Katharine Birbalsingh, the head of the Michaela Community School in Wembley, is said to have been shortlisted for the role of chair of the government’s Social Mobility Commission (or ‘Social Mobility Tsar’). The job pays £350 a day for up to six days’ work a month.
Birbalsingh delighted the Conservative Party Conference in 2010 with a speech that emphasised ‘discipline’ and ‘personal responsibility’ and included some snide remarks about grade inflation and political correctness, interspersed with clips of her students playing the steelpans. Music to the Tories’ ears. Michaela, the ‘free school’ Birbalsingh co-founded with Suella Braverman (now a Conservative MP) in 2014, made headlines in 2016 for putting children in ‘lunch isolation’ because their parents owed money for school meals. ‘Britain’s strictest school’ is run with military precision. Pupils walk in silent single file between classes. In 2019, Michaela celebrated its first GCSE results: among the best in the country for non-selective state schools, with more than half of all grades 7 or above (the equivalent of an old A or A*).
Schools like Michaela represent the opposite of everything I believe in. But it isn’t difficult to understand their attraction. The desire for order and control lies at the root of some of the worst things that human beings do to one another, but it also expresses an important human need for a degree of safety and predictability. In conditions which leave us little control over how we spend our time, where we live, what happens to our health or the health of those we care about, even the planet we live on, it’s unsurprising that people try to ‘take back control’ in whatever ways are available: some relatively benign (mildly obsessive cleanliness), many not so (eating disorders, racist nationalism). Order, or the idea of it, is comforting.
There are also concrete horrors from which schools like Michaela promise salvation. Not only the threat of physical violence (from the police as well as those the police claim to protect us from), a constant presence in some areas and communities, and not only violence of the economic kind, but also the smaller, subtler things that sediment as misery. Deprivations of space and time, of privacy. You can see the appeal of a place where the noise stops, where phones are banished, where it is possible to give something, for once, your full concentration. I’ve longed for something like this when I’m teaching: not the fierce authoritarianism of Michaela, but for everyone involved to be really present, with space to breathe, not to be constantly tugged at by technological and bureaucratic intrusions.
It’s easy to see how a parent living in a poor area of London might want their child to go to a school like Michaela (which is heavily oversubscribed) that promises both safety and success. Qualms about the stifling of individuality or creativity – which Michaela in any case insists it does not do – seem like an indulgence. It isn’t as if ‘normal’ schools are utopias of freedom and self-expression. As one parent observed when the new head of a school in Leicestershire announced a Michaela-style regime, including compulsory smiling and a ban on looking out the window during class, ‘Most of those rules apply in schools anyway, just look worse when they are put in writing.’
The appeal of schools like Michaela is less a vindication of their methods than an indictment of the society in which they can appear as a solution. Birbalsingh wasn’t wrong when she said, in her Tory conference speech, that ‘the system is broken because it keeps poor children poor.’ Schools reproduce social inequalities rather than overcoming them. In 2016, the Social Mobility Commission identified ‘an unfair education system’ as one of the main factors trapping people in poverty. Poor black children, in particular, are failed by the system as it is (the latest outbreak of faux concern for the ‘white working class’ relies, as usual, on cherry-picked statistics to pin the consequences of poverty and austerity on anti-racism).
Birbalsingh offers simple solutions in tune with the government’s preferred narrative: it is not poverty or racism but a liberal ‘woke’ agenda that is to blame. ‘Black underachievement,’ she said in her 2010 speech, ‘is due in part to the chaos in our classrooms and in part to the accusation of racism.’ This is reminiscent of the oft-repeated line about the Rochdale paedophile ring, that police failed to act against the perpetrators because they were afraid of being perceived as racist (an explanation that ignores evidence of discriminatory and victim-blaming attitudes towards the working-class girls who were abused). If the police are so inhibited by racial sensitivities, why do they stop and search black people at nine times the rate of whites? If teachers are so scared of disciplining black children, why are Afro-Caribbean students up to six times as likely to be excluded?
The relationship between schools and policing is not merely analogous. Following the practice of some US ‘charter schools’, there are more than 650 police officers working in British schools, mainly in areas of high deprivation. This is of a piece with the government’s ongoing effort to imprint its brand of aggressive authoritarian nationalism on the school system, from Kemi Badenoch’s invectives against ‘critical race theory’ to Tom Hunt’s demand that all schools fly the Union Jack. It’s also a response to growing resistance from pupils to that project. In March, the police were called to Pimlico Academy in London because students were protesting against discriminatory uniform policies (prohibiting hairstyles that ‘block the views of others’) and the hoisting of a Union Jack outside the school. In May, officers were called to a school in Leicester after pupils staged a walkout in solidarity with Palestine. Sixteen students were suspended (the school cited a breach of Covid regulations, the new version of the traditional ‘fire safety’ excuse). The Ofsted chair and former banker Amanda Spielman denounced ‘militant’ and ‘confrontational’ activism in schools.
Birbalsingh has a good chance of netting the social mobility gig (despite her muddling of Lord of the Rings with Lord of the Flies): final interviews are tomorrow. But whether it’s her or someone like her is of little importance: the ‘direction of travel’ on schooling – as on everything else – is clear. The courage of growing numbers of young people to resist it is inspiring.