Why strictness is socially progressive
This is Katharine Birbalsingh, Britain’s most high-profile headteacher, the founder and head of Michaela Community School in Brent. Birbalsingh attracts controversy because she has firm ideas which conflict with orthodoxy within the education community, and puts them into practice in a way that makes it tough to argue she’s wrong. She is a conservative, in the sense that she believes in teaching cultural traditions and canonical texts; Michaela pupils sing God Save The Queen and read a lot of Shakespeare. She is a progressive in the sense that she believes passionately in helping kids from poor and diverse backgrounds scale the heights of society.
She is known, above all, for her attitude to school discipline. As the magazine cover above suggests, Birbalsingh’s school operates on a latticework of closely drawn and assiduously enforced rules. Of course, pretty much schools have rules of behaviour, but even by the standards of those which make discipline a priority, Michaela is strict. Birbalsingh is proud of that, which gets people’s backs up.
When The Times published its profile of “Britain’s Strictest Teacher”, people who had never run or taught or even attended a school in a challenging area opined airily on Birbalsingh’s enthusiasm for rules, characterising her as a petty tyrant and enemy of self-expression. This kind of criticism comes up almost every time there’s a story about successful academy schools in poor areas, or “no excuses” charter schools in the US. Schools like this tend to be keen on discipline, and in the view of some that makes them joyless bureaucracies which crush curiosity and inspiration. I think these critics fail to grasp something fundamental about rules - that they can liberate.
Whatever you think about Birbalsingh, it’s clear that something has gone very, very right at Michaela. It has proved successful at just about the hardest thing a school can do: taking a cohort of children born into multiple disadvantages and giving them an education that is as good or better than that enjoyed by their middle-class peers.
Michaela is a non-selective school in one of the most deprived urban areas of the UK, a place where schools have been bad for decades. Many of the school’s pupils come from families in which English is not the first language, and from homes where the parents are too harried by the relentless demands of economic survival to engage in enriching conversations with their children about history and science, or to stock the house with books - let alone hire private tutors. Yet, seven years after Michaela was founded, it has become a springboard into the country’s elite. Its GCSE results are some of the best in the country. In 2021, four-fifths of its A-level pupils received offers from top universities.
OK, quick digression/rant. There are no institutions I admire more than schools which take children from difficult backgrounds and set them on the right path, and there are few individuals I respect more than those who dedicate their lives to running them. I don’t particularly hold a torch for Birbalsingh. I’m sure I’d disagree with her on quite a lot, and like many public figures she should probably lay off Twitter. Neither do I think there is one right way to run a school and that every school should be like Michaela. But when I see people on social media lamping into Birbalsingh or her school, simply because they don’t like her politics or they have some dim intuition that rules are bad, I feel like asking, what you have you done? The world is divided into People Who Tweet (like me) and People Who Do Stuff - people who actually advance the lives of the disadvantaged in their work rather than just writing about it. The Tweeters have every right to criticise The Doers but they really ought to show a little humility before doing so.
Anyway, back to topic. To understand why strict rules can release the potential of pupils from tough backgrounds, it’s useful to understand something about how learning works. There’s a lot of evidence from cognitive science that learning is like compound interest: the more you have, the faster you can acquire it. In that sense, the brain is the opposite of a computer; the more you load up its hard drive, the more efficiently it processes new information. A chess grandmaster can look at a board with pieces scattered across it and immediately grasp what’s going on because he has a deep mental store of similar games in his long-term memory. The same principle applies to any domain of knowledge: the more you know, the easier it is to know more. If you already know a little about Ukraine you’ll be assimilating new information about the situation faster than someone who doesn’t, even if they’re making the same effort you are.
This principle leads to a cognitive “rich get richer” effect in education. Children who start with disadvantages then find it increasingly hard to keep up. Put a child who comes from a “cognitively rich” middle-class household next to one who does not, and even if the disadvantaged child makes the same effort, she will fall behind. After a few months or a year of this, what does such a conscientious child conclude? She doesn’t peruse the relevant science on learning and conclude that the odds were stacked against her from the start. She concludes that she is stupid, or that she is not cut out for school, and that she may as well give up on it.
If they are to help pupils escape this vicious circle, schools with intakes from deprived areas have to make an intense, focused, relentless effort. They have to over-compensate for learning deficits before the deficits swallow the children up. That requires immense commitment on the part of staff. It also requires the application of rules.
Rules clear away all the stuff that gets in the way of children acquiring knowledge. They maximise space for the focused attention that learning requires. A school performs several functions, including a socialising one - that’s to say, it’s important kids have fun with each other. But this can’t come at the expense of learning, especially for kids who only get the chance to learn when they’re at school. When corridors are noisy and chaotic, children lose the focus they need for the next lesson. At schools like Michaela, these are children for whom every minute of classroom time matters - more so than they do to a middle-class child. The marginal value of a minute’s attention in school is higher for them. Rules also teach kids about collective responsibility. When a classroom is noisy or chaotic, all the children lose out: the ones who are breaking the rules and the ones who want to work. Adhering to rules is way of acknowledging that everyone matters equally.
Don’t assume, either, that a very rule-bound school is an unhappy one. The closest first-hand experience I have of a similar school environment to Michaela was a trip to Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford for an article about good teaching practices. It also had a relatively ‘strict’ regime of rules, including a prohibition against talking in the corridor. The school’s intake comes from a deprived and very diverse area, and as at Michaela, the children there are now achieving extraordinary, country-leading results. The pupils, from what I could tell on my brief visit, were not only highly impressive but sparky, funny and ravenous for learning.
Much comes down to how rules are presented and operated. They can be applied in a an arrogant, domineering way, or they can be applied in a way that helps pupils understand why such rules exist - essentially, for the good of each other. One of the policies followed by the teachers at Dixons Trinity was over-explaining. Every time pupils are asked to follow a rule, the reason for the rule has to be explained, and explained again, until you - the teacher - are sick of explaining. ‘Here is why I am silencing your conversation with a desk-mate during class’ (because allowing it is unfair on everyone else). This can get onerous for staff, but as the school’s head said to me, enforcing rules without justifying them generates resentment and resistance. Good teachers, like wise rulers, govern by consent.
Thanks for reading this piece, which is free to read, so go ahead and share. Please check out CONFLICTED, my book on productive disagreement, available in the UK and US and lots of other places too. For more on education, learning and achievement gaps, take a look at my previous book, CURIOUS.
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Behind the paywall this week:
Notes on Ukraine. I ask whether Putin is acting rationally or not and say what I think experts might be getting wrong about him, with reference to the 1993 siege of Waco. I also link to a few articles that have helped me understand Putin’s goals.
A brilliant Quote of the Week: Bruce Lee on the nature of technique.
Any Other Business: a fruit bowl of juicy links.
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