said, so you have the first option, which is we’re inspiring them to go and overthrow the rich white man. Or if you’re teaching them to be kind to be nice, well, then you’re sort of teaching them to just do what the white man says. And, and that can make some people on the left, I would say, progressives, as I just said, but not only some of them, not all of them feel uncomfortable. So um, and schools have gone to the lengths of even teaching white children that they might not be good people and black kids that they are good people. There was a programme on Channel Four, called the school that tried to end racism. And there they were, you know, they were separating out the kids now. And that doesn’t sit well with me. And and some people would say, Well, look, you know, most schools aren’t doing that. And they’re absolutely right. I think this is a minority, that would be doing such a thing. However, it’s a minority that is gaining ground and is becoming more and more popular, this idea of teaching critical race theory in schools. And, again, I come back to the idea of of what is the purpose of school? Is it to turn them into revolutionaries? Or is it to teach them to read and write? And this idea of ending racism, and the school that tried to end racism? I mean, in a way, it’s kind of a nice saying, you know, who wouldn’t want to end racism? But the point is, how do you end racism? And again, I go back to the point, well, do you want to make the kids into revolutionaries, or you want to teach them read and write? Because I think, you see, the people who argue against this would say, Well, obviously, if you want to end racism, then you need to be an anti racist, and you need to be a revolutionary. And so that’s what we need to be teaching our kids. But I would say that actually, if you want to end racism, the best way to do it, is to get our kids to work hard, and be kind. Because actually, if you get kids to grow up into adults, who work hard, who participate in society, who who have jobs and pay the mortgage, and don’t go into crime, and who are nice to other people, kind and looking after the children and other people’s children and so on, and giving back something to the world, the best way of ending racism, I think, is to is to lead a good life. And that is both for the the non whites who are just demonstrating that they’re good citizens. And for the white people who might be you know, who, who we might think, Oh, you know, what are they up to? Are they racist? Are they this, that and the other will actually, if they just been brought up to work hard and be kind? If we all do that, then actually, I think that’s the best way of ending racism. So the people like me, I think, who stand against the idea that that school is not about making kids into revolutionaries. It’s not because we don’t want to end racism. It’s because we think the way to end racism is to teach children to work hard and be kind. And it’s a bit sad. I think that perhaps the other side, don’t recognise that the aims of those of us who would consider ourselves to be more traditionalist, we have the same aims in mind. We just take a route, a different route, and we don’t think they’re taking will get us there.

Dr Rakib Ehsan  14:06

Well, thank you, Catherine, for your insightful contributions there. If I could call on mark to make his introductory remarks, Mark.

Mark Lehain  14:15

Thank you. Rakib. I’m so I’m going to look at this issue from a slightly different angle to what Catherine said, I completely agree with pretty much everything she’s laid down already. So I was focusing on the third generation teacher My dad was a teacher to a boys school, the same boy school for nearly all of his career in Maidenhead, and his mom, my paternal grandma became a primary school teacher at a village school in Cambridgeshire, in middle age, she retrained when it’s teaching them, and I always said I would never go into teaching and after I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But in the end, after copiers working in the city, I had to kind of come out to myself and admit to myself teaching was in my blood. And that’s what I wanted to do. And I will always remember I’m First day of teacher training back in 2002. The two people that ran the math teacher training course that I did at Cambridge, gave us a sort of a pep talk and explained that the whole purpose of teaching was about social justice, and was about challenging the system. And if we weren’t there for 36, secondary school, maths, teachers, maths teacher trainees, if we weren’t there to do that, then we might want to pack up our stuff and go, now listen, I I have very, very fond memories of those training trainers, they did a really, really good job with us. And I’m still in touch with one of them now. But I think straight away, we were given the impression that the job of being a secondary school math teacher wasn’t to teach second school pupils about maths, it was about social justice. And that was what came first. And it struck me that even then there was a partiality about the teaching profession that I hadn’t quite expected. Although, if I think back to when I was at school, 30 years ago, for instance, I can remember very, very clearly the day in November 1990, when Margaret Thatcher resigned. And I remember that very, very clearly. Because we found out she’d resigned in my science lesson that was going on in year eight, when the re teacher at my school went around to every single classroom in the school knocking on the door, saying, ladies and gentlemen, just to let you know, the Prime Minister has resigned, dingdong, the witch is dead. And then he went on to the next class and on to the next class and then on to next classroom. And I remember lots of other teachers would you know, slag off Margaret Thatcher or john major’s and then became, and so on. So I think there’s a risk that we can be a bit historical, and think that the partisanship we see in the teaching profession and in our schools is new, I don’t think it is new. What I think has changed is that I think we’ve always had a very relaxed view about teachers sharing their views and their ideologies in school. What I think has changed is that the kind of ideologies espoused by a small but growing under the teachers, they’ve moved from political ideas, to cultural and social values. So whereas it used to be people accepted, they might have left wing or right wing views, but that we could all muddle along, it didn’t make the people that disagree with them good or bad, or clever or stupid. As the sort of woke ideas, as we might refer to the more social justice ideas have, have been adopted by more and more of the profession. Increasingly, they’ve been less tolerant of other colleagues, but also off pupils, the actual pupils that they teach, having different views, and that I think is more worrying. And the other thing is, it shifted from the political sphere to lots of other areas that are political, but lots of teachers don’t think they’re being political. So when the Department of Education, and reminded schools in the autumn, that they have a legal obligation to be politically impartial when covering political issues, and for those of you that if Next, I’m going to zoom careers, if you’re looking for a really geeky question to ask people, the question is, what are the law states that schools have to be politically impartial? It’s the Education Act 1996, section 46 and 47 if you’re a maintain school, and it’s the Independent School standards, 2014 for Academy and private schools, okay, so that’s, that’s your rabbit knowledge for the evening. It the guidance that came out last autumn, it’s very clear, it pointed out that it’s not just hard for political issues, you have to be impartial, but other issues which are political, around environmental issues, around issues of gender, and identity, around economic discussions, discussions around charity, and so on. And that really blew the lid off for a whole load of teachers in our schools, because they could not believe that they were being asked to not push their values, which they just took as a given to their pupils. And it’s not because they’re bad people. No one goes into teaching. I mean, a small minority might go to teach them because they’re activists and they want to turn peoples against the system and so on. But the vast majority of people go into teaching and do a brilliant job. And they handle these contested issues really, really well. History, teachers everyday across the country are teaching tricky historical issues, and doing it in a balanced way. Ditto already teaches geography teachers, English teachers, and so on and so on. However, there are a small but growing number of teachers who are shocked that they cannot present their own views as uncontested facts or given ideas. And their reaction when the defeat updated or reminded people of that guidance last autumn was really, really telling, really, really telling. And it showed me two really important things that lots of people were ignorant of what the law said. They weren’t aware that they could be that they were meant to be politically impartial on a whole range of issues, or perhaps more worryingly or pernicious. They knew that they were meant to be politically impartial, but they were so convinced of their righteousness that they were going to ignore the law. And we saw that with various open letters and pre legal actions that groups of teachers got together to write or to deliver to the Department of Education, arguing that the fact that they weren’t meant to be teaching kids, for instance, that white privilege is a fact, as opposed to it’s an interesting but contested idea. The idea that they shouldn’t be talking to pupils, and presenting anti racist concepts as just the way you do things as opposed to a moral decision. The idea that gender identity is a very contested, important and very sensitive issue, but very contested issue, and that you shouldn’t be telling children, that trans women are women, it’s just a statement of fact, that actually, there’s a lot more to those difficult and sensitive issues than that. They were shocked by this all really annoyed about that. So I think we have to bear that in mind when we consider the gap, the advantage gap of the time gap between pupils, but also the what I call the inclusion gap, because there are large groups of pupils in schools these days, that don’t share the values of the teaching profession. And hence, aren’t necessarily able to engage or have the professional relationship with their teachers that we would like them to have to do the best they can. And I think what is happening is the teaching profession is at risk of becoming completely out of touch with the communities and the population that it serves. You can see this in the voting habits of the teaching profession, overwhelmingly, various types of showed, they backed Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party in 2017, and 2019. That is not where the bulk of the British population is. Am I surprised that teachers are potentially at risk of being out of touch with population know, the average teaching salary is 41,000 pounds a year, the average salary or a full time job in the UK is about 30,000 pounds a year. So that and we also have teachers are fully graduate profession, and the bulk of the workforce, isn’t that. So I’m really worried. And I say this, as someone who has teaching in my blood was a third generation teacher and knows it’s one of the most important job that there is out there. There is a risk that the teaching profession is getting out of touch with the children and communities it serves. And they’re trying to push on to the children. They teach not facts, they can make their own minds up, but their own opinions so that the children pick them up. And that’s why I think the deputy reminding schools of their legal requirement to be impartial is so important. But it’s also I think we’re going to see more organisations, more parents, and other people picking schools up when they push contested facts. So I’m going to push contested ideas as uncontested facts, which is just not. So that’s my contribution.

Dr Rakib Ehsan  22:34

Thank you very much for that mark. before I head over to our agenda, I would really encourage our online audience to use the q&a function and ask our great panellists some questions, and they’ll definitely add value to the discussion tonight to Agenda if you could kindly make your introductory remarks please Thank you.

Tarjinder Gill  22:54

Again, I’d agree with quite a lot of what’s been said already. But I’m sort of taking it from the perspective being a primary teacher but also somebody being disturbed by these kind of narratives that I noticed when I started teaching myself No, particularly surrounding sort of highly politicised narratives that existed already in primary schools. And this would have been about a decade ago. So that’s where I would have first started thinking about some of these issues. I agree that I think that there’s been this kind of slide towards the situation that we’re in now. And I think it needs to be tackled, I think it’s almost like the issue. Kate has come to a head in some respects. But it’s been going on for a long time. And it’s exposed a real weakness, particularly in terms of initial teacher training, and who we’re actually so again, as Katherine said, What is the purpose of education, but also to link that into slightly to what Mark said is that, actually, it’s not a profession for a group of people who are ideologically similar, and want to promote an agenda. That’s not the purpose of education. That’s not what taxpayers pay their money towards education at the end of the day, is, is a so it has a social function, but it’s there, so that we can support the next generation to achieve their potential. And that means all groups of children, not just certain groups of children are not just those people who agree, not just those whose parents agree with us and have the same values. Now, there is a kind of general consensus in society, but I think very much teaching has become or teachers themselves have been recruited and trained in a way that means then more and more divorced from that. And I think genuinely A lot of people don’t actually, even though they’re sort of political in some ways, they’re not in others in the sense they didn’t seem to spot the more extremist elements of what was coming out. And they didn’t even sort of think Hang on, is this actually a mainstream ideology was being treated to some of the stuff that was coming out with after protests was being treated as though it was just mainstream and people believed it when actually these concepts are highly, highly contested? in society and by various people, so part of the worry isn’t just that there are people who hold these views within education and who want to promote them. But the fact that there’s so little discussion in general, about the difference between say socialisation and politicisation and the way that it’s just been kind of, you know, people just treat it as though it’s the same thing, and let themselves off the hook. Because ultimately, we do have a role to play when it comes to socialisation of all children with just sort of the general norms in society. And there is a legitimate way of changing some of those norms out in society and, and that does not involve actually indoctrinating your students. And I think a lot of people honestly would not believe that’s what they’re doing. But that is where they’re heading. And they, they sort of, sort of slightly, you can sort of see these people making excuses for themselves, because it’s okay, because their beliefs are better. But actually, surely, as teachers, we should have the maturity to know that well, just as we think our values and beliefs are right, other people will tend to take part in that wider debate in society. But I think it’s almost gone underground. And, and while you’ve always had these murmurs, and yeah, you’ll have these sort of articles in the Daily Mail, calling teachers Marxists and stuff. To some extent, the criticism hasn’t I don’t think being valid enough. And I think, in the sense that it’s, yes, you’ve got people saying and doing extreme things, but then actually, sometimes the criticism of it is, is kind of just hype bowl itself, so that you don’t really get a proper discussion. And we’ve needed that for a long time. However, it is quite worrying. The extent to which I would say a fad culture has really, you sort of taken hold in education as well. So it’s not just the sort of political aspect of it, it’s the fatty nature of it as well, because to some extent, the reason why this was taking off is because, hey, look, this is the new fat. And what I think a lot of people who are not part of the education system wouldn’t realise is that over the sort of the last 20 years in particular, there was a lot of thinking, going into new initiatives and new ideas, trying to almost salvage this progressive education system, which had promised so much and delivered so little. So you had initiative itis, and you had sort of initiative after initiative. Yes, silver bullet off silver bullet trying to solve problems. So in some ways, what all of this is part of is actually a wider culture where it’s accepted that you can solve very big problems with just with just a simple solution, because in some ways, what they’re arguing is a simple solution. If you just teach children about white privilege, somehow racism will end in society, it’s not actually dealing with the complexity of those issues. So I think it exposes a lot of problems with initial teacher training, and what is actually what is the content being taught to teachers, very much like Mark, I would have also been taught an awful lot about social justice, and how to end it and the fact that you’re this progressive way of teaching these methods. These behaviour management systems were what would work and what would deliver the end result, I think, rightly, teachers who work in the education system, particularly the state system, should want to if they can try and reduce the gap between rich and poor, but it’s not as straightforward as what, you know, the word culture, or the people who support these ideas would say, and their own ideology has so many aspects of it, which just don’t match up. So for a start, a lot of these theories came from the US. And they’re clearly trying to shoehorn the UK history, the UK education system into that. So if we were genuinely trying to tackle inequalities, yes, you would look at different ethnic groups. But you’d also look at the fact that white working class boys are some of the one of the groups that needs support, like there’s a gap there that needs to be addressed. So it’s not a simpler thing. white privilege causes certain groups to bail and other groups to succeed. Also, there is another situation that I think, possibly, again, people outside the education system might not know, but education research, in many regards, is actually quite poor and quite backwards. To some extent, I don’t think it actually really tackles a lot of the issues that we actually need to have research on. So if you look at all the claims that were being made about Black History being taught on the curriculum, actually, there is no single piece of research out there on the history curriculum, and what specifically has been taught in schools, nobody’s actually done that research, not on a large scale. So to make any kind of claims beyond an beyond anecdote about what hasn’t hasn’t been taught, is just simply rolling it you see these years still, I see, you know, people claiming that, you know, Empire isn’t being taught. And as if if you just teach about empire that will solve racism, but it doesn’t solve the inequalities that we face in the education system itself. And COVID to some extent, expose this in other ways, because it highlighted the fact that yes, there is there are sort of, you know, huge groups of children who maybe don’t have access to laptops and computers who when they were in lockdown, were not able to access education in the same way. Not that I think that you know, sort of remote teaching is sort of a pedagogy that I’d want to to follow through with I certainly hope this isn’t the new Well, I don’t think there is a substitute for teaching face to face in classrooms. And so again, some of this sort of hit that within education. So quickly, you had the sort of advocate, oh, maybe we should adopt more remote learning, maybe we didn’t, maybe it’s the future. All of these things sort of tie in if you know what the education system is like. And you know, the kind of fads that get repeatedly repackaged and put out there. Now, there are lots of very good reasons why we should have a curriculum and knowledge rich curriculum, which exposes children to a wide range of different histories to different groups of people. That should not be stereotypical. There’s all sorts of good reasons for that work. ideology is not the reason why, though. And also, if, if someone genuinely does still, at this point in time believe that just by putting more books in schools, or having more authors of books that are from ethnic minority backgrounds, is simply going to solve the issue of certain ethnic minorities doing better than others, they actually don’t know much about the history of education. I mean, so many of these initiatives have been tried repeatedly. I mean, genuinely, if it was that simple. All we have to do is teach, you know, non stereotypical characters, just positive positive characters from two children who were black or Asian, when you think it would already have worked somewhere. And we would know by now, because it’s not just that it’s been tried here. It’s been tried elsewhere. But the problem that we have in the education system is that failed initiative after failed initiative just gets shoved under the carpet just get swept under the carpet. Sorry. And so it’s easy for people to repackage it to a new audience. So part of my frustration with a lot of this is we’ve already done this, it’s already been tried. I mean, you were doing this 10 years ago, we say you’re trying to put more black history on the curriculum, did it work then in which schools Did it work? I mean, we would surely know this, but we don’t. So I think all that’s really happened during this period is it exposed things that actually do need tackling? And marks? Right, there were a lot of people who were unhappy that the government got involved and in to some extent, I would, I would prefer, they didn’t. But I think it’s fair to say that as a profession, we serve the whole of society. And while it’s, it’s considered to be the norm to leave the extremes out of what we consider to be the norm, you know, to try and get a consensus. From the vast majority of people, I think we need to see that these extremes for what they are, and to ensure they’re not that children aren’t being exposed to them. The fact that they were nursery school children, even if it was just from some places that there were nursery school children who sent home with newsletters containing you know, Black Lives Matter, material that was being promoted to them critical race theory that was being promoted to them uncontested as uncontested that shows that there are definite weaknesses in the system that need to be addressed. And if we really do want to make the education system better for everybody, then actually we need to almost deep politicise it to some extent, we do need to observe things like political neutrality, particularly for younger children. I don’t see how right now, a time where some children have missed, particularly very young children have missed months and months of face to face teaching, which would support them to learn to read and write, we can honestly say the biggest problem is whether we’ve taught these ideologies or not.

Dr Rakib Ehsan  33:22

Okay, thank you for your contribution. Tarjinder. Much appreciated. I think, as you can see from our q&a and chat functions is there’s all sorts of questions flying around. So I think, I think I’d like to take this question from this questions been submitted by William Jones, who’s a new trainee teacher, he asks, as a new trainee Teacher, what is the best way to challenge the status quo and the spreading of some of the the spreading of the normalisation of some of those ideas and theories that we’ve discussed? without risking being seen as the enemy within? How would be the best way to go about that? Katherine good, quite, quite tricky situation to be in, isn’t it?

Katharine Birbalsingh  34:04

Yes. Well, to be honest, I would advise any new teacher just to get on and learn how to teach. take on board these discussions. There’s so much to learn when you’re a new teacher. I mean, you might have your private discussions. But I, the problem you have as a new teacher, is that everyone will tell you that you’re new. And so you don’t know what’s what. And to a certain extent, there’s a lot of truth to that. And if you’re marching around saying, actually, you know better and this is how it should be, you’ll come across as quite arrogant and in a way you like might act that might be a bit arrogant to do it. Although obviously, I agree with the position of being critical of this type of atmosphere in a school. I think I think you’ll find as a new teacher, not just to do with all of this work stuff, but also just generally, you just need to find your way and what works for you and how best to teach. And, you know, I would say more traditional way, how best to get good behaviour from the kids again, I would say in a more traditional way, and that when you are really good, then then you’ll be in a stronger position to be able to criticise the environment around you. That’s what I’d say. But maybe Hank, and the other two here mark in charge into will say differently, I don’t know.

Dr Rakib Ehsan  35:33

What my mark, would you mark, would you echo Katherine’s thoughts is ultimately, just for you know, someone who’s new to the profession, it’s just about keeping your head down, finding your own sort of, you know, just focusing at the job of hand, ultimately, providing a, you know, a rigorous and disciplined sort of, sort of, you know, just keeping the focus on just ultimately just teaching your students and just ultimately, helping them develop their skills, whether that’s literacy maps, and not to get too entangled in this to begin with,

Mark Lehain  36:08

or I think Katherine made many, many very good points. So I’m gonna, I’m not gonna disclose anything, she said, the only thing I would add is, and this is used to actually not just for new teachers in schools, this, I think, is going to be very, very important over the next few years in all workplaces, as people start to gently and politely but firmly push back on some of these crazy ideas that have crept in. And I’d be saying to anybody that asked you to do this stuff, what’s the evidence for this? I’ve got a lot to do. And if you asked me to do this, I’ve only got so much time, Katherine, in one of her early books about the opportunity cost. If I spend my time and effort into doing this, I can’t spend that time and effort into doing something else. So what you want me to not do so that I can do this? So if I’m going to just what is the evidence for it? And the the, the reason why that’s so powerful, particularly when pushing back on some of the lots of the dodgy ideas that have come into education, not just those around identity politics, but lots of bad ideas, generally, is there is no evidence that they make any difference. They are like the Emperor’s New Clothes. We just need to start pulling out. So look at the power of Kenny Babineaux saying those few words in the House of Commons last autumn, about reminding teachers critical race theory is illegal. And if you teach physics fact, I suppose an interesting idea you are breaking the law. So I say to any trainee teacher, any teacher any length of time in the profession, if they’re uncomfortable, something’s going on in their school, and they’re being asked to do something which I think is dodgy, the first thing they can do, because it makes it depersonalised as it is to say, what is evidence for this? Can you show me that evidence, and normally, at that point, people will mutter under their breath about something or another, and then they don’t come back. If they do, then come back, and continue to ask them to do stuff. Just ask them. And I can’t believe I’m saying this as someone who is a bit wary of legislation being used to stop stuff from happening well, myself, having asked him to explain why it’s legal under the Equality Act 2010. Most of this work stuff is basically illegal under the Equality Act 2010. And if it’s not illegal under the Equality Act, 2010, it’s almost certainly illegal under the Education Act 1996, section 4647. Or if you’re in an academy, or a private school, independent school standards, section, five C and five D. And most people will panic at that point, because they’ve got no idea what you’re talking about, but go look it up. And it’s very, very clear that schools have to be politically impartial. And a lot of the things that a lot of these bathrooms Teach me off to do are not politically impartial, they are very partisan. They’re contested little ideas, and therefore teachers cannot use them in school presenting the facts. If anybody works in a school, for instance, that has an racism policy or an anti racism policy, that is using white privilege, or critical race theory concepts as part of their school policy, they are breaking the law. Pick up for interested, ask them to come inspect the school that will fit it right.

Dr Rakib Ehsan  39:05

Thank you for that mark. And I think that that thing in a way of moves, you know, we can move lead, we can move into our next point where you’ve mentioned, white privilege will get talked about the sort of intersectionality frameworks where for example, being seen as being seen as white. being male is seen as almost hyper, hyper privilege, you could say it’s serious advantages to agenda, you being the CO editor of the all in Britain website, which I’ve contributed to on on quite a few occasions myself. How unhealthy when I talk about education policy, and we look at educational outcomes in particular, I want how unhealthy is the concept of white privilege because when I’ve seen educational outcomes, you see that white working class boys, for example, they’re trailing some way behind. So could you almost say that the sorts of you know the core tenets of white culture the concepts of white privilege Being white male seen as being seen as forms of hyper advantage? That’s quite unhelpful when you’re, you know, when you’re looking at things from an education, educational policy perspective, isn’t it?

Tarjinder Gill  40:11

Oh, yeah. And you know, it’s completely inconvenient. I mean, particularly white working class boys, they are very, very inconvenient to anybody who wants to sort of go into this, he wants to promote the idea of white privilege in our society. And and usually what they’ll do is they’ll say, oh, but it’s classed as well. And then just ignore what that actually means. Because they want to get back to the fact that, you know, there’s these sort of white middle class people and white upper class people who are very rich and privileged. I think part of it is that while I think there are people who genuinely do think this is a way of ending racism, I think there are other people who are promoting it for their own benefit and their own careers. And it has nothing to do with education in reality. I mean, if it did, if these people genuinely willing to discuss this, this theory, this idea, you think they’d expose it to evidence and the fact that we have large groups of white working class children who have for decades now been underprivileged, and, and not succeeded in the education system, that fact itself would make you if you were genuinely a theorist, would make you think, hang on, I have to revise something about my theory, what you don’t do is pretend it doesn’t, it doesn’t exist, which is what they have to do. I also think it’s quite damaging and unhealthy. Because, in the end, we do want to have a fair education system for all children. And just as I sort of taught in, in Brixton, and so taught, mainly children from Afro Caribbean backgrounds, I also taught in Great Yarmouth, which is, you know, very, very white working class area. And in I’ve done that in Leicester, as well. And I don’t think that you can argue that, that those children from the white working class areas don’t deserve the same as everybody else anymore than all that somehow those children in Brixton, deserve more. I mean, you can, you know, it’s a game and we shouldn’t be playing it, because ultimately, these are children, and we shouldn’t be allowing activists to have such a say, when it comes to education, policy or ideas about education, I think the problem that we have is there’s not a debate academically, like I said, education, initial teacher training, and to some extent, education, academics themselves, are part of a group who believes in some of these ideas, so they’re not challenging it. teachers would find it hard to challenge it. Generally speaking, because they’re not necessarily taught these things, or if they are there, they themselves are taught it as that. So I think it’s unhelpful, but I think it’s worrying that for us as teachers in the education profession, what’s really going to happen is that we’re going to get critiqued from outside by people who don’t understand what’s going on in the educational system itself.

Dr Rakib Ehsan  42:50

No, thank you. No, thank you. And, Katherine, I guess this moves on to some of the points which are being raised in the q&a and chat functions as well. But people people are asking how do teachers even have the time to be teaching concepts such as white privilege, when they’re looking at, you know, in other countries, for example, which are performing relatively well? Well, they’re outperforming the UK when it comes to numeracy skills. For example, they’re asking, they, understandably, they are asking, Where do you even have the law, they almost is almost seen as a luxury, in a sense to be teaching concepts of this nature, and then presenting theories as fact that this is deeply problematic, isn’t it?

Katharine Birbalsingh  43:34

Well, this will take place in lessons like PSAP, personal and social and health and that there are there are spaces in the curriculum where this sort of thing slots in. And where, frankly, for many years, for decades, children were being taught how to be good citizens, and so on. And these sorts of lessons. It’s just that more recently, they’ve taken a turn to include all of these ideas from critical race theory. So it’s always been the case Plus, you have assemblies, you have just general chitchat that you have with the children. I saw in the chat here, somebody saying that their child had been told something about Trump being a wicked man. Now, that’s not a lesson. They don’t have a lesson on Trump. It’s just that they’re in their Tutor Time with the form with the kids. And they’re doing registration and asking them how the day went. And then they said, by the way, can you believe that Trump is out the re he’s wicked man, they’re just giving their opinions. And as Mark said earlier, the fact is that teachers are overwhelmingly on the left and then they some of them have certain ideas that are are perhaps not just on the left but more extreme left. And then they just they just say what they think so when the kids say to me when there’s an election or anything, you know, what are you going to vote Miss? I don’t talk about it. I say that You know, that’s for me to know, you know, all of my teachers would do that if we will do a mock election, and we will give assemblies on the various different parties. And we’ll say, Okay, let’s look at the economy. And then we will have a, you know, a PowerPoint up telling them about what position each of the various parties take on the economy, or what is their position on education, and then we’ll talk about that, you know, the idea is to just allow children the freedom to be able to make their own decisions and to think for themselves. And and what that means is seeing as we have used to have elections regularly, we have had a couple of mock elections more recently. And in and in those elections, actually, it was really interesting, we we saw a landslide in one of them. One was a landslide to the conservatives, and another one of the elections, it was a landslide to the Labour Party. There were a few of our kids who were voting for you, Kip and one, you know, there were there, there were some Brexit ears there were that we had. And this is an inner city schools. So you wouldn’t necessarily Imagine that. But we had very thought and children thinking different things, and they would defend their ideas. And that’s what you want. School is about encouraging children to think for themselves. And what’s really sad, I find is that the progressives are often saying that schools should be about getting children to think for themselves, when the reality is that they do exactly the opposite. They’re telling the kids much more about what they ought to think. And what’s key to this is to understand that the only way you can think for yourself and the only way you can be creative, is if you have loads of knowledge about something. You know, if you asked me to tell you about car engines, and to be creative, and have my own opinion about car engines, I don’t have much of an opinion about car engines, I don’t know anything about them. But if you asked me to tell talk to you about education, I can talk to you for hours. And I can tell you how I’ve turned it on its head. And I’ve been quite radical when it comes to thinking about education. And that’s because I know lots about it. So I would come back to my initial point at the beginning, where I was saying what is the purpose of school school is to educate children and give them lots of knowledge so that they can go off and then become revolutionaries, if that’s what they want to be, or they can become dentists, you know, it’s up to them. The fact is, our job isn’t to tell them to be dentists or to be revolutionaries. It’s to give them lots of knowledge and skills so that they can go off into the world and make something whatever they want of their lives.

Dr Rakib Ehsan  47:37

Thank you for that, Katherine. And if I could just, if I can move on to mark. So you know, your experience as an educationist, would you say that when we’re talking about, you know, encouraging critical thinking among young people, do you feel that it’s not so much that kind of encouragement, but it’s more as Catherine is saying? It’s almost it’s almost, it’s almost an instruction? You know, you should it’s not that you should question this one, then you come to your own conclusions more that this is actually correct, which is questionable in itself. But then you should actually think this way. So it’s more of a, it’s almost a sort of instruction style method of teaching, as opposed to encouraging critical thinking, would you say we’re, in some ways, we’ll be moving more in that unhealthy direction, in your own experience?

Mark Lehain  48:21

So, so, um, I completely agree with what Katherine and Virginia have been saying, which is, you can’t be creative or think critically about something unless you know quite a lot about it. And one of the problems are not just in the English education system, but in quite few education systems around the world is are often children to pretend to be experts and hold sophisticated views about things of which they know nothing really. So they end up doing is parenting the adults around them. And this is certainly the case with some of these contested ideas which are creeping into schools, which probably Tarjinder, Katherine, myself, don’t agree with. The key job as a teacher is to make kids smarter over time. And one of the joys of teaching, whether it’s primary or secondary, is watching kids, as they get bigger, and they’re learning more things over time. They start to form their own opinions, and then you can have the to and fro back to them. And you know, I am I can’t hide my politics anymore, because I ran for the conservatives and Australian election. But I can tell you now, some of the careers or some of the pupils that I’m proudest of have actually, for instance, got involved in politics, not overwhelmingly for the Liberal Democrats, or the Labour Party, and I’m so proud that they follow through on it. In fact, one of them Joel, in the 20. I think the 2017 election was voted by heat magazine, the sexiest political candidate in the general election. And he in fact, Election Day was the day before his last final exam at university light. So I’m not worried about if you like what they end up doing. I’m proud of that they’ve gone off and learned about something become expert about it, and comment on it. And as always teaches is to if you like given the escape velocity to get into space as it were able To then decide where they go. And our job as teachers was to teach kids how to think for themselves, not what to think. And I think I’m wrong enough, if you teach this, how to think for themselves, you will narrow those gaps between the haves and have nots. And also, bearing in mind, Britain is now more varied, more diverse as a society than it’s ever been in terms of ethnicity, religion, the lifestyles we lead, it’s more important than ever, that all people do get that core curriculum, that core cultural entitlement. So we’ve all got something in common that we can refer to. It’s only when you’ve got lots in common that you can really appreciate the diversity, the differences between us. And that’s why it’s important as teachers, our job is to teach that cultural entitlement to kids, and then then go on and decide how they want to differ from that over time.

Dr Rakib Ehsan  50:49

Thank you, Mark, I can see that there’s a discussion a real discussion brewing in the q&a section on initiatives such as decolonize, the curriculum campaigns, such as black, the curriculum Tarjinder, if I could just move to you. Some people have said that when they’re looking at how history is taught, for example, in English schools, black historical icons, they do not feature very much in that teaching. So when it comes to those kind of criticisms, how would you respond to that?

Tarjinder Gill  51:19

You have to refer back to Okay, so there’s two parts to this. Sure. Well, history teaching would be rubbish for a long time, in a lot of ways precisely because we didn’t have a knowledge curriculum, we did have a skills based curriculum, we were skirting over an awful lot of things we would use the whole idea that you would teach it in interesting ways, which was just hiding the knowledge. I don’t think that I think primary teachers in particular have been quite ill served in the sense of developing their subject knowledge, because the whole idea was that there are these generic skills. So when I first started teaching, over a decade ago, especially these generic skills, and actually submitted the knowledge didn’t even really matter. So teachers themselves unless they had that background, like someone like myself had a history and politics background, then they wouldn’t have actually been developing their subject knowledge, and there wouldn’t really a better way to do that. So when I say he’s teaching me, Robin, I don’t mean to put anybody down, I would say that even when I was teaching wasn’t quite good enough. And that’s part of the reason why I was happy that there was more of a focus on the knowledge curriculum. So if there’s been issues with the teaching of history, across the board, that’s part of the reason why because along with all the other subjects, there were sort of subject boundaries being sort of you weren’t being observed. And so people weren’t doing good history teaching weren’t being encouraged to do good history teaching. I don’t think, particularly, you know, in primary schools, where you had a focus on discovering and inquiry learning approaches, well, I’m not surprised that a lot of people might have walked out of school, not knowing much about history, or not knowing it well enough compared to say, previous generations. In terms of what has actually been taught on the curriculum, like I said, Before, there has been literally no large scale study of what has been taught in schools, people cannot make generalisations about this, we do need the research, don’t get me wrong, we need it. We need someone to go and say, Okay, what exactly has been taught? Because part of the you know, I think one of the strengths that we do have is that we do have teacher autonomy, and we get how make choices. But I think this whole issue has exposed to some extent, are we too loose in the curriculum? Do we need to have some more prescription around what we teach, to ensure that all children are getting entitlement? And I think we also have a particular issue with British history, which doesn’t seem to be addressed by the people who criticise the lack of black history, for example, is that actually, we have a very, very long history, a long recorded history in this country, and trying to get through it in any kind of meaningful way means that you will have to make choices. So it’d be one thing if we were teaching every period of history, and all we did was leave out every sort of black person who might have been important to every Asian person who might have been important. That’s fine. If that’s what they were exposing them. Fair enough. I don’t understand that. What they’re ignoring is that things like for example, well, the world wars are not statutory to be taught you actually teaching the Empire statutory. But what’s not a statutory is teaching about the Empire, any specific Colney that Britain had? So if you’re teaching Empire, actually, you’re just as it’s just as right to say, well, let’s look at the US. Let’s look at you let’s look at the British Empire. In America. Let’s look at the the British Empire in Australia let you Why not that as well, because those people have got a particular agenda they’re trying to push and usually what they want to be taught are these things. Where is it not just a critique, which is fair enough of say, a more sort jingoistic idea of the amazing British Empire. What they want is for children to be taught certain facts in order for them to think and believe in a particular way. And I think if you remove The agenda away from it and you look back at history teaching, and then there’s something that might be contributed. And but we’re always going to have to make choices. And my question some of these people would be what is enough? And why? why what what specific amount Do you need on the curriculum? Because the fact of the matter is that if you look at the our education system, as it stands, having more or less figures from your ethnic background does not actually have an impact on outcomes. If it did, then you would not have an education system where Chinese and Indian children do so well. And white working class children don’t do so well. Again, it’s ignoring the reality of, of the statements that they make, you know, if just putting more figures from different backgrounds is going to help and education equality, then why is it that it didn’t affect those groups? It’s avoiding some of the more difficult questions around why we have this inequality. Again, there are very good reasons for having a wide range of different cultures taught and different types of history taught, but it’s not the argument they’re making.

Dr Rakib Ehsan  56:01

No, thank you, Linda, I noticed Catherine that you you wanted to make a comment there, see if you could, please.

Katharine Birbalsingh  56:06

Yeah, I just wanted to add to what Arjun just saying, really, I mean, the reason why these arguments are being made, it is not out of nowhere. It certainly used to be the case that history was whitewashed. So it’s not that the critics of the way in which history is taught, or mad, you know, this is the this does come from a problem that really was an issue. The question is whether or not it is still an issue. And Tarjinder was talking about history. And, and you know, she’s talking about it from a primary perspective. The fact of the matter is that at the end of primary school, the tests, the SATs that exist are testing English and Maths history is not taught. And then in Key Stage Three, there are no keys threes, three tests, so set your 789 in history, you will not be taught, you will not be examined in history. The only time you get examined in your entire school career in history is that GCSE only 40% of our children take history GCSE. So that means the majority of children in our schools are never tested on their historical knowledge ever, in their entire High School careers. So when Tarjinder says, Well, we don’t actually know what’s being taught taught. She’s absolutely right. Having said that, we don’t know because there’s never been a study that all we know, is anecdotally What do various schools teach, I can certainly tell you that anecdotally, all of the teachers that I have known in various schools, that and if you look at the textbooks, and the textbooks are, are quite, you know, telling, because textbooks tend to be quite popular, they’re used in schools, and there certainly is a contribution, you know, quite a lot on, there’ll be, you know, there’ll be a section on India and colonialism, they’ll be certainly on slavery that will be taught. Now, again, the criticisms there will be criticisms that might be valid, that people have saying that when black history and I say Black History like this, because I really don’t like that term, I would prefer the, you know, if we were to talk about historical events that include black people, for instance, because black history, well, I don’t wanna get into it, but I don’t like it. And the black history is being told, but what they would say is that there’s a certain type of black history that’s being taught. It’s one where black people were were oppressed, that we don’t talk about African kingdoms, for instance, at a time where where black people were not just being enslaved, for instance. Now, there’s lots of interesting history that includes black people across the world that we could include in our history teaching, however, as Tarjinder said, How much time is there to teach this stuff? One point, she said was, there’s all this progressive teaching going on. So frankly, children are being taught poorly, and they can’t remember what they’re being taught because memory is not a focus. And also, they’re not being taught in a traditional chronological way, where history is taught chronologically, and you have these coke pegs in your head, which you can hang new knowledge on. That isn’t happening. What’s happening is there’s a bit of a topic here. Oh, jack the Ripper. That’ll keep them interested, because there’s lots of Gore. Let’s do that. Oh, and now we’re going to do the Romans. What does the Romans have to do with jack the Ripper? We don’t know. But we you know, you’re jumping around. There’s no chronology. It’s not done in a traditional fashion. So children don’t remember it. Now, what will happen is if I’m talking to my black friends, they’ll say something like, Well, I was never taught black history at school, so they must not be taught. And then I say, can you tell me about the Cuban Missile Crisis? Can you tell me about the rise of the communism and USSR? Can you tell me I go through a whole number of historical events? Do you know anything about any of that stuff? Now? They don’t. And they weren’t really taught very much, or if they were they were taught in a progressive fashion, so they don’t remember it. But what can be quite annoying motional and more engaging is this idea of, Well, look, I’m black. So Why wasn’t I taught my history? Now, the problem with that is that, you know, if Polish people went around and said, Well, I’m polish, why wasn’t it with my Polish history? And I’m Chinese and Why wasn’t I taught Chinese history? You know, what many schools have, most schools have two history lessons a week, some will just have one history lesson a week, how on earth you are meant to fit all of this stuff. And then you have to think what is the history that we’re teaching all about what the children are. So if you’re teaching in a white mainly white school, you only teach white history. But if you’re teaching in a mainly black school, you teach mainly black history, the identity politics here that then determine what we ought and ought not to be teaching is concerning. So it’s a big it’s a bit it’s an issue. I and I’m, you know, and I can see that why critics make their criticisms. However, they have to look at it in the context of nobody gets tested on their history. Knowledge up until GCSE, up until just before GCSE, only 40% of kids take history GCSE. And is it really just about black history? What about all those other histories out there?

Dr Rakib Ehsan  1:01:11

No, thank you, Katherine. And I think I’ll leave it to my fellow Bedfordshire man, Mark, to wrap it up for us, because I’m aware of the time just just a very, you know, a sharp, a sharp finish to the event, if you will, if you just about irrespective of the ethnic, religious, socio economics or composition of a school, what would you say the key ingredients, if you just have to just name them? Just a few? What are the key ingredients to providing a wholesome, rigorous education?

Mark Lehain  1:01:39

Well, so, yes, so kids between the age of four and 16 probably have if they’re lucky, 12,000 hours of lesson time and contact, honestly, only 12,000 hours. And what we’re all arguing about as a society and as panellists tonight, is how do we spend those 12,000 hours, that money and the teacher expertise, and I’m really optimistic about how things to go in our schools in the next years, I really do because Not least because I’m a massive fan of Nick give the school’s minister who has been in post now for nine out of the last 11 years, all right, out of the last 10 years, he’s been able to see change a lot the nuts and bolts to make our schools better. So when people say to me, what makes a good school, I’m going to be really flipping here is ABCD case, it’s great attendance, great behaviour, a great curriculum delivered effectively, so that kids memorise it. And that then leads them to good exams or qualifications, so they can go on and choose what they want to do. Okay, and we’ve got one of those autonomous teaching professions in the world, in We’re so lucky as teachers in in England, because we can learn to do what we want to do within the constraints of the national curriculum, if we’re maintain school exam curriculum, if we’re academies or private schools. And actually, Nick give us quietly been TINKERING AWAY behind the scenes over the last while not behind the scenes of the last 10 years, they have reformed the exam system, they’ve reformed the accountability system, they’ve reformed Ofsted, and now they’re finally reforming the teacher training curriculum that’s been changed. And there’s so much good quality stuff now in the core initial teacher training curriculum, that for teacher training institutions to deliver all of that there’s actually no time left for the kind of social justice warriors in which lots of us would worry about. So I think over the next few years, we’re going to see even better prepared teachers coming out of initial teacher training, that are better prepared around getting kids into school, knowing how to run their classroom, run the room, keep them well behaved, know how to look at a well sequence curriculum, know how to deliver it in a way that’s a fit, effective and efficient by Catherine intergender talks about it. And we’ve got better quality exam systems now that better prepare kids for where they want to go. So ABCDE, it takes time to change all of those things. But between Michael Gove Nick Gabe and the other education secretaries and ministers we’ve had over the last 10 years, I genuinely think we get in there. The key thing now is there are a lot of people that want to use the current COVID crisis as an excuse to undo all of that. And because we won’t have had Ofsted inspections for so long, because we won’t have had SATs or GCSEs or a levels at the end of this year. People have always made the case against those things and are saying while COVID proves we don’t need it. I’m telling you now, and I still am not at work in a profession directly. I’m talking to parents and teachers and head teachers across country more than ever. We need clear, fair accountability, clear, fair, unbiased exams and knowledge rich corporate and for all kids. It’s the only way we’re going to bring all these children back together when we get them back into school, whether that’s Easter or September. So the key is diligent ministers getting on with the nuts and bolts stuff like Nicky has done for the last eight, nine years, and then letting it fed in and let it make the difference. But I’m optimistic I’m really optimistic.

Dr Rakib Ehsan  1:04:50

Okay, well, I’d like to thank our panel for tonight. Katherine, Mark and Tarjinder. Thank you for contributing towards what was a intellectually stunning Relating in insightful conversation I’d like to thank our online audience for tuning into this Henry Jackson society event. Thank you.


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