Education Secretary Michael Gove and Katharine Birbalsingh speak at the Conservative Party Conference on October 5, 2010 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

In praise of post-liberalism

Michaela Community School is unique in its robust defence of tradition, truth, belonging and other conservative instincts

Is “post-liberalism” just a fashionable new term for social conservatism? Mary Harrington was asked this question during a recent webinar hosted by ResPublica and drew a helpful distinction: “Post-liberalism is what you get when you have conservative instincts but there’s nothing left to conserve… and so you have to start rebuilding. I see it as a question of reconstruction.”

Michaela: The Power of Culture, edited by Katharine Birbalsingh (John Catt Educational Ltd, £16).

The force of this description struck me whilst reading The Power of Culture, the book written by Katharine Birbalsingh and her staff at Michaela Community School, a free school in Brent. If conservatism is an ethos of “hesitation”, Michaela embodies Harrington’s more dynamic ethic of post-liberal reconstruction. In its robust defence of tradition, truth, belonging and other conservative instincts, it also shows the surprising degree to which such values can be advanced – rather than, as hitherto, undermined – by the state.

In each chapter, the school lays out its position unequivocally. The headings may be deliberately provocative – “Why I Am Still Talking to White People About Race”; “Schools Should Teach Dead White Men”; “We Believe in Authority”; “Why Stormzy Could Never Replace Mozart”; “Is Climate Activism the True Purpose of Education?” – but the arguments are advanced with nuance.

Michaela’s methods and approach must be the most scrutinised and adopted in the country

In the chapters on national identity, the teachers worry about how polarised the country has become and argue that pride in its distinctive history can provide a source of national solidarity. “We believe it’s good for children to love their country,” they say; “we regularly talk about how fortunate we are to live in a free, democratic and tolerant nation.” In another, deputy head Jonathan Porter meticulously dismantles Enlightenment liberalism, maligns its pernicious effects on education, and characterises the school’s alternative as “freedom in constraint”. Taken together, the book’s chapters are a blueprint for the principle and practice of a post-liberal culture.

Michaela could easily be dismissed as an anomaly but its example is spreading both from above and below. Birbalsingh was recently awarded a CBE for services to education and it is a mark of how much has changed that criticism of her award was muted. Ten years ago she blogged anonymously, was forced to leave her job after speaking at the Conservative party conference, and was routinely criticised by the educational establishment; even her hopes of founding a free school were thwarted on more than one occasion by orchestrated petitions. For these reasons, she was named the 2019 winner of the Contrarian Prize.

Now, although she still has her critics, her school has inspired imitators across the country. With teachers making as many as a thousand visits to the school a year, Michaela’s methods and approach must be the most scrutinised and adopted in the country. Birbalsingh is a powerful advocate in her own right, too, prosecuting her case online via podcasts and social media.

For all schools to follow ‘the Michaela Way’ is not what Birbalsingh wants

But it is the support Michaela and its allies are receiving from above that is yet more interesting, as ministers start to realise just how popular its values are. Kemi Badenoch recently told MPs that schools that teach white privilege and critical race theory as fact are breaking the law. Earlier in the year (in happier times for the beleaguered MP) Gavin Williamson called for Michaela’s silent corridors and smartphone ban to become the norm. It is much too early to say whether or not the government’s support will prevail (and countervailing forces such as the unions still loom large) but, slowly, the task of building a post-liberal settlement is finding consensus and momentum.

A previous generation of conservatives would be astonished to find such succour coming from the state, whose earlier limp standards inspired movements such as The Campaign for Real Education and jeremiads from the likes of Melanie Phillips and Sir Chris Woodhead. Following Hayek and Friedman, they would have more naturally looked to the private sector for defence of the conservative tradition, placing their hopes in laissez faire politics and the choices made by parents in an open market.

But private schools have witnessed an incremental inversion of values. As liberalism has become the hegemonic ideology amongst elites, so private schools have become increasingly liberal in line with the values of their customers (and often at a pace that has mystified their own headteachers). We could soon be in a curious situation: BLM outlawed from UK state schools but BLM posters on the walls, windows and laptops of UK private schools, who have been decolonising their curricula since the summer.

Curious, because private schools, with their cricket and cucumber sandwiches, would appear to be about as woke as a wing-collar. But though they are often conservative by default or by legacy, these days they are rarely conservative by conviction.

These days private schools are rarely conservative by conviction

Of course, such trends take decades to play out and some liberal positions have yet to win elite appeal: if anything, elites’ commitment to conservative values such as the two-parent family and the Samuel Smiles intensity with which they praise hard work have redoubled in recent years. There is, in addition, still a fair amount of preaching one thing and practising another; elites tend to “Talk the Sixties and Walk the Fifties”. We are not going to see an All Must Have Prizes philosophy adopted wholesale by the private sector anytime soon.

And yet surely Melanie Phillips would never have anticipated in the mid-90s that the causes of high educational standards and moral confidence would be most passionately advanced not by some Friedmanesque voucher scheme or pumped up private sector but by the state, ministers and public sector workers alike.

For all schools to follow “the Michaela Way” is not what Birbalsingh wants. She would rather inspire, not dictate. But her school’s experience suggests that a renewal of belief in the conservative values of knowledge, tradition and family might find a more formidable champion in a renewed state than in a private sector which continues to educate a small and ever more international (and internationalist) elite. It is tempting to speculate on what the country would be like were we to let a thousand Michaelas and the succeeding generations of their alumni bloom.

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