This book tells the story of a year in the life of a school in inner-city London, from the point of view of a committed teacher. It’s been put together from a blog where Birbalsingh called herself ‘Ms Snuffleupagus’, after the fluffy elephant on Sesame Street, who, she says “was invisible to everyone except Big Bird.”* The transition from the blog format shows, and although Birbalsingh asserts that the book is, although based on real events, entirely fictional, I have a hard time believing that. Birbalsingh herself was educated in a state school, and went to Oxford University (‘Snuffy’ went to Cambridge). She would like to be an example to other black children, to show that it’s possible to do well, and to aim for the highest academic achievement.
‘Snuffy’ teaches at a London comprehensive, Ordinary School, where she’s head of English; she gives all her friends, colleagues and family one-word character pseudonyms – her husband Liberal, her friend Compassionate, headteacher Mr Goodheart, pupils Munchkin, Furious, Beautiful, Mishap, Seething, and so on. I’m not convinced that this works, and merely encourages the reader to see them as stereotypes, rather than real people (it’s also quite confusing to remember whether Seething is a girl or a boy, and who their friends are).
For a childless reader who was educated in the state sector, but in a single-sex selective grammar school, Birbalsingh’s recounting of life in her school is eye-opening and rather scary. Pupils are often violent, disruptive, and have no family support or encouragement to do well. Sometimes the parents are openly scornful of what the teachers are trying to achieve, and don’t support them in any way. Sometimes the school has to punish the wrong child – Cavalier and Furious have been fighting, Furious thinking that Beautiful, his girlfriend, shouldn’t be friends with the other boy. But when a more serious fight breaks out, it’s Cavalier who has to be punished, since he’s the one who brought a weapon to school, to protect himself against the other boy.
An early anecdote illustrates the difference between Snuffy’s averagely good state school and the private school where her friend Compassionate teaches:
‘Still, you must know what percentage of your students got five GCSE passes?’
‘Well, that’s just it.’ Compassionate makes a face. ‘All of our students do. So we judge ourselves on how many got “A*”s, and so on.’
I stop dead in my tracks and turn to face her. ‘All your students do?’
My mind is spinning as we head out of the school towards the nearest café.
It’s anecdotes like this, however, which make the author seem naïve and out of touch, however. She tells us about the ambitious and intelligent black student, Stoic, who is one of the school’s few academic successes: he’s applying to Oxford. But she’s never heard of the mentoring scheme he mentions to her, and you’d have thought that a good teacher would know of these things. It’s also rather sad that it’s obvious that Stoic is an academic success despite the school, and not because of it: because schools are judged on how many grade A* to C passes the students achieve, there’s obviously a huge incentive in getting the borderline D/C students over that line. One gets the impression that the really bright kids are left to their own devices.
Despite her idealism, Snuffy is clear-eyed and realistic about education – though she points out a lot of what’s wrong with state education, she doesn’t suggest ways to fix it – and states, for example, that she would never dream, as one of her colleagues does, of sending her child to a failing state school.
She has her own blind spots, while pointing out those of others – such as a conviction that an Oxbridge education is the best possible (perhaps understandably, since that’s where she studied), and an apparently worrying inability to see the inappropriateness of her end of term dance with Mr Hadenough. She also comes across as rather smug and solipsistic; although she’s a teacher of English, her book is not particularly well-written, but I think that’s the fault of the format – blogging regularly is not the same as writing a novel.
Birbalsingh’s views have been taken up with alacrity by the right-wing press in the UK, since she’s reinforcing their prejudices about educational theories: still, what she describes doesn’t seem to be helping anyone, and it’s not hard to see that there should be some change. The difficult part is how to make changes. Should schools return to the old days of strict discipline and staring at the blackboard? Or should teachers, as the consultant hired by the headmaster says, try ever harder to engage their pupils’ interest? And all that won’t do any good at all if parents aren’t engaged in their children’s education.
So, this is an interesting book, showing the difficulties faced by teachers and pupils at an average school in London, but one which doesn’t really find any answers to these problems.
* She’s not strictly accurate, here – Snuffy was at first never around when anyone else was, so that Big Bird had a job convincing people that he existed, but he was certainly never invisible.