German sociologist Max Weber once described democratic politics as slow boring of hard boards. Even so, some significant changes can be achieved within a decade or so – as Katharine Birbalsingh has demonstrated.
In 2011, the Sydney Institute invited the British educationalist and author to Australia. That year Birbalsingh had written the best-selling novel To Miss With Love (Penguin), which revealed many problems in Britain’s education system. My attention was drawn to the book by a favourable review in the satirical magazine Private Eye – not known for treating authors kindly, especially those of a political conservative disposition.
Birbalsingh had attained some fame due to her lively speech at the Conservative party conference in October 2010 in Birmingham that drew attention to what she described as Britain’s broken education system and what should be done to fix it.
Addressing the Sydney Institute in September 2011, Birbalsingh said: “As a British teacher recently told me, there was nothing I said in the speech that teachers don’t say everyday in classrooms across the country; we simply aren’t allowed to say it out loud.”
As it turned out, Birbalsingh was forced out of her teaching position soon after her Birmingham speech. There was opposition to her from the British left. This was an early manifestation of what is now called cancel culture, a modern phrase denoting old fashioned censorship.
Birbalsingh used her years in the educational wilderness to set about establishing what in Britain is called a free school. State schools are funded by the government through local authorities or councils. Free schools are also government funded but are run by institutions or charities.
In Australia, in 2011, Birbalsingh set out her ideal free school – one that restored traditional learning with desks in rows focused at a teacher in front of a class, and with the learning experience focused on English, mathematics and history, including a degree of rote learning where required. Free schools became possible following the coming to office in Westminster of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government led by David Cameron in May 2010. The principal political driver behind this initiative was Conservative parliamentarian Michael Gove – currently a minister in the government headed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
By 2014 Birbalsingh had prevailed and construction of a free school was under way in the old North West College building in the London suburb of Wembley Park. She told The Guardian’s Sally Weale in September 2014 that she regretted the Birmingham speech in the sense that it had led to her becoming the target of racist and misogynistic insults by means of Twitter and email, and she had experienced “terrible eczema because of the treatment and the attacks”.
But Birbalsingh, the daughter of an Indo-Guyanese academic and Jamaican nurse, who was born in New Zealand and spent time in Canada and Britain before settling in London, prevailed. She is a feisty personality with extraordinary determination to achieve what she believes in – with enough diplomatic skill to understand that small detours may be necessary before a destination is reached.
Birbalsingh is the principal founder of Michaela Community School in Wembley, which opened in September 2014. With my wife Anne Henderson (a former teacher), I visited the school in 2016. It was an impressive occasion.
Most of the students were from lower socio-economic backgrounds and some from dysfunctional or broken families. It was evident that the overwhelming majority had developed a culture of learning and possessed the discipline to make this possible by good behaviour within and outside the classroom.
In Australia in 2011, Birbalsingh argued that “traditional education in Britain these days is reserved only for the rich” – and she noted that such learning had produced the likes of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela along with revolutionaries such as Stokely Carmichael. Birbalsingh pointed out that the main opposition to the likes of Michaela College came from the Socialist Workers Union and the National Union of Teachers. According to her analysis, such middle-class leftists “want to stop free schools from opening because they hate the idea of individuals taking away responsibility and power from the state”.
Then there are the educational bureaucrats in the civil/public service who frequently stand as bulwarks to change. Yet, despite vocal opposition and bureaucratic interests, Michaela College and some like-minded institutions are a fact of educational life in contemporary Britain.
On February 19 this year, The Times Magazine published a profile of Michaela College’s founder by Charlotte Edwardes. The cover story was titled “Britain’s Strictest Teacher”. Early on, the article described the start of a school day: “Kids form silent lines waiting to go in; they are in dark blue blazers, ties knotted high, a breeze rippling hems and head scarves – they carry books.” The profile continued: “Her pupils, some of the most disadvantaged in Britain, sing God Save the Queen and Jerusalem. They recite Rudyard Kipling’s If and William Ernest Henley’s Invictus and the periodic table.”
Edwardes reported that Birbalsingh had her critics and added: “But she must be doing something right. The last time full comparisons were made, exam results were some of the best in the country.” Some of these pupils have made it to Cambridge.
Birbalsingh states that her parents never talked about the world of blackness and adds: “I don’t think it’s helpful for black kids or brown kids to be told that they’re oppressed all the time.” At Michaela College there is no focus on identity, only on the need to work hard in a disciplined way to achieve success.
In Australia in recent years, much focus has been placed on the physical condition of schools in areas of social and economic disadvantage. When Birbalsingh spoke to The Times Magazine, she expressed concern about the rats running down the Jubilee Line embankment nearby. But her students are making it into Britain’s top universities.
Birbalsingh has just left Australia after a successful speaking tour for the Tom Switzer-led Centre for Independent Studies. She appeared on Sky News but not on the leading ABC TV stations. A pity, since so few individuals have achieved so much in a decade.