I was struck by a recent interview with Katherine Birbalsingh on BBC Radio 4.
Birbalsingh drew attention by making a speech at the 2010 Conservative Party conference in the U.K. in which she talked about the poor state of the British education system. After losing her job and a few years spent in the wilderness, she set up Michaela Community School, a Free School in West London that takes a ‘no excuses’ approach to discipline and uses teacher-led instruction in order to deliver a knowledge-rich curriculum.
I expected that I would learn some of the history of how the school was set-up. I did. However, I didn’t expect to learn about race relations. I have attempted to transcribe the key part of the interview. I am not an expert at transcription so apologies for any errors:
“It took us three years in the end to open and that was mainly because of our detractors who were trying to stop us… Every time we would invite local parents to find out about this possible new school… you would have to pass through a whole 20-odd people protesting with placards… and they would come and sit among the parents and when we would try and speak to the parents they would interrupt constantly, shouting things or doing things to disrupt. The vast majority were white… and the vast majority of the parents were black and all desperate for another option of school…
At one event, a young white woman jumped up and started shouting at me and saying, “You betrayed us when you went and spoke at the Tory party conference,” and I thought, ‘Well who are you? I don’t know who you are. How can I have betrayed you? All I did was get up and say what I thought’. You might disagree with me and that’s fine but it was this real sense of betrayal and I did think that that is because of my colour: The Conservative Party is evil, you [Birbalsingh] should not have gone to their conference and as a black person you should know better because you owe us.
That is something I suffer from all the time… and I think that reaction shows how far we have to go in terms of race relations.”
This played on my mind. Are some white, middle-class people actively working against the wishes of communities that they seek to support?
I am not totally convinced by the ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ concept. Firstly, I dislike the labels because they suggest an inflexibility that I suspect many of these schools don’t actually subscribe to. And I use the word ‘suspect’ because I have never visited one and so I don’t really know.
Although different from Michaela in a number of ways, many Charter Schools in the U.S. use a zero tolerance model. Again, I have some reservations. I have reservations about staff churn and curriculum content – are they endlessly drilling kids in reading comprehension strategies? And I have reservations about attempts to teach character traits like ‘grit’. I’m not sure whether teaching grit is really possible or desirable and I’m not sure what it would look like.
And so it was with interest that I read a post on the AARE blog about Charter Schools by a researcher who used to work in one. I expected that I would have to peer through the lens of a devastating critique. I would have spat out my coffee if I found myself reading anything positive about these notoriously ‘neoliberal’ institutions on the site of the guardian of educational righteousness. And I think it really was intended to be a blistering attack. Yet I couldn’t help reading it and thinking that the schools in question sounded quite good.
This passage in particular drew my mind back to the Birbalsingh interview:
“While the institutional practices of a zero-tolerance approach to student behaviour and teacher underperformance in CMOs [Charter Schools] have been extremely contentious amongst the community of education researchers, these approaches simultaneously have become very popular amongst disadvantaged African-American and Latino parents competing for access to quality schooling in large urban centres. Parents from these communities want their children to go to the top performing charter schools..”
Again, it seems as if parents are letting the side down. Education researchers must be pretty disappointed.