Home Training Diane Abbott and Catherine Birbalsingh lunch across the divide: ‘Kids thank teachers...

Diane Abbott and Catherine Birbalsingh lunch across the divide: ‘Kids thank teachers for detention?’ That’s a bit extreme!’ | Politics

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Diana, 68, London

Occupation MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Voting record Good afternoon! She’s Diane Abbott! She served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet as shadow home secretary

Entertain bush Diana attended Harrow County Grammar School for Girls. She played Lady Macduff in a co-production of Macbeth with Harrow County Grammar School for Boys. Together with her, Macduff was played by … Michael Portillo

Kathryn Birbalsingh, Principal, Michaela School, London

Catherine, 48, London

Occupation Headteacher of Michaela Community School in Wembley, North West London and Chair of the Commission for Social Mobility

Voting record Katarina voted Work until 2010, when she spoke at the Conservative Party conference and switched allegiance. Now she describes herself as a conservative from a small background

Entertain bush When she was 10, Catherine’s father took away their TV “because he was a good Caribbean father and wanted to make sure we didn’t watch too much”. She found a small black and white television and bought it with her paper money


To begin with

Diana I loved history at school. I remember saying to my teacher, “I want to go to Oxford and Cambridge,” and she said, “I don’t think you’re up to it.” Looking back, I can see that she thought a black girl whose parents left school at 14 wouldn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge.

Katarina That teacher was a terrible teacher. My whole life has been about making sure kids can aspire to be whoever they want to be. There are kids who have all kinds of talents and achieve all kinds of things – we should celebrate them, not just the ones who become rich bankers in the city.

Diana I’m not celebrating the rich bankers in the City!

Katarina It’s a Hollywood rags-to-riches story: someone from the slums becomes a CEO, but there are different people who make shorter leaps.

Diana I have a problem with anyone who would limit a child’s aspirations because it was done to me. It was only because I was – even then – quite stubborn that I was able to overcome it.

Katarina You preach to the converted. I have worked in education for 25 years; 82% of my children study at Russell Group universities.

Diane Abbott and Catherine Birbalsingh at a restaurant table

Big beef

Katarina There are problems with expecting too little from children who come from different walks of life and who can be seen as disadvantaged. For example, it’s often the case that if a black child doesn’t bring in homework, there’s a sense that, well, he might come from a difficult background, he’s having a hard time, maybe he has a single mother, we might We don’t really expect as much from him as we can from another child, so that’s fine, we’ll let it go. If this happens over time, eventually the black child falls behind because the expectations are lower than, say, a middle-class white child.

Diana Is your argument that the real problem with black kids is teachers who are too nice to them?

Katarina It masquerades as sympathy, but it’s actually a way of failing children.

Diana I have worked in the urban area for 35 years. I am very interested in education. I go to schools and talk to parents about their kids and I don’t buy into this idea that black kids are being let off the hook. You know as well as I do that the exclusion rate for black boys is much higher than for white boys. This does not mean that it is about letting them go; it offers a system that makes quick judgments.

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Katarina The number one thing that holds kids back in schools is misbehavior, and that’s because of poor school management decisions. If you have an environment that demands high standards, children will rise to the standards. If you go easy on behaviour, the more vulnerable children – because of race, class, they live in a local estate, they have SEN, it could be anything – end up falling off the wagon. People call me the strictest headteacher in Britain, but all that means is that we have order and structure in the school, which means children can thrive in a safe and secure environment.

Diana I would say the only thing holding black kids back is the prejudice of the teachers. I go back to the teacher who told me I wasn’t up to the Cambridge entrance exam. Even teachers who think they’re good have a bias, especially about black boys, and if you have a bias against kids, they might agree with it. That’s why I keep coming back to changing the atmosphere in the classroom and creating a more diverse teaching staff. I don’t mind discipline – I come from a working class, West Indian background. The thing about discipline is that it has to be done with love, and you don’t just arbitrarily say, no talking in the hallway.

Katarina I agree that they need to know that they are immersed in love; they need to feel that you are on their side and that the system is fair. So our kids will do things like thank their teachers for holding them back because they know they’re trying to help them stay on the straight and narrow.

Diana That’s a bit extreme!

Diane Abbott and Catherine Birbalsingh at a restaurant table

Shared plate

Katarina Both our mothers are nurses from Jamaica who came to this country at the same time, which is very nice.

Diana It’s a bit irrational, but because of my family, I’m willing to give people of Jamaican descent the benefit of the doubt because it’s a very specific experience. And you are very interested in children; I am interested in children and education.

Diane Abbott and Catherine Birbalsingh at a restaurant table

For after

Katarina I think today’s schools are nothing like the schools you and I went to, especially in terms of race. I remember being called racist names, excluded from friendship groups. People would come up to me and rub my skin and say, “Is it coming off?” Everyone talked about the local store using the P word. Now, if a kid was somehow racist, the other kids just wouldn’t accept it; this is blasphemy.

Diana I think teachers have picked up on the language of anti-racism, but in terms of prejudice against children, I’m not sure much has changed. And unfortunately, having spent my life campaigning on these issues, I wouldn’t say that policing has improved much.

Diane Abbott and Catherine Birbalsingh at a restaurant table

Takeaway food

Diana It is important to meet and listen to people – that’s what politics is all about.

Katarina I really feel like I have to defend myself against the various assumptions that you think I’m thinking that I’m not really thinking. When I was younger we all looked up to you and were in awe: you spoke in parliament, you were on the news, you were definitely a role model. It was nice to meet you.

Diana It was nice to meet you.

Diane Abbott and Catherine Birbalsingh at a restaurant table

Diana and Catherine were eating TH@51London.

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