The virtues of habit

Schooling needs a different kind of Thatcherism

Artillery Row

As I finished my lunch, the children on my table practised their Appreciations. “I want to thank Mr.. Mr … how do you say your name again?” 

I was visiting Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela School and was about to witness one of their famous set pieces: a short period after lunch when pupils stand to give thanks in front of their teachers and peers. A teacher is complimented for some last-minute exam advice; a fellow kid for giving her seat to someone more deserving on the Tube home; and so am I — just for turning up and sharing a meal. My thanks are so undeserved that my eyes prick with tears. 

The majority of schools prefer to stress TED-inspired generality

Pupils are picked at random so every child spends a few minutes beforehand preparing their short address. It sounds like the sotto voce murmur of hundreds of children at prayer. This ritual of gratitude the pupils perform every lunchtime, every school week, for seven years. 

“Good behaviour is a habit taught gradually over years by all teachers,” Birbalsingh says. Over the course of my morning at Michaela, habits of attention, punctuality, quietness, alertness were everywhere in training, as anyone who saw the recent Michaela documentary will attest.

“But are the children actually grateful?” Birbalsingh’s is a distinct anthropology: that a virtue must be practised like times tables; that character, like athletic skill, has its own “muscle memory” that bears the imprint of repeated practice. Making virtues a deliberate daily habit also forces a school to make objective claims about the good. The majority of schools prefer to stress instead the TED-inspired generality — grit, resilience, etc — that are laminated on so many classroom walls but which leave schools free from having to direct their pupils in any particular way, 

If it were not for the force with which she affirms her position, Birbalsingh’s emphasis on virtue and habit would feel nostalgic — almost quaint. It has the ring of the Victorian schoolmarm about it. Here is the Victorian educationalist Charlotte Mason for instance: “The formation of habits is education, and education is the formation of habits … The parent who takes pains to endow their children with good habits secures for themselves smooth and easy days; whilst they who let their children’s habits take care of themselves has a weary life of endless friction.” (Like Birbalsingh, she emphasised the role of the parent as a child’s first and most significant educator.) “The habits of the child are,” Mason writes, “so many little hammers beating out by slow degrees the character of the man.”

Children need training in good habits to make free choices

“Victorian” remains a term of abuse for most intellectuals and educationalists. But Birbalsingh has realised that such values are not just powerfully practical for a community like the one her school serves but enormously popular too. In this she follows many would-be moral reformers from Mary Whitehouse to Thatcher. When it was suggested to Thatcher that she approved of Victorian values, she “grabbed the phrase: ‘Oh exactly. Very much so. Those were the values when our country became great, but not only did our country become great internationally, also so much advance was made in this country.’”

Aesthetically old guard, redolent of cold baths and cross-country runs, Birbalsingh’s neo-Victorian moralism is in fact a radically emancipatory one, especially for families for whom such habits are not instilled at home. “If children can be taught good habits,” Birbalsingh says, “such as turning up on time, dressing smartly and remembering the right equipment — they will grow into successful adults.” 

Hers is therefore an answer to the paradox of freedom in a hyper-liberal society: that, if they are not to be made unfree by bad habits, children need training in good habits in order to make the right free choices. At the same time, hers is also a voice notably more progressive and optimistic than many in conservative education, who seem to place an undue focus on heredity and academic selection, consigning the majority of children to a position from which intellectual or moral progress is deemed implausible. 

With a Victorian winter of ragged children and desperate hardship soon to be upon us, in which virtues such as thrift and perseverance will be essential, let us hope that, in UK schools at least, it is the Thatcherism of what Shirley Letwin called the “Vigorous Virtues” that is embraced before that of Thatcher the Milk Snatcher. 

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