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24 January 2024

The lesson Katharine Birbalsingh can’t teach

Britain’s strictest headteacher is preparing children for a society that no longer exists.

By Will Lloyd

From the outside, the Michaela Community School in Wembley, west London, looks like a government office in East Germany: oyster grey, blank, forbidding. The school is only marginally less hated than Eton, and is being challenged in the High Court by a Muslim pupil, backed by legal aid, who wants the right to pray during the school day.

The case is supposed to be about poverty, secularism, death threats and social media. But it’s not really about any of those things. Almost every bust-up about schools in England used to be a proxy war about social class. Today, they are no longer about class, but multiculturalism.

Schools are bottled nations. Michaela is an absolute monarchy, founded in 2014 and run ever since by Katharine Birbalsingh, its formidable, Gradgrindian headmistress-queen. She (and Michaela) are the star pupils of Michael Gove’s education reforms.

In 2010 Gove called for Britain to emulate Mao and embark on “a Long March” of educational reform. Our pathetic schools were inferior to Confucian competitors in China or Singapore. “Schools in the Far East are turning out students who are working at an altogether higher level than our own,” he wrote. Birbalsingh told interviewers she felt “part of a revolution”.

Yet this was a curiously tense radicalism, where Conservative ends were pursued with Maoist means. Could you have a traditional British education, run on Chinese lines, in a London borough where 52 per cent of the population was born abroad?

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Tradition, which Birbalsingh is fond of invoking, will always be a strange word in the context of British education. This is a country with a deep culture of cackling disrespect for learning. All classes once agreed that being clever was disagreeable. Children, particularly boys, were thought to be disgusting animals. The Charles Dickens who wrote the most sympathetic child characters in English literature was also the Charles Dickens who chained two large hounds to the gates of his mansion on the Dover Road to terrify passing urchins. This attitude found a late expression in Philip Larkin, who said kids were “awful”. But the most obvious indication that Britain was not a country where children were respected was that the cane was only abandoned in 1987.

When Birbalsingh talks about restoring “tradition” to education, this is the fossil record she is digging up. She is never more than 30 seconds from saying she wants to return education to the 1950s, or lamenting that it’s unfashionable to teach what your grandmother would have taught you. She talks about “love”, but the public persona is more “Nightmare Victorian Patriarch”: aggressive, overbearing, absurdly dynamic.

In 2016 the Times asked of Birbalsingh: is this Britain’s strictest headmistress? There are many strict schools in England, but the moniker stuck to Birbalsingh. She is never introduced as anything else, and she never looks anything other than thrilled.

Birbalsingh came to Britain from Canada. Her mother was a Jamaican nurse, her father an Indo-Guyanese academic. She has the intelligent outsider’s perception of British weaknesses: our sloth, cynicism, apathy. But she doesn’t understand that, for many, “tradition” in education is not a good grammar school down the road that was closed in 1977. It’s the memory of beatings and barely being educated at all. Tradition can be a synonym for pointless misery.

Though it is self-consciously traditional, Michaela is not about the past. It is about dealing with the present; an attempt to cope with multiculturalism. The famous austerity of the school – silent corridors, vegetarian lunches, detentions for pulling silly faces – is designed to cohere different communities around an ersatz Britishness dreamed up by somebody with a romantic attitude towards a past they were fortunate not to experience.

“I take away their [the pupils’] liberty,” Birbalsingh has said. For integration to happen, it has to be forced. Pupils will sing “God Save the King”, they will sing “Jerusalem”, they will sing “I Vow to Thee My Country”. Freedom must be sacrificed. Liberalism and multiculturalism do not go together. Otherwise, she says, the children return to a state of nature: they stick with their own. “When you have a more multicultural community, you have to actively act to ensure that that works.”

It is fair to say that Michaela has succeeded academically. It has ignored the teaching methods of most British schools – group work and discovery-based learning – and achieved far better results than them. A 2022 ITV documentary about Birbalsingh depicted her story, and Michaela’s, as a triumph over adversity. It is hard to argue with a school where a quarter of the pupils are on free school meals, yet almost three-quarters of its A-levels were graded A or A* last year.

But you can argue with the Michaela model of integration. That’s what the High Court challenge represents. The bomb threats and abuse faced by the school, where about half of the 700 pupils are Muslim, are a consequence of boasting about being a “revolutionary”. What revolution was achieved without casualties?

I am not sympathetic to the idea that a good school can be intimidated and dragged through the courts. But neither am I shocked that this odd cocktail of Maoism, pseudo-Britishness and forced multicultural coherence has left such a bitter taste. You can give your students as many detentions as you want. It’s much harder to turn them into something they do not want to be.

[See also: The Pitchfork years]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars