• Joanne Jacobs

'Why would you teach a disadvantaged child that the world hates them'


Katharine Birbalsingh, known as the strictest headmistress in England, with her students at Michaela School in London.

After flirting with Marxism at Oxford, Katharine Birbalsingh began teaching in a state school with a "holistic, child-centered approach," writes Leah McLaren on SubStack. It "sounded great," but didn't work very well. She now "runs one of Britain's top-ranked schools, free to attend and catering almost entirely to underserved low-income, minority kids. So why do progressives dislike her so much?


Birbalsingh's Michaela Community School, a "free" (independently run but state supported) school, is very, very structured, reports McLaren. "The teachers are in charge, and the students receive a rigorous, traditional and – this is key — distraction-free education." Students, most of whom come from non-white, low-income and religious families, rank fifth in Britain in tests scores, and 82 percent go on to universities like Oxford and Cambridge.


The “progressive state system” . . . keeps poor kids poor, Birbalsingh believes. It was designed to make middle-class white liberals feel good, not to advance needy students. Born in New Zealand and raised in Canada and England, she is the daughter of a Jamaican mother, a nurse, and an Indo-Guyanese father, an education professor.


McLaren lunched with students, who filed silently into the dining hall, stood to attention at their assigned seats and chanted Rudyard Kipling’s If. They belt out the last verse:


"If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!"

Lunchtime conversation topics are assigned -- today it's the sacrifices of British soldiers in the world wars -- but the "outgoing, polite, confident and curious" 15-year-olds were eager to talk to the reporter.


McLaren asked what happens when a student acts out in class. It took time for one student to recall a girl who shouted at the teacher in French class two years earlier. She was "sent out" and "got a bunch of detentions and demerits," he recalled. “But it was okay in the end because after that she really redeemed herself.”


Michaela adapted its motto, "Work hard, be kind," from KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charters, writes McLaren. KIPP dropped its "Work hard, be nice," declaring that it “passively supports ongoing efforts to pacify and control Black and Brown bodies in order to better condition them to be compliant.”


Birbalsingh calls that "a load of nonsense.”

“Why would you teach a disadvantaged child that the world hates them?” she asks.
. . . The view that systemic inequality and discrimination is a forgone conclusion is, she insists, simplistic, self-defeating and frankly racist. “It fails poor black and brown kids, who understandably take from it, ‘Well if that’s how the world is, why bother?’”

In the U.S., Daniel Buck has started teaching at a K-8 "no excuses" school that features "teacher-led instruction, rigid behavioral structure, and knowledge-based curriculum" and, critically, "a coherent culture and uniform vision." "Everything that a school does sends signals to students — what behavior is sanctioned or rewarded, what books students read, who designs curriculum, which posters hang on the wall," he writes. "What does this school value? What does it mean to be educated? What is proper behavior? Good character?"


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