Woman! Know thy place.

It’s been a tough week. I’ve always subscribed to the Paulo Coelho school of thought that the secret to life is being knocked down seven times but getting up eight times. When I was abused by my piano teacher, I practiced my scales because I loved music. When girls at my school hospitalised me twice, I walked back into school the following days with my head held high. When I found myself aged 24, penniless, abandoned and pregnant, I brought my son into the world alone and taught him that love and knowledge would conquer the world and it sustained him all the way to Oxford. I’m used to finding silver linings and getting up. Chumbawumba minded me. So why on earth did I let some negativity on twitter bring me down this week? This post is not intended to be a ‘pity me’ post, but rather an exploration of why it is that a small number of privately educated men seem to think it’s alright to personally attack women they deem to be strong. And most of all, it’s a celebration of the ilkhood that sprung up in hundreds over the past few days and which I’ve come to think of as the I Love Kids brigade.

I was aware of the Robert Peal review as I boarded a plane to Turkey with my family but was unconcerned. He has a motive for revenge – I had hardly been complimentary about his own book and I had known he would vent his spleen. I hadn’t quite been prepared for the fact that the dish on which he served his revenge had been given to him by Academies Week. Still, as I outlined above, I’ve faced far more formidable foes than Robert Peal and my husband and I read the review laughing on a beach and ordered another cocktail. I thought I’d save a response for when I got home but the subsequent furore has really spoiled this holiday and so I post this now in the hope of salvaging the last two days.

Bitterness blinds. Of the errors he points out in terms of content, only one is valid. That South Korea has the third highest child suicide rate in the world, not the highest. This is true and I knew it when I wrote it. I had meant that it had the highest of all the countries topping the PISA tables, but that’s not what I wrote. The other erroneous points either contain data that was published after the book had gone to print. Or they are just misleading. One error that was missed was the statement I made that Robert Peal was returning to teaching at the Michaela free school. He did not go to Michaela, but is completing his NQT year at Toby Young’s West London Free School instead. Apologies Robert for that error.

The review seems to have only covered the sections of the book that named the reviewer and so it’s not surprising perhaps that he missed the points raised or the ideas in it. He claims that there are no suggestions as to what a new education system might look like, but there are detailed outlines for reform of ITT and suggestions for what teachers can do in their own schools and classrooms – pedagogical activism which I outline as a form of quiet revolution. But then, those arguments are made in the book, so if you are interested, do read them.

Nor is the book highly critical of Teach First. While it raises concerns about funding and closeness to government, there are many positives to the TF philosophy that I highlight and I also tackle some of the common misconceptions levelled at TF. It is, however, critical of inconsistent ITT provision.

Peal also attacks some of the citations I offer in support of the impact of narrative, emotion and activity on memory. If anyone would like to know more about this, then I’d read Willingham and Egan on the power of narrative, Damasio and Curran on the power of emotion and there are large sections in the book dedicated to activity and embodied cognition, but Goldin-Meadow is a good place to start.

Now, onto the meat of the issue. It was not, as I said, a peevish review that upset me. Nor was it particularly the platform offered by Academies Week. Controversy sells and I respect that. But it was the gleeful barking of the scavengers waiting to feast on the carrion of the review that did me in. I found myself in the Aegean but feeling like I was swimming in spite. “Brilliant review” tweeted Old Andrew Smith about a book he could not be bothered to read. And others joined in. John Blake, supposed champion of academic achievement, sneered at my doctorate and accused me of pride. God forbid a woman should be proud. I was wounded. And I mean, really, tearfully wounded. And that’s the point at which I always ask ‘what’s really going on here?’ I went through the timelines of all those gleeful hangers on. Mostly (but not quite all) men educated at all boys schools. Mostly Oxbridge graduates. Mostly middle class. None who had come from backgrounds where getting ‘ideas above your station’ was a sin. Rachel Da Souza recounts this mindset well in her profile for Academies Week. To be working class, female and aspirational is difficult. While my parents always encouraged me, the attitude in my school to anyone who wanted something more than babies and hairdressing in their lives was spiteful. It led to having your head smashed repeatedly against a concrete floor. It led to having your cornea sliced open with a fingernail. By far and away, the worst insult a teenage girl could (and still can) hear is “She loves herself”. So there was the sting.

I am yet to meet a woman who has achieved something who doesn’t suffer from imposter syndrome. I’ve had so many whispered conversations with those who appear to be strong and confident about the fear of ‘being found out’ – the fear that you can’t possibly be as good as others think you are. There have been psychological studies about the tendency of women to focus on the negative comments even when the positive far out weigh them, and this has certainly been true for me. Perhaps this is why I got upset. But I’m not upset any more. I am buoyed and I am back in the ring. I have the ilk to thank for that. Robert Peal had no idea what he started with the phrase ‘Debra Kidd and her ilk.’

As soon as I tweeted that I’d had enough, hundreds of DMs and tweets came flooding in. Some chose to remain anonymous because of their high public profile, but support was offered nonetheless. Others tweeted loudly in support. It turned out that the ilk, many of them women but a great many others decent, kind and fair minded men, were numerous and generous. And they lifted me out of a little fog of self pity and reminded me that it’s not about me. And it’s not about them. It’s about children. And that’s what we’re battling for. And if in twenty years time, some of the kids I’ve taught have the word Dr. on the front of their books, I’ll be cheering loudly and very, very proudly indeed. Thank you all ilks for reminding me what matters.

25 thoughts on “Woman! Know thy place.

  1. Hi Debra,
    I went to an all-boys independent school and then to Oxford. We’re not all like that. There is plenty of room for people to hold divergent opinions and to discuss and debate them, but there should be no place for spite, personal attacks and vindictiveness which is reductive for everyone concerned. I was so pleased to read this post after your tweets yesterday. I look forward to reading your book and to a more constructive tone to online debate in future – the former with much more certainty than the latter, I’m afraid.

  2. I too went to and all boys direct grant grammar schools and I guess lower middle class up bringing so I guess I’m i that stereotype too :-). Putting aside what anyone thinks about the academic theories of education, this is above all a political debate. Politics is a dirty business – just watch PMQs on the TV. In the end, if you are participating in a public forum with forthright political views you are going to get hate mail. Its inevitable, why is anyone at all surprised? OldAndrew complains of the same. He says he is fighting the overwhelming odds of the progressives, the progressives say traditionalists are bullying them off the web. We lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the 450,000 teachers out there do not see themselves in any particular polarised camp. Some people need to observe the children they teach a bit more closely and ask themselves why they criticise children’s behaviour when they do exactly the same things themselves :-).

  3. Ian and Chris, I am certainly not suggesting that all men who were privately educated in all boys schools and then went to Oxbridge are all in this camp. There are only about six of them in any case ๐Ÿ˜‰ And I’d count you both in the fair minded camp. But it just interested me that the most vitriolic and stubborn do fall into that group. Perhaps it’s a coincidence. The wider point, and one that I really think needs addressing is the fear that many women have of striving to be seen as successful. Sniping, bully boy tactics like theirs do no good. But thanks to you both for your level headed support.

    1. I fail. I didn’t go to Oxbridge ๐Ÿ™‚ To be objective you would also have to see how many in the opposing camp had that background too. It might be that more generally combative politics derives from a masculine approach to the world in that arena. Historically plausible I think. I should think Oxbridge males are disproportionately represented in politics and the media too. In a society that uses qualifications to filter its leaders that is a natural consequence of the system. It is not too surprising that such leaders then say “It was good for me so it must be good for everyone else”. The interesting thing is that Andrew complains about exactly the same thing from his opposition. He sees himself as having to block his attackers and he felt so threatened he was anon for quite some time. So from here it looks like children squabbling and 6 of one and half a dozen of the other. Much like PMQs really and if parliament is a Punch and Judy show I can’t see Twitter taking the high ground any time soon. Personally I have never felt the need to be either anonymous or to block anyone. Ok the emotions click in on occasion but I see that as my problem for not getting more control and that subsides and you carry on – well I do as its good task aversion ๐Ÿ™‚ Now I must get back to redrafting that crap DfE assessment document.

  4. As a follow resident of Tottenham I’ve had a passing acquaintance with John Blake. The only time his comments would ever trouble me would be if Mr Blake were to approve of something I’d written or said.

    Conversely it seems that harsh comments from Mr Blake and his associates have led to debate and publicity for your book. I’ve ordered it from the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green.

    1. Thank you Alan. That’s very true. There has been a big spike in sales and as all the royalties go to a charity working with children in refugee camps and in absolute poverty, I suppose I ought to thank them ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. It’s always been my experience (and in this matter, I do have quite a lot of experience) that when you’re speaking uncomfortable truths, the measure of the discomfort they induce can be seen in the violence and aggressiveness of the response from the establishment.

    The very notion that any of these middle-class heterosexual white men represent anything but the ‘establishment’ makes me laugh.

    Unfortunately the personal cost of this can be great, but as Sheryl Sandberg says, “Lean in”. We need you.



  6. “This post is not intended to be a โ€˜pity meโ€™ post, but rather an exploration of why it is that a small number of privately educated men seem to think itโ€™s alright to personally attack women they deem to be strong.”

    I think it worth pointing out that, at least two of the men you name and criticise are, unlike yourself, not privately educated. If you are going to argue by ad hominem, at least get your facts straight.

    1. Perhaps you could look up the meaning of the word ‘mostly’ Andrew. But since you’ve put in an appearance (muting you on twitter just means you pop up somewhere else doesn’t it), let’s tackle a couple of points you seem to have missed. This isn’t about you. It’s about the confidence of women. It’s about how difficult it is as a working class girl to be aspirational in the face of sneering put downs – something you excel at. You consistently fail to accept that your jeering; your little “aren’t you stupid’ files; your inability to accept that anyone one other than you might have cause to feel upset and aggrieved is what makes twitter such a very unpleasant place sometimes. The very fact that the only thing you choose to comment on is whether or not you went to a private school shows how very self obsessed and lacking in human empathy you are.

  7. I read this and thought of you. I might once have suggested substituting ‘woman’ for ‘man’ in order for it to resonate appropriately. It may seem obvious to the contemporary reader but clearly not that easy for some [men].

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
    The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;
    who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails while daring greatly….”

    Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic” ( Paris 1910), as quoted by Brenรฉ Brown in her book “Daring Greatly”.

  8. I’m not sure whether it is empathy or the working class upbringing that makes it so easy for us to be hyper critical and beat ourselves up so regularly but I am very proud to be part of the ilk. And thank goodness because the children struggling to become successful adults in deprived working class areas, particularly in the northern industrial towns/ coastal towns, need us!

    Keep up the good work DR Deb.

  9. I must say I was appalled by the tone of the review without even having read the book. I felt it said more about the reviewer than the book. However, quite apart from that, I have just found this blog so can tell you I really appreciated your talk at the RSA today and hope we will connect at some point. Just keep saying what the children and young people need us to be saying!

  10. Hurrah for the ‘ilks’, and for you Debra. You speak with clarity and passion in a professional climate where those things are sadly lacking. Obviously children always come first, but your voice equally helps teachers explore and reconcile their own identity.
    The impact you have had and continue to have on my practice and thinking cannot be calculated.
    Stay strong; I do hope the Aegean returned for your last two days.

  11. Me again. Just wanted to add that I’ve just read Chapter one of your book on the tube. I began by underlining and writing ‘yes!’ lots in the margins, then stopped because I realised there was more underlined than not. Excellent, timely stuff. Boo the nay-sayers!

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