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Birbalsingh's Victorian fixations have no place in government - or in education

The ultra-disciplinarian headteacher stepped down from her Social Mobilities role, but will continue to fan the flames of culture wars in education. Pity the children. 

January 14 2023, 10.30am

Last week, headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh resigned as chair of the Social Mobility Commission. Not everyone was surprised. Her history of voicing controversial opinions had led some to doubt if she was impartial enough for the role. When the commission planned to investigate which teaching styles work best to improve outcomes for poorer pupils, her critics questioned if the report would be biased towards the ultra-disciplinarian approaches employed by Birbalsingh’s free school, Michaela. She claimed she was leaving so that the commission’s analysis of schools will be seen as valid.

Birbalsingh had come to accept that the conflict between her position as headteacher and her role on the commission was untenable. “Instead of going out there to bat for the team and celebrate our achievements, I am becoming a politician”, she said. “And I can’t bear the idea of ever being a politician. It just isn’t who I am or a skillset I wish to develop.” 

 Yet, nobody has done a more skilled job of stoking and exploiting the culture wars in education better than Birbalsingh. She first pitched herself as a firebrand when she spoke at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference, where she explained how she used to be a lefty until she became a teacher and saw how broken our schools were and how “the necessary changes require right-wing thinking”. The problem was that teachers fail to properly punish Black and working-class children for their bad behavior, because doing so would make the teacher feel too guilty about their own middle-class privilege. The Tories gave her a standing ovation.  

The solution to what she dubbed  the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is, according to Birbalsingh, discipline. Last year, an ITV documentary about Michaela showcased the institution’s authoritarian approach. We saw children being given detention for anything from talking in the corridor, to forgetting to bring their second pencil to school, or even for breaking eye contact with a teacher during a lesson. The documentary is structured around the slogans of Michaela’s bootstrap manifesto. Don’t tolerate a victim mentality. Take responsibility. Be grateful, no matter how poor you are. Teachers call upon children to express something they are grateful for with an upright posture and in a loud voice. One of the documentary’s  most chilling moments  comes when one little girl says that she is grateful for her teacher giving her detention, because that will make her a better person. It was like the final scene of George Orwell’s 1984, when Winston Smith declares his love for The Party. In another  scene, which had all the authenticity of a hostage video, one boy looked into the camera and said, ‘People think Michaela is like a prison, but it’s not.’ 

He was right. I teach in and write about prisons and I can tell you i has been decades since inmates in UK prisons have been made to walk the corridors in silence or stand to attention when told. And while prisoners have committed actual crimes, the pupils in the Michaela Free School are guilty only of being children. Birbalsingh has said that kids are born with “original sin” and it is the job of teachers to “correct” them. 

There’s truth - not to say, truism - in the idea that young people benefit from moral guidance.But  the idea that children are born into a fallen state has served a political agenda ever since St Augustine conceived of the idea 1,600 years ago. Just as it legitimised the church’s power to save souls back then, it permits the teacher to be the Leviathan in the classroom today. The message couldn’t flatter the ruling party anymore: these children, the ones that come from poverty, are fundamentally corrupt, but a super-head has come to tame and control the riff-raff.  

This fixation on children’s total compliance with authority has d real-world consequences  Just last year we heard the story of Child Q, where four police officers strip-searched a 15-year-old Black girl while she was at school. She was menstruating and they asked her to remove her sanitary towel. They suspected she was carrying cannabis, but she wasn’t. No other adult was present. Her parents were not contacted. If the authorities that rule our country were perfectly fair and benevolent, then it would make sense to teach children to obey them, but the system is not structured in everybody’s favour, least of all for the demographic of children who go to Michaela. 

Birbalsingh was equally partisan on the Social Mobility Commission, always emphasising the importance of discipline and family values, but never mentioning the impact of social capital on outcomes. People who go to private schools tend to dominate higher positions, even when their educational attainment is lower than those from state schools. This is partly because no matter how hard a poor child works in school their classmates won’t suddenly become the children of CEOs and solicitors. Sitting up straight in their chair won’t gain them access to networks or privilege. Consider how under 7% of children go to private school and yet 65% of judges are privately educated in the UK. Rather than challenge the existence of private schools, Birbalsingh says change shouldn’t be achieved by bringing the top people down. There was always going to be an obvious and fundamental tension between her devotion to protecting the status quo and her mandate to create social mobility. Her politics were always going to make that particular role impossible.  

When partisan politics begins to drive what happens in the classroom, you end up with hyperbolic pedagogies like the one at Michaela. In my view, a focus on obedience is its own bigoted low expectation - deploying crude behaviourist techniques when we could nurture children’s autonomy instead.  One reason we evolved beyond the Victorian style of education is because the moral complexity of the modern world needs children to become reflective thinkers rather than units just doing their job blindly.  And whilst  gratitude can be a positive emotion, even when you’re poor, it should not replace the chance to think critically about the class system. 

Of course, my views here also have a political leaning. But I know that they do, whereas Birbalsingh seems to believe that hers don’t, that she is merely working in a way that is ‘traditional’ or ‘effective.’ This is of course the most insidious form of politics – the kind that won’t admit what it is. This is bad enough when trying to shape policy writ large in a democracy. It’s arguably worse when it’s imposed on children in a system that prides itself on brooking no dissent.