Sometime between October and December 1984, the first term of my four year B.Ed. in Winchester, I discovered a bookshop, October Books in Southampton. In those heady days every major city had a radical, progressive, socialist bookshop. Before Facebook and Twitter it was the way to meet like-minded people and find out how to join the revolution. Amazingly October Books, unlike most of their kind, is still functioning. Over the following six years it was to become a home from home for me. But one book I bought in that first term has stuck with me. Teaching As A Subversive Activity (TAASA) by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. (It is available as a PDF here.) I don’t especially recommend reading it. It is important to me in an iconic kind of way (I even talk about ‘priesthood as a subversive activity’) and I have spoken of it on innumerable occasions.
In that strange time (never, thankfully, repeated) at the threshold of adulthood, I was fascinated by rebellion and revolution. I had just read Camus’ The Rebel:
“The first progressive step for a mind overwhelmed by the strangeness of things is to realize that this feeling of strangeness is shared with all people and that human reality, in its entirety, suffers from the distance which separates it from the rest of the universe. The malady experienced by a single person becomes a mass plague. In our daily trials rebellion plays the same role as does the “cogito” in the realm of thought: it is the first piece of evidence. But this evidence lures the individual from his solitude.
It founds its first value on the whole human race. I rebel—therefore we exist.”
Nothing of my anger at the world has subsided. Life is unfair. The wicked prosper and the rich get richer. “To those who have more will be given.”. It was good to see this ‘Matthew Effect’ quoted by teacher Joe Kirby in The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers (BHOTTT).
There is much to create resistance to reading this book. Toby Young is quoted on the front cover, Michael Gove on the back. For leftward, progressive, justice-seeking people like me this might be enough to stop us giving the book a go. Even inside the covers there are plenty of opportunities for irritation. Having inspected (church school, SIAMS inspections) many schools, I know that there is a certain smug, insular mentality that helps schools to succeed, here, it is the ‘Michaela Way’, but I have heard the ‘X-Way’ in so many schools that I know it is not limited to this school. I also know that I did it myself as Head of a Lewisham church comprehensive: “There are plenty of other schools with vacancies”, I would say in assembly, “if you don’t like the way we do things at Trinity.”
There is more to dislike and be irritated by (I thought I would get these out of the way). This book is a manifesto, a piece of polemic. As such the hyperbole sometimes takes over “We are the only school in the country, state or private, that is happy to have anyone visit at any time” writes Headmistress Katherine Birbalsingh. Well, sorry, I said that all the time as a headteacher, as do so many others. At other times there are generic, sweeping criticisms of the whole of the rest of the educational system, and every other school, that are just unnecessary. Birbalsingh is the editor of this book, a good external editor might have removed some of this, as well as the overuse of rhetorical questions, and improved the book.
Those minor criticisms having been said, I think anyone who has any interest in or enthusiasm for education should read this book. This book (after TAASA) is the most significant book I have read on schooling. It describes the formation of an inner city school educating some of the most challenging children in Britain.
We need a paradigm shift in our educational discourse. We know that our schools are not as successful as other educational systems. We are a society afraid of our own young and unclear about how to rear them. Teachers are exhausted and leave the profession at appalling rates. Barely anyone can imagine being a classroom teacher for the whole of a lifetime. This noble, beautiful task is ridiculed (‘if you can’t do, teach, if you can’t teach teach teachers’). How wonderful to have this celebration of teachers, how positive to hear of ‘tiger teachers’ in place of worn out, weary teachers.
This book offers the most coherent attempt to implement such a paradigm shift that I have seen. Slightly over-egging the pudding Birbalsingh and her 20 colleagues (what an achievement to get a staff of this size to contribute to a book), imply that they alone are having these thoughts. In fact, there are many individuals having these same intuitions about education but I don’t know anywhere else it is being applied so consistently.
I have never met Katherine Birbalsingh – although we have both taught at Archbishop Tenison’s School at the Oval (at different times). I have never visited Michaela Community School in Brent (but I arranged for colleagues at Trinity to visit). I have follow her career with interest and know that she has had huge obstacles to overcome in establishing her school in Brent which now has Years 7-9.
I won’t spend too long summarising the book -which you ought to read – but I will pick up on five themes:
- The end of child-centred Education
The end of child-centred education
This is perhaps the most important feature of the book. I have long rejected this mantra in education. I have been criticised, sometimes viciously, for doing so. I think it is profoundly wrong and damages children and society. Theologically I have spoken of the wrongness of putting anything other than God at the heart of what we do. If we make children the centre of our task we turn them into little Emperors, we forget that childhood is a stage, a formation period for adulthood. Maturity is our goal not childhood. Rousseau-esque romanticism of children is catastrophically dangerous. For more on the pollution of our education mindset this blog by David Didau is very useful – his last paragraph particularly important.
There is a skills-knowledge binary debate in education, it is probably true that the binary nature of the debate is artificial and unhelpful but I have no doubt at all that memory has been seriously underplayed in schools. In every traditional culture, the memorisation of texts, stories and facts has been vital. Transmission has been seen as a good thing. But I know that the progressive education that I was taught as a teacher in formation was all about children discovering knowledge. It works well for middle class children whose families and cultural capital provides the content; it is a disaster for everyone else. The key writer on this is E.D Hirsch, if you don’t know his work read him. He is not right about everything – I blame Michael Gove’s reliance on him for the absence of Religious Education from the EBacc, they don’t have Religious Education in state schools in the United States so, of course, it doesn’t figure. Other good writers on this are Harold Bloom (The Western Canon), I would also recommend Lucy Beckett’s The Light of Christ.
As I read BHOTTT I kept thinking about ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ and how often as a Head I promoted it, we even created our own version of it at Trinity, it has almost biblical status in education, it places memory at the bottom of the learning pyramid and analysing and evaluating at the top. If you Google it you will find endless resources for teachers to use this in the classroom, in every subject area. The problem is, I suspect that we have forgotten that this is a triangle. The base is vast in comparison to the tip but we have expected teachers to act as if each phase of the taxonomy should share an equal part of lessons, and even that in some sense the tip of the triangle was more important or significant than everything that preceded it.
This is an area that, as a headteacher, I now think I got wrong. Michaela has a ‘no excuses’ culture. Whatever the problems and difficulties a child has outside of school they have to abide by the school’s rules. I think that I made too much allowance, too many excuses for pupils. Children need to be taught how to behave, Michaela do this brilliantly. The ‘boot camp’ at the beginning of Year 7 is one of their key ways of delivering this.
As a Head I championed Restorative Justice. I still think this is important, Birbalsingh is quoted as highlighting ‘mending the relationship’. But it can’t be everything, and it can’t deal with the small, minute by minute infringements of rules that schools have to deal with. I was concerned to ‘hook the adult’ in children but the danger of this was that everything becomes negotiable and it gives children the idea that they are in some sense ‘equal’ to the adults. I placed too much emphasis on relationships and too little on the systems and structures that make good relationships possible.
The sections of BHOTT on parenting and parents are magnificent. Birbalsingh expects parents to support the school 100%, not 99%, but totally. We may think that our schools are in crisis but that is as nothing to the crisis afflicting families. Parents are adults, grown ups, children are children; this simple fact is ignored or unknown to so many. So often in interactions with parents they behave as advocates for their children against teachers. This cannot be right and it cannot work.
This is another area I think I got wrong as a Head. “I believe that I am there for the staff, not the pupils.” writes Birbalsingh. This is revolutionary stuff. No member of my staff when I was a Head would have ascribed that thought to me. I rejected ‘child-centered education’ but I didn’t go far enough. I was still too focused on children, their needs and their narratives. The work that Michaela has done to make the work load manageable is superb. The kind of marking that many in schools – me among them – have demanded of staff is simply impossible, just add up the minutes needed to mark the books; the minutes needed to set and mark homework; the minutes needed if every parent turned up for a parents evening. Add this to a demand that teachers ‘engage’ children, the gamification of learning; that lessons be entertaining; makes teaching a shattering occupation, a job that is unsustainable over even a few years let alone a life time. I have visited many independent and grammar schools; high performing schools where lessons appear to be ‘boring’ but where children are engaged on high level questions and are enjoying themselves.
As I think you can tell I regard this book and the school it describes as a remarkable achievement. There is so much that I have not mentioned that is brilliant about the school – the removal of IT as a subject, the removal of iPads and PowerPoint – what a ridiculous waste of money and time all of that has been. We desperately need a new paradigm for education. So many criticisms of Michaela pick on details. This book is remarkably refreshing about the mistakes they have made and the need to keep on learning. At the end Katherine says “It feels like we’re on a rocket to the moon. Let’s hope we get there.”
No one school is ever going to be ‘The Answer’; Michaela is putting into practice what many have been thinking and saying. The old paradigm is bankrupt; passed, dead. Even if Michaela doesn’t reach the moon the journey is important. As a society we need to reach incredibly high for our pupils, so much higher than we have been.
At the end of one of my favourite films, Now Voyager, Bette Davis says ‘Don’t lets ask for the moon. We have the stars?’ Michaela is doing a wonderful thing; may they reach out beyond where we are now for the stars and the moon. For those of us who are left-leaning politically they are creating the revolution we want:
“I want the pupils I teach to become adults who genuinely change the country and the world … If our children are deprived of strict, benevolent adult authority in the short term at school, longer term throughout their lives as adults they will not be able to question political claims in elections, referenda or debates – nor will they ever become revolutionary thinkers, writers or leaders.”
Lucy Newman, Authority in Action, BHOTTT
SEE ALSO this blog post about sources and texts.