There is an interview with Katharine Birbalsingh in today’s Evening Standard. She reiterates that she agrees with absolutely everything Gove says, that the present state system expects too little of its students, that “on the estates they’re desperate for this (free school) stuff”,
More admirably, she states that she does not want the sharp-elbowed middle-class types to come charging into the Michaela Community School, named after an inspirational former colleague, which is instead seeking to attract poor, mainly black children from the local estates. Strict discipline, hard pushing is on the agenda and she argues that this is what will encourage aspiration and motivation, although she seems to think that everyone wants to go to Oxbridge and, perhaps, follow the predictable career paths of Establishment figures. But not all children are suited for this and do not necessarily want to attain it. Perhaps their talents are more vocational, so education at the school should surely cater for this section of children? She says she will offer media and cultural analysis to question stereotypes of black people but any good inclusive comprehensive school does this without making a song and dance about in the press.
But can it really be a community school if its ethos is a case of reverse discrimination? Surely this is just another form of segregation, actively excluding or putting off, in her case, the white academically minded middle class, who might find themselves more welcome at West London Free School? Religious free schools (which make up a large number of free school applications) will discriminate because you are the wrong faith or a non-believer. Her school is earmarked for Lambeth, a culturally and socially diverse borough, so it is not surprising that there is resistance to her plans by significant numbers of residents who do not want to see Lambeth schools broken up and ghettoised into factions.
She may now want to distance herself from Toby Young but they both share some things in common – using their “celebrity” to ensure that their free school hopes get as much publicity as possible and impressing Gove into handing over a Funding Agreement; a certain starry-eyed adoration of the private school culture; a disconnect between the probity that is expected of them as school leaders and their need to denigrate comprehensive schools and unions at the same time as thrusting themselves into the limelight.
Despite her desire to be seen as “radical”, Birbalsingh’s vision for teaching is not much different from any good maintained school, so it is hard to see how her school can really justify the millions that may be poured into it and away from other schools in Lambeth who are genuinely inclusive and socially cohesive. I wonder what she will think of the poor black kids (her sentiments, not mine) in the other schools in Lambeth which will fall into disrepair, with severe staffing and operational cuts? How will Michaela help them as it pockets the funds that threaten to compromise their education?
Birbalsingh is famous for being sacked and shunned by what she considers the teaching establishment, so it is in her interests to try and set herself up as the head of a free school. She says that state school teachers are “generally better” that their private school counterparts so I wonder what she thinks of those wonderful teachers who are losing their jobs because of government cuts and education policy and can’t trade on their celebrity to move on and stay in the profession.
We don’t really need more articles on Young and Birbalsingh to push the free school agenda. We need to hear about and read stories of inspirational teachers and real community schools up and down the country who have a track record of making a difference to young people’ lives for years, decades.