BY JAMES BEMBRIDGE
Any school which The Guardian describes as “controversial” is probably worth looking into, even more so when you discover that the school’s GCSE results are four times higher than the national average. The fact that this school espouses traditional small-c conservative values, such as personal responsibility, often sends lefties into a whirlwind of furious twitter diatribes, leaving them walleyed and writhing in a contorted mess of scorn and outrage, their foam-flecked lips curling to hiss the words “Tory teacher”. Such a school that I describe must surely be one of those “old boys’ club” public schools that so many of our smug career politicians seem to materialise from. Certainly one which is out of the range of most people. The school I describe is, in fact, a free school in a deprived inner-city area of London and whilst some of the children may well go on to become ministers of the next generation, they certainly weren’t brought up by nanny.
Katherine Birbalsingh is the charismatic headmistress and founder of the Michaela Community school. She rose to fame after receiving a standing ovation at the 2010 Conservative Party conference for her no-nonsense speech on how the education system is failing children, going as far to say, “black children underachieve because of what the well-meaning liberal does to him.” I was lucky enough to interview Katherine last week for Country Squire Magazine:
James: Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner has vowed to axe free schools should Labour get into power. Am I being too cynical, or conspiratorial even, to assume that Labour’s opposition to free schools is that they are less likely to churn out socialists?
Katherine: Well your assumption is that state schools always produce socialists, why would free schools produce fewer socialists?
James: Aren’t free schools freer in being able to decide what curriculum they want to set? Teaching the atrocities committed by Stalin with the same rigour as they do with those committed by Hitler for instance.
Katherine: OK but that’s not changing the curriculum that’s just choosing a different topic off the exam board.
James: When you were setting up Michaela you received abject fury and indignation from the left, if not for the curriculum then what is it that they have to fear?
Katherine: Well the main reason is the Unions, if you have all of your state schools as one then the unions can call a strike and everyone can march up together, so there’s power in all the schools being part of the same system. If on the other hand, you break up the system, not just free schools but also academies, having schools which may not recognise the unions – we don’t recognise unions for instance – then they don’t like that. The only way to have successful coordination is to take power away from the bosses and give it to the workers. That’s the way they see life: the bosses are bad, the workers are good and the only way you can hold the bosses to account is by going on strike.
It’s always a power struggle, they believe that life is just about power struggles and the oppressed and the bosses. So free schools are taking away power from the workers – and they’re right, they do take away power from the workers. Now the assumption is that all the bosses are bad, I don’t agree with that, I don’t believe all bosses are bad. The bosses are backed by the unions, so when you try to move on a head who isn’t very good, it’s undo-able because the unions are backing that head.
The unions have the same approach to anyone so they spend most their time defending bad teachers and ensuring they cannot be moved on. On the one hand, there is an argument for unions, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have unions at all. There certainly was an argument for unions back in the day when workers were very badly treated, I’m not sure that teachers are very badly treated so I don’t know whether there is still a role for teaching unions.
They don’t like schools which are more traditional, because they are on the left, they tend to be more progressive in terms of what and how they teach. So those schools which try to make a stand against that trend – because it is very much a trend – can be attacked by the unions. So the unions don’t like them because they are ideologically opposed to what they believe because they’re lefties. It’s not that the schools are going to bring out socialists, free schools will generally be bringing out socialists too, I hate to break that bubble! Now that’s not the case here because the kids at Michaela are generally taught to think for themselves, some of our kids will be socialist, some will be conservative and some, I don’t know, green. Where they aren’t necessarily taught to think for themselves in other schools is because all their teachers think in the same manner and teach subjects like History, Geography and English with the same perspective, then they can’t help but grow up a socialist, but I guarantee you that will be happening in free schools as well.
James: That leftist worldview of power struggles, fighting against imagined oppressors, does that explain their hostility towards the Michaela approach which focuses on strict order and discipline – to the point of demanding silence in the corridors – do they perceive that as the teachers oppressing the children?
Katherine: Well then that’s a different point. Why the left is against free schools is because of the unions, why they are against Michaela is because of the methodology. The mistake you’re making is to think all free schools are like ours.
It’s our methodology and our values that make us different, not the fact that we are a free school, although being a free school has allowed me to gather like-minded people together. One of the problems with state schools is that you have such a variety of people and no one who thinks like us there, so it would be impossible to establish that way of thinking. So being a new free school in that sense has been helpful but it’s not the reason we are different, the reason we are different is our values, values which I’d call small-c conservative values which I have to say, some people on the left have, like Kate Hoey, whereas there are a lot of big-c Conservative MPs who are not small-c conservative at all. They are not social conservatives.
So when you are socially conservative you believe in: authority, self-discipline, personal responsibility, a sense of duty towards others, taking control of your own life and doing something with it as opposed to always looking for an excuse to explain why you are where you are. Those small-c conservative values, I have to say I haven’t seen another school that does that. They may exist but I don’t hear about people explicitly talking about that sort of thing and instilling those kind of values in their children.
James: What are your thoughts on the left’s tendency to assume they have a monopoly on minorities. For instance, last year Jeremy Corbyn tweeted something along the lines of “Only Labour can help ethnic minorities unlock their full potential” – a man who, incidentally, only came out with two grade E’s at A level.
Katherine: They said that? What does that even mean, “unlock our potential”? I don’t even know what to say to that, it’s so utterly shocking.
James: I also see what happens to those who decline to have their “potential unlocked”, those who have the audacity to vote or think the wrong way. The left often responds by acting just as bigoted as the bigots who they supposedly oppose. Labour MP, Emma Dent Coad, calling Shaun Bailey a “token ghetto boy”.
Katherine: Oh yes, I know. They are just so offensive and racist, that’s why they say we can unlock your potential, as if we are just a bunch of children waiting for our potential to be unlocked.
James: How is it that in 2019 Jordan Peterson can make a fortune selling what many people of a certain age would just regard as “good old-fashioned values”, why is there such a great void of responsibility in today’s world, would you concur with Jordan that it is partly due to the loss of religion?
Katherine: I don’t know if I would connect lack of responsibility directly with the loss of religion, although I think the general chaos society has descended into is partly due to the loss of religion. Part of that is not understanding a sense of responsibility. Living a good life, being true to the values which Jesus spoke about, living in such a way which would allow you to get into heaven and all of that, in the day meant that you believed in a sense of personal responsibility. I have to say that there are lots of religious people now who don’t believe in personal responsibility. So what does religion do? It gives you a sense of objectivity, meaning there is a right and there is a wrong. The Bible tells you whether it is right or wrong and you want to get things right in order to get into heaven. And when you don’t have religion you have this subjective way of looking at things. “Well whatever is right for you isn’t necessarily right for me and we should all just be able to do what we want” and that has developed over time because whatever is right for me or for you there is no objective truth out there, we are just doing whatever we like that’s ended up as, “well I don’t have any responsibility to do things a certain way I just do things as I want”.
James: Society has become much more narcissistic
Katherine: Yeah and it’s become narcissistic because you’re allowed to do what you want whenever you want because there’s no sense of objective truth and objective right and wrong, because there’s no religion. But there are lots of steps in-between there.
James: Speaking of narcissism, what do you think about today’s role models in the entertainment industry? Are some of the more, perhaps vapid ones, damaging children’s self-worth and aspiration? Kim Kardashian, Love Island etc…
Katherine: Yeah they’re awful but they’ve always been awful. I mean in my career anyway, those people have always been awful. Sadly, it seems to be the case that if you get to Hollywood you are probably slightly self-obsessed and then there is more pressure to be self-obsessed because everyone’s looking at you, are you beautiful and well looked after? So you tend to make a pretty poor role model. And then some of those Drill Music artists and rap artists and so on have to be as violent as possible in order to be successful.
James: Talking about the male side of it now, there was some feature or review of the recent film Captain Marvel which read “Captain Marvel takes on toxic masculinity”, then there is the Gillette advert which portrayed what I would describe as normal male characteristics in a negative light. There seems to be this constant message from the media to young men that just by the virtue of their gender, they are inherently toxic. Do you think that could damage boys’ self-worth and aspiration?
Katherine: Yes it could. Now the advantage my kids have is that generally speaking most of them aren’t white, so they have that victim card to be able to play. The fact is that in society these days there is a kind of Victimhood Olympics going on. The more cards you have to play the more admired you are. So if you are white, straight, able-bodied and male, you are going to be err… well, despised by people. And of course what it does in the end is it encourages everyone to try to claim victimhood where they can. So the royal family for instance claiming mental health issues, it’s the only thing they can claim because they’ve got everything else: they’ve got riches, they’ve got fame, they’ve got everything. So the only thing they can do to say “please admire us” is well look we’ve got mental health issues and that means they’re a victim too. That’s the dynamic we’ve created, it’s our way now in 2019 of admiring people. In 1919 the way you admired people was by asking who showed the most sense of responsibility or duty or honour towards their country, or defending their family or providing for their family, those were the kind of values we admired then. In 2019 it’s about being the largest victim. Those old values of a man who can provide for his family or fights for his country, we tend to denigrate those now.
James: What kind of role models did you look up to when you were young and what inspired you to become the determined “Dragon Lady” that you are today?
Katherine: Well that’s just my experience of teaching for 25 years – what I’ve found that works and what doesn’t work. There’s my father who is very inspirational and my mother as well. Hard-working immigrants who have worked hard for their children and tried to give them the best chance in life really and I think that’s what all parents should do, but not all children have that unfortunately and many children that I have worked with in my career have not had that, so when children don’t, I suppose I want to help. I had that advantage in life and I want them to as well.
James: Thanks Katherine and the best of luck with Michaela and the future.
The Interviewer James Bembridge has written for Country Squire Magazine before here.