Faber London 2019 ISBN 978-0-571-35499-8.
Now the world’s been brought low. The wind’s heavy with soot.
Alexander and Caesar. All their retinue.
We’ve seen Tara buried in grass, Troy trampled underfoot.
The English? Their days are numbered too’
As the Grauniad said, this prompted anger from leading scientists.
‘Dame Athene Donald, a professor of experimental physics and master of Churchill College, Cambridge, said the comments were “terrifying” and “quite damaging” and questioned to which research Birbalsingh was referring in suggesting that girls had an intrinsic lack of appetite for maths and physics.
Dr Jess Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London who campaigns for equality in science, said: “I honestly can’t believe we’re still having this conversation. It’s patronising, it’s infuriating, and it’s closing doors to exciting careers in physics and engineering for generations of young women. Whilst girls and boys currently choose A-level subjects differently, there is absolutely no evidence to show intrinsic differences in their abilities or preference.”
Rachel Youngman, the deputy chief executive of the Institute of Physics, said: “The IOP is very concerned at the continued use of outdated stereotypes as we firmly believe physics is for everyone regardless of their background or gender.”
Surely the inevitable will eventually take its course? Surely she’ll eventually be moving along?
Sadly, as with the PM, no one is surprised. KB was the Deputy Head who sank her own school at the Conservative Party Conference in 2011. Four years later she set up a Free School and now calls herself the strictest headmistress in the country, as if that doesn’t raise more questions than it answers. Invited to reflect on the scalability of her model, she says – all schools should be like mine, look at the quality of the artwork. (This echoes her 2011 claim that children in state schools didn’t read whole books, in comparison to fee-paying children who might read four or six a year). What? I saw the artwork, which was nice, but lots of us have remarkable teachers eliciting fabulous stuff. Many of our students would think four to six books a year pretty thin stuff. Her pronouncements are often met with well-raised eyebrows. Surely one day she’ll have to give up?
I wonder. We have a DfE which appears to be better led in the ‘I want this: Ofsted will inspect it and I’ll name and shame those who aren’t managing it’ style. Around, above and below sit all kinds of Tsars and Tsarinas, favourite MATs and pseudo-research. KB is, to the current government, a very attractive figurehead for the not-very Tory endeavour of social mobility, her media-savvy performances a wonderful distraction from the job in hand. Just like the PM.
And yet why say that about girls? KB’s school-based pronouncements about the need for total control and discipline are all about clearing a space for potentially disadvantaged students to not-fail. Because they aren’t given any choice, they are freed to achieve. It is an argument, certainly. So why doesn’t it work for girls doing physics? Shouldn’t the same lie in store for girls with no family history or university or science thinking about storming that citadel? As Mandela said, freedom is indivisible. You can’t raise the economically disadvantaged while oppressing those disadvantaged by gender. Why would you?
Part of me wonders, flying in the face of the political zeitgeist, if this latest set of gaffes might dislodge her from favour. Perhaps the cup might pass to someone else’s more reliable lips? Perhaps she’ll get what’s coming to her? Then I look hard at the evidence before me and the sorry context in which we’re in and give myself a shake. Personal integrity is less important than a snappy soundbite: blame and distancing are more worthwhile than trying to solve an intractable problem; sounding iconoclastic is all that matters. Brexit happened thus, and we sink under its weight.
Clever people don’t make accidental gaffes. The PM has never said anything he didn’t mean to say, whether he meant it or not. Oxford-graduate KB may or may not care about girls in physics, but she cares hugely about herself, her profile and her future. Raising the numbers of girls in A level physics and Further Maths has been a long and painful journey for all thinking schools. I wonder if she knows this, has tried her best and not-quite succeeded? She’s had all the plaudits for so long that perhaps she can’t risk-assess admitting failure.
The world’s topsy-turvy, though. This dust’s the dust that fanned
Caesar and Alexander as each gained ground.
Tara’s under pasture. At Troy, it's clear how things stand.
For the English, their time will come around.
Where next? From Social Mobility Tsar to oblivion, the Lords or a safe seat? I don’t think she need worry. I think she can say what she likes. I’ll keep you informed.