The Unspeakable Truth About Children presents Michaela Community School — the strictest school in Britain, led by the strictest headmistress in the world (just ask Google): Katharine Birbalsingh, who has recently been appointed Chair for Social Mobility.
The film, produced by Riverdog Productions, premiered on 11 May at Prince Charles Cinema.
It follows the Michaela pupils in their daily routine. Michaela is an 11 to 18 mixed, free secondary school and sixth form that frequently gets vitriolic attacks on social media for its strictness towards children. It is also among the highest-ranking schools, academically, in the UK.
We often conflate strictness with injustice, believing that any exercise of authority is dictatorial. The worst effects of the French Revolution are still evident in our approach to education. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that man was born free and is manacled by social oppression, nurtured a delusion (presented in Émile, a treatise on education) about children being naturally good, and capable of attaining knowledge empirically, by direct experience.
Yet most of what we know, we learned somewhere or from someone; we did not make it up on our brilliant genius little own self.
Anyone who has met actual children knows two things: First, that they are wrong about many things; and secondly, that they love learning. The core of the Michaela system is to orient the classroom towards the teacher, in a perfectly quiet atmosphere, so that each and every child has the same chance of receiving knowledge.
Katharine Birbalsingh gives a striking example to illustrate how important it is that the teacher takes leadership in the classroom in order to ensure equal chances in learning. When a teacher tries to draw knowledge from children in the classroom, some will get there quicker than others. One would reply, and get acknowledgement from the teacher — while the teacher feels rewarded. However, most of the time, the child wouldn’t come up with the answer because he or she is the brightest, but because out of school, at home maybe, parents would already have made that information familiar.
A pupil who would not have found the answer would not think, “Of course, that child comes from a different socio-economic background that values knowledge more than mine”: that pupil would just think “I must be a bit dumb”. Some would withdraw and disengage from learning, thinking they will never get it; some will seek gratification by other means — by bullying and acting up.
How many Millennials have rediscovered the peace of routines?
Katharine Birbalsingh has returned to an education system based on common sense. Adults know more than children. Adults have a duty of care. Educators in particular express this sense of care by granting all their pupils an equal chance at reaching their full potential. At Michaela, a child could get a “demerit” or even a detention for repeated lack of eye-contact with the teacher. If the pupil gives a correct answer in an assertive and articulate way, he or she gets a “merit”. Why would that be considered bad when self-help books urge grown-ups to be assertive in voice tone and posture, and to make eye-contact if they want to benefit from interactions with others?
The documentary presents twelve points that could be boiled down to three main ideas.
First, children need a clear structure. How many Millennials have rediscovered the peace of mind that comes with regularity and routine? Self-help bloggers write about morning or sleep-time rituals, and pre-work rites meant to increase mindfulness and lower stress. It just seems basic common-sense to frame each day, and indeed each moment of the day, so that pupils know where to go, how to sit, how to talk and how to listen so that they benefit as much as possible from their school time.
One of the children said that in other schools, with all the time spent getting the children to calm down, focus, stop chatting and do their work, most of the lesson was wasted. I knew that first-hand.
In my first year as a secondary-school teacher, one of my colleagues told me, “You can’t expect to have their attention for more than fifteen minutes per lesson.” That sounded so wrong, and so unfair. The only way I could fix that was to set clear rules: Be on time, stand by your seat until your name is called, sit quietly. At Michaela, the children have a rhythmic, almost military style of taking their seats, and I couldn’t help but think what an immense difference it must make, from 15 to 50 minutes of useful time in lessons.
The second idea is maintaining high standards. Children learn to sit in a precise posture — arms crossed, no fidgeting, eyes on the teacher; they are there to learn. So much for the racist notion that “pupils from ethnic minorities cannot be expected to be as quiet and attentive as Western pupils”. In fact, as the film shows, this idea of postural discipline, respect towards the teacher, and high academic and behaviour standards are currently higher in many poor African schools than in our post-Rousseauian Europe.
According to Birbalsingh, if you hold a child less accountable because you think that his or her background makes it hard, you are letting the child down by lowering your expectations, and thus lowering the point he or she could reach. I would never have been so interested in French literature if it hadn’t been for some extremely strict teachers who did not allow me to be lazy about it. I had educator goosebumps when watching the amount of precision, clarity and rigour in the Michaela lessons.
The students are expected to work hard, and many of them express their joy at overcoming a difficulty, or at discovering something they can talk about at home. Many of these children come from impoverished estates, but have high ambitions and know that education is key. The high academic standards always bear fruit — as some of the most moving moments in the film will show you. But the high standards are also a matter of character. “Be kind, Work hard”. Zero-tolerance for bullying or disrespectful behaviour.
Finally, a sense of belonging. Michaela is extremely multicultural. Given France’s hysteria towards religious signs, I was so relieved to see a young Muslim girl wearing a headscarf say, “I am British, my culture is from England”. Yes, it is possible to hold firm to one’s country without denying one’s faith, ethnicity or origins.
Much education is meant to make adults feel better about themselves
At Michaela, the pupils sing “God Save The Queen”, “I Vow To Thee My Country” and “Jerusalem”. As a recent immigrant myself, I thought: “This is brilliant!” As one of the Michaela kids says, “There is nationalism, and there is patriotism”. The latter is about knowing one’s country and the set of norms that constitutes its culture. One can, and one must, know about the past of the place one inhabits before criticising it. Not only will that make newcomers more able to share the local cultural references rather than remaining isolated, but it is the best way of understanding the complexity of the past. Far from being a sort of nationalist brainwashing, it allows one to take root somewhere and appreciate it.
Michaela kids also develop a sense of belonging to their school, of course. The children know they are going through something more demanding, more challenging than most of their peers. In daily lunchtime rounds, they express gratitude for someone or something that made them happy, and teachers are frequently mentioned. They thank their teachers when leaving the room. According to Katharine Birbalsingh, that spirit of gratitude is the best way to make children active towards their future, and to push back against victimhood and grievance culture.
For me and the Your Nan Was Right crew, the idea that children need structure, high standards and firm roots is not surprising. Michaela’s Maths teacher is explicit about why these norms save lives. For someone living in a safe, well-off area, the dangers linked to educational disengagement or lack of parental authority are newspaper headlines. For children living in the inner city, it’s a sometimes lethal reality. Toying with education and minimising the importance of its structural basis is a luxury belief some cannot afford.
The unspeakable truth presented in the film is how much of our education system is meant to make well-established adults feel better about themselves. Telling a pupil it does not matter if the homework is not done because things are so tough at home. Closing your eyes at the first signs of aggressive behaviour because you don’t want to be an authoritarian. Not holding firm to the rules you set because you want to be that cool teacher from a TV show whom all the pupils love.
We fantasise education around the flawed premise that children will learn better if they love their teachers. In truth it’s the other way round. When children learn, thrive and grow under your care, they love you more for the person you helped them become than for the moment of superficial instant-gratification you granted them so that you could feel better about yourself.
The unspeakable truth about adults is that we don’t want to be in charge. We don’t want to be the bad guy. We would rather feel good about ourselves for five minutes than be firm and expect our guidance to bear fruit a little later.
Maybe we should all go to Michaela.
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