To Miss With Love, By Katherine Birbalsingh

Dumbo, Munchkin and Psycho are in a class of their own
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The Independent Culture

Nobody could doubt Katherine Birbalsingh's commitment to her material. As a teacher, writing about teaching, her love of what she does is palpable in every page. So how did this dedicated educator and champion of her students reach a point where she can't imagine sending children of her own into the state education system?

To Miss with Love is the diary of a single secondary school year, and a powerful attempt to anatomise the problems to be found there. The school is "Ordinary School"; her 10 years' experience of five schools blended into an amalgam that could represent almost any inner-city secondary. The characters, likewise, are composites given usefully mnemonic names. The teachers include Mr Goodheart (the head), Ms Alternative, Ms Sensible and Mr Hadenough; the students are Furious, Seething, Dumbo, Munchkin, Adorable and Psycho. The details are invented, but based on real experiences.

Birbalsingh's contention is that most students in England attend schools like Ordinary. They all want to be footballers or on MTV. They've never seen a real cow. The educational world she so vividly paints is desperately broken. Discipline is so bad that lessons are spent constantly fire-fighting rather than teaching. Attention spans are so short that teachers are forced to break their lessons up into tiny, bite-size units and fill them with games, in the hope of engaging at least some of the kids for at least some of the time. Students know they can misbehave without serious consequences; they can fail every test and still move up to the next year. Permanent exclusion is almost unheard of.

The common room, meanwhile, is a place of grinding disillusionment. Having to fight for the students' attention, one second at a time, is exhausting. The threat of Ofsted looms, and when the inspectors finally appear, the teachers who win their praise are simply the ones most adept at jumping through Ofsted's arbitrary hoops. A large proportion of the staff is on the verge of quitting.

Birbalsingh's experiences touch on most facets of the education system that currently make headlines, but unlike the headlines, these are stories told from the inside. Through Stoic we learn about university prejudices; through Dopey's experience we learn about league tables and crazy incentives; through Deranged and her mother we learn about the role of parents and the damage they can do. The children are learning about these things, too, the hard way. It's no wonder there is violence.

Birbalsingh is an ardent fighter for her kids; a scourge of the nonsense that besets the system. And though her picture is partial, and some of the arguments extrapolated from it are disputable, it offers a case study that demands to be engaged with. And engaging it is. Snuffy (Birbalsingh's alter-ego) can be naïve, but she can be shrewd, too, and there are canny observations and touching moments. Once Birbalsingh gets into her stride, it's surprising how little it matters that her characters are generic. When results day comes, we really, really want Dopey to get that "C".

Anyone who has spent time in a London secondary lately will recognise a lot in Birbalsingh's world. Many will disagree with the diagnosis as much as they agree with it. But the conversation needs having, and with this book, packed with passion and outrage, Birbalsingh rises to the challenge.