Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher, former social mobility tsar and professional provocateur, has made headlines (once again) for saying that “woke” attacks on the privileged will destroy elite private schools.
Birbalsingh, who resembles a character from Dickens’s Hard Times (“Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts”) and who, interestingly, has never worked in a private school, writes in an essay for The State of Independence, a book on private schools, that these “bastions of traditionalism” have become “sitting ducks for the movement of woke”.
I despise the word “woke”. It’s an easy insult, both loaded and meaningless, and it tells you far more about the person making it than it does the person being accused. This headline- and hashtag-friendly monosyllable has become a weaponised, generalised knee-jerk reaction to everything from James Bond to Microsoft Word’s spellchecker.
In the case of Birbalsingh, her use of “woke” is borderline hysterical. Schools aren’t “bowing to the incessant cry against the privileged”, they are adapting and evolving to parental expectations and changing societal pressures. Young people face so many problems which older generations could never have conceived of – revenge porn, fake news, online bullying, to name a few – and schools have to prepare students to navigate this new world.
The idea that private schools are indoctrinating a generation of social justice warriors is ridiculous (plenty of my students still want to be bankers, lawyers and engineers) and the few examples of this apparent “woke” agenda are twisted into something they’re not. For example, Eton may well have hosted a talk by the founder of Everyday Sexism, but they also recently had a talk by Nigel Farage, during which students made misogynistic remarks towards a visiting girls’ school. Clearly the feminist takeover of Eton remains a work in progress.
Despite what Birbalsingh’s comments imply, there is a middle ground between prioritising children’s autonomy and enforcing their total compliance (Birbalsingh is headmistress of Britain’s “strictest school”, where students apparently regularly “thank” her for giving them detention, much like Winston comes to love Big Brother at the end of 1984).
“Child-centred learning” is a straw man for her to attack; one reason British educators have evolved beyond the Victorian style teaching is because the complexity of the modern world needs children to be reflective, critical thinkers rather than mindless units. (“You are to be in all things regulated and governed by fact!”)
Ironically, I speak to lots of people who wish their education had been more woke. The truth is that Gen Z have a superior sense of kindness, fairness and tolerance than my generation, or the generations before me. As Samantha Price, president of the Girls’ School Association has said, “this so-called ‘woke’ generation are actually simply young people who care about things: about causes, about the planet, about people.”
I went to a private school and I flinch when I think about the language we used day in and day out; we aimed to punch down, and punch down hard. It was only later that I realised how much those verbal flick-knives must have hurt, especially to anyone who was vaguely “different” or vulnerable; it’s no surprise that there was only one openly gay person in my year.
For all the talk about decolonising the curriculum and introducing trigger warnings, private schools are driven by the same thing as always: achieving stellar academic results. It’s hardly like we are replacing Latin with learning about gender dysphoria, or replacing revision classes with critical race theory. Katharine Birbalsingh’s assumptions about private schools, which sound like they were written by a ChatGPT culture war plug-in, simply do not reflect students’ daily experience. We should all take a deep breath and move on, because there are far bigger things in education to worry about.