More art graduate ignorance from Katharine Birbalsingh?

Katharine Birbalsingh
Image by mrjorgen via Flickr

Unlike many members of the Labour Party I am pretty relaxed about the government’s “Free Schools” policy: generally speaking I think it is a distraction from the central issue of improving standards and outcomes and that the party should see it as such.

But I am also worried when I see signs of public money being given to ignorant people to spend on crank theories of education – and that is what I fear may be happening with Katharine Birbalsingh‘s proposal for the “Michaela community school“.

Birbalsingh, a French and philosphy graduate, who left her previous teaching job after she named, and displayed photographs of, individual pupils at her school in a speech attacking the education system at Conservative Party conference in 2010, has decreed that the secondary school will not teach ICT as it is merely a “skill”. Apparently the ability to read or speak Mandarin or Latin are more than mere skills though, because they are to be offered (I have nothing against either language and have a Latin ‘O’ level myself – I just think only an arts graduate would see understanding computation as merely skill – and presumably for the lower orders – and an ability to speak a language as something else.)

Of course, as I have repeatedly stated here, the current ICT curriculum in England is a mess and does teach people very little. But given that a “free school” can set its own curriculum then it borders on the moronic to dismiss computing in this way. It is little more than a week ago that Michael Gove, the education secretary, was getting carried away on flights of fancy about what teachers could do with the freedom to set their own ICT curriculum: now he is about to give large sums of precious public money to someone who would appear, from where I am standing, not to have the slightest clue about the importance of computing and computation.

Her school, says Birbalsingh, will place an emphasis on maths, so maybe that will offer some hope. After all, as Turing and Church showed, maths – at least at the level taught in our schools and somewhat beyond – and computing are different sides of the same coin. But it would appear Birbalsingh does not grasp this basic insight.

Birbalsingh’s judgement is obviously suspect in any case – how many people would be shocked, as she obviously was, when their employer was unhappy about an employee attacking them on live national television? But I fear her differentiation between computing and worthwhile subjects also shows her to be ignorant.



  1. Do you suppose that she considers fluency in Mandarin important in that it will allow her graduates (without computing “skills”) to communicate with their future employers? (According to US cinema, a working knowledge of Latin is crucial when battling the undead.)

    • I think some knowledge of Latin is a good skill to have, though not for the reason you suggest 🙂 She has now said she will teach computing in Maths and English (!) classes.

      • At one level she has a point with that – the existing curriculum is heavy on how to use Microsoft Office – but the Secretary of State has said he is abolishing that and her school would not be bound by it in any case. Essentially I don’t think she knows what she is talking about in this area.
        She is a figure of enormous political controversy and I think she behaved appallingly in making that speech, but I also think that a lot of the criticisms made of her are unfair and made for pretty conservative (as in no change) reasons: but she does herself no favours at all.

  2. The knowledge of Latin would have greatly improved the syntax and use of punctuation in the main article. A column is used to explain a concept, not to express its opposite (first paragraph). The use of a comma in ‘named, and displayed’ is incorrect.
    Perhaps Katharine’s future pupils will be able to do a better job.
    It is down to personal aspirations whether a computer is simply a tool to communicate with others and manage numbers or something more. Ignorance has nothing to do with it.
    Just watch how many parents will queue to get their children into Katharine’s school.

Comments are closed.