We’ve come a long way from the days of telling children that they should be seen and not heard. Once a display of insubordination, in 2019 the audacity of piping up at the dinner table or offering unsolicited opinions is no longer considered a punishable offence for a child.
Thankfully, that much-needed liberal approach to childrearing has extended to more serious issues too, with a general recognition of the need and benefit of giving kids the spaces and safety to express themselves clearly – and particularly if an adult is treating them badly. Or so I thought.
Earlier this week, Katharine Birbalsingh – headteacher of London’s Michaela Community School (dubbed the strictest in Britain) – suggested she’d prefer a return to the blanket silencing of young people.
When asked on Twitter what a parent should do if a teacher had favourites in the classroom, she wrote: “Who cares?! It is like saying: ‘Teacher is racist’ or ‘Teacher doesn’t like me’. Ignore it. Work hard. Indulge your kid with their grievances & you destroy all hope of success for your kid.”
Predictably, things escalated. Concerned Twitter users – some of whom were parents, others teachers – questioned whether it could ever be acceptable to ignore a child if they suspected a teacher of being racist, or otherwise subjecting them to unfair treatment.
Chillingly, Birbalsingh thinks it’s more than ok; she says it’s necessary.
“Yes I am being serious”, she wrote, when pushed for answers. “If child says teacher is being racist, back the teacher. Whatever the child says, back the teacher.
“If you don’t, you are letting the child down and allowing them to play you for a fool.”
Let’s repeat that. “Allowing them to play you for a fool”. As if the only thing that would motivate a child to disclose discrimination or poor treatment at school is a desire to undermine an adult they dislike. It’s an irresponsible statement in itself; but coming from a headteacher, it’s worrying indeed.
Had my parents taken the same approach when I was at school, my self-esteem would’ve taken a battering. At around the age of eight, I was this child. I informed my parents that one of my teachers had a habit of giving special privileges to white children in the class while ignoring a number of black and Asian pupils.
It wasn’t an accusation I took lightly. I wasn’t motivated by sinister hopes of getting my teacher into trouble. In fact, bringing it up in the first place was scary enough. I said it because, in my experience, it was true.
As a black child who’d already encountered and had been taught to identify, as so many other children of colour are, racism – both in and out of school – I knew I needed to speak up. I had been taught that racism was designed to hold certain people, and groups, back. That if it went unchallenged, it would escalate, making life harder for all its victims. That those who perpetrate it had license to carry on as normal, safe in the knowledge that no one would dare to stop them.
So when my parents did confront my teacher about the issue, they made sure to let her know it was important for her to consider whether there was anything she was knowingly or unknowingly doing in the classroom that would lead me to that conclusion. Even if she did not agree with my impression of her (which she didn’t initially: she insisted that she was a huge fan of Nelson Mandela, so couldn’t possibly be racist), that meeting resulted in change.
She started to call on the black and brown children she had once ignored in the classroom. I began to feel less like an afterthought and more interested in what we were learning. Many others, I suspect, felt the same way.
While there were teething problems with her approach (I recall another black classmate being accused of not being proud of his blackness because he wasn’t looking at the board when she was delivering a Black History Month class on Martin Luther King), the fact that I knew my parents took my views seriously spoke volumes.
It speaks volumes when other children, whether it’s discrimination in any capacity, or indeed abuse or assault, have those assurances too. Unfortunately, not all kids have such support at home – which can have awful consequences in terms of their development and mental health.
Birbalsingh’s insistence that supporting teachers should take priority in instances like these reinforces the notion that the accused should be prioritised over victims, no matter what. It also glosses over the very real issue of racism among staff in schools, suggesting instead that teachers are fundamentally incapable of any form of bias due to their profession alone. Not at all. As someone who has both witnessed that the opposite is true and heard horrific tales of racism in schools from teachers themselves, I wholeheartedly reject Birbalsingh’s position.
Rather than categorising children and teenagers as malicious tyrants, intent on dishing out serious allegations so as to avoid detention or consequences for their bad behaviour, we should hear them out.
Does that mean giving parents permission to aggressively attack teachers the second they suspect that their child has been slighted? Of course not. But it does mean those responsible for children’s education must make schools fair and inclusive environments for everyone.