Katherine Birbalsingh is leading the Tory attack on 'progressive' education

Dave Lister on the backward ideas animating the chair of the new Social Mobility Commission

In October 2021 Katharine Birbalsingh was appointed by the Government as chair of the Social Mobility Commission. Liz Truss, in her role as minister for women and equalities, stated that she wanted her to work on applying the levelling up agenda, in particular to the fields of education, enterprise and employment.

Katharine Birbalsingh first came to prominence (or notoriety depending on your point of view) when she was wheeled out at the Tory party conference to attack progressive education. She claimed that education standards had been “so dumbed down that even the teachers know it”. She also said that “my experience of teaching for over a decade in five different schools has convinced me beyond a shadow of doubt that the system is broken because it keeps poor children poor”. She then returned to her school Saint Michael and the Angels Academy in Camberwell, South London (which I knew well), where she was the vice principal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was then asked not to attend it while the governors discussed her position, and she finally resigned because she was unwilling to comply with the conditions that were put to her.

In 2014 Katharine Birbalsingh founded Michaela Community School, a free school in Wembley, north west London. Central to this school’s ethos is the draconian discipline policy that she favours, which led to its being dubbed “the strictest school in the country”. Pupils were instructed on how to sit properly on chairs and to walk to lessons in single file. Detentions were dished out for forgetting to bring a pencil or for talking in a corridor in between lessons. Ofsted were impressed and judged Michaela to be outstanding in all areas.

However, this approach to discipline is not confined to Michaela School. Many academies have a similar ‘zero tolerance’ approach to student behaviour, which arguably is more appropriately deployed on New York streets than on the corridors of English schools. Misbehaviour leads to warnings; the next stage is detentions, and the final stage is isolation or exclusion. Isolation can take place over a long period of time. Exclusion can be used as a means of ridding the school of troublesome or underachieving pupils and can also take the form of informal exclusion – parents being told to remove their child – which is in fact illegal. It has been pointed out by education commentators that these policies are particularly detrimental to children with special educational needs and to BME children. This is reflected in the data on exclusions.

Ofsted has been criticised for praising the behaviour policies of a school that insisted on silent corridors and had excluded a large number of pupils. However, they have also stated that schools do not have to adopt zero tolerance policies to be praised for how they manage behaviour. Rather, schools will be judged on whether their approach works. In their latest inspection framework, Ofsted are focusing more than before on children’s behaviour in school. In doing this they should consider whether children with SEND and other groups have been adversely affected by the implementation of their school’s behaviour policy.

Birbalsingh is not entirely wrong to insist that schools need to have a strong behaviour policy. In my experience, for example, there were a few schools in inner London in the 1970s which were out of control. Children cannot learn well when disruption is constantly taking place. It’s a matter of degree. Many schools and many teachers seem to manage well without zero tolerance policies. ‘Firm but fair’, ‘firm but kind’ seems to work for many people. An interesting, creative, meaningful curriculum would also help! Draconian discipline policies are detrimental.

But the Michaela approach is not only about behaviour. It is also about the methodology for teaching and learning. Birbalsingh is strongly opposed to progressive education. She believes, controversially, that group learning can never work. She believes, like Tory minsters, that schooling should be about imparting knowledge, not developing learning skills. She believes that Black children’s education should focus on British history and literature to help make them British citizens and definitely not on the history and culture of their family’s country of origin. In addition, she has opposed the Black Lives Matter movement, teaching about white privilege and so-called ‘woke’ culture in general.

Schooling should be about instilling knowledge or developing learning skills. Knowledge is meaningless without understanding, and many education experts disagree with the current governmental bias against teaching skills. But skills-based learning is operating in a vacuum without knowledge and understanding. Teaching History in the 1990s, I thought that there was too much emphasis on skills such as interpreting documents. Children also need a sense of chronology and the key to understanding the modern world that historical knowledge and understanding can provide.

Also, the belief that progressive education harms children is nonsense in my view. The evidence has always suggested that it is the quality of the teaching that counts. Good progressive and good traditional teaching are effective. Bad progressive or traditional teaching is not. For me, children benefit when lessons are creative, interesting and enjoyable. Over-reliance on ‘chalk and talk’ can be boring and stifling.

We are fighting a losing battle in education currently. The removal of Nick Gibb from his post in the education ministry is a positive however. The Labour Party needs to develop alternative policies giving teachers more autonomy and local authorities more clout. Our children should be both seen and heard.

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