Diane Abbott and Katharine Birbalsingh dine across the divide: ‘Kids thanking teachers for detention? That’s a bit extreme!’

In our celebrity Dining across the divide special, the Labour MP and the headteacher debate education, discipline and their shared Jamaican heritage

Diane, 68, London

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Occupation MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

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

Amuse bouche Diane went to Harrow county grammar school for girls. In a joint production of Macbeth with Harrow county grammar school for boys, she played Lady Macduff. Alongside her, playing Macduff was … Michael Portillo

Katharine Birbalsingh, head teacher of Michaela Community School in London

Katharine, 48, London

Occupation Headteacher of Michaela community school in Wembley, north-west London, and chair of the Social Mobility Commission

Voting record Katharine voted Labour until 2010 when she spoke at the Conservative party conference and switched allegiance. She now describes herself as a small-c conservative

Amuse bouche When she was 10, Katharine’s father took away their television, “because he was a good Caribbean father and he wanted to make sure we didn’t watch too much”. She found a tiny, secondhand black-and-white TV and bought it with her paper-round money

For starters

Diane I loved history at school. I remember saying to my teacher, “I want to do the Oxford and Cambridge entrance,” 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 doesn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge.

Katharine That teacher was a terrible teacher. My whole life has been about ensuring that children can aspire to be whatever they want to be. There are children who have all sorts of talents and achieve all sorts of things – we should celebrate them, not just the ones who become rich bankers in the city.

Diane I don’t celebrate rich bankers in the City!

Katharine It’s the Hollywood rags-to-riches story, someone from the slums who ends up as a CEO, but there are all sorts of people who make shorter leaps.

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

Katharine You’re preaching to the converted. I’ve worked in education for 25 years; 82% of my children go to Russell Group universities.

Diane Abbott and Katharine Birbalsingh at a restaurant table

The big beef

Katharine There are issues in terms of expecting too little from children who come from a variety of different backgrounds that could be considered disadvantaged. For instance, the way it can often go is if a black child doesn’t bring in his homework there’s a sense of, well, he might come from a difficult background, it’s hard for him, perhaps he has a single mum, we can’t really expect as much of him as we can from another child, so it’s OK, we’ll let it go. If this happens over time, in the end the black child falls behind because the expectations of him are less than they would be of, say, the white, middle-class child.

Diane Your argument is that the real problem black children have is teachers who are too kind to them?

Katharine It masquerades as compassion, but actually it’s a way of letting children down.

Diane I’ve worked in an inner-city area for 35 years. I’m very interested in education. I visit schools, I talk to parents about their children and I don’t recognise this idea that black children are being let off lightly. You know as well as I do that the level of exclusions for black boys is much higher than for white boys. This doesn’t suggest to me that it is about letting them off; it suggests a system that is quick to make judgments.

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Katharine The number one thing holding children back in schools is poor behaviour, and that is because of poor leadership decisions in the school. If you have an environment that demands high standards, the children will rise to the standards. If you’re relaxed about behaviour, the more vulnerable children – because of race, class, they live on the local estate, they are SEN, it could be anything – end up falling off the wagon. People call me the strictest headteacher in Britain, but all that means is we’ve got order and structure in the school, which means children can thrive in an environment that is safe and secure.

Diane I would say that the one thing that holds black children back is teachers’ preconceptions. I go back to the teacher who told me I was not up to the Cambridge entrance exam. Even teachers who think they are nice have preconceptions, especially about black boys, and if you have preconceptions about children they can live down to them. That’s why I come back to changing the atmosphere in the classroom and having a more diverse mixture of teachers. I’m not against 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’re not just arbitrarily saying: you can’t speak in the corridor.

Katharine I agree they need to know that they are immersed in love; they need to feel that you are on their side and the system is fair. So our children will do things like thank the teachers for giving them detention because they know they are trying to help them stay on the straight and narrow.

Diane That’s a bit extreme!

Diane Abbott and Katharine Birbalsingh at a restaurant table

Sharing plate

Katharine Both our mothers are Jamaican nurses who came to this country at a similar time, which is a lovely thing.

Diane This is a bit irrational, but because of my family I’m prepared to give people of Jamaican origin the benefit of the doubt because it is a very specific experience. And you’re very interested in children; I’m interested in children and education.

Diane Abbott and Katharine Birbalsingh at a restaurant table

For afters

Katharine I think schools today are nothing like the schools you and I attended, with regard to race in particular. I remember being called racist names, being excluded from friendship groups. People would come up to me and rub my skin, and say, “Does it come off?” Everyone talked about the local shop using the P-word. Now if a child was racist in any way, the other children simply would not accept it; it’s blasphemous.

Diane I think teachers have mastered the language of anti-racism, but in terms of the preconceptions about children, I’m not sure much has changed. And sadly, because I’ve spent my life campaigning on these issues, I wouldn’t say policing has got much better.

Diane Abbott and Katharine Birbalsingh at a restaurant table


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

Katharine I do feel I have to defend myself against various assumptions you think I think, which I don’t actually think. When I was younger we all looked at you and were excited: you were talking in parliament, saying something on the news, you were most definitely a role model. It was great to meet you.

Diane It was good to meet you.

Diane Abbott and Katharine Birbalsingh at a restaurant table

Diane and Katharine ate at TH@51, London.

Want to meet someone from across the divide? Find out how to take part


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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