The Michaela Community School was founded in 2014 by Katharine Birbalsingh (as Headteacher) and Suella Braverman (currently Attorney General). The school’s ‘no excuses’ approach to education generated much controversy, but their first GCSE results outperformed the national average and their Progress 8 score ranked them fifth nationally.
In 2016 the school published The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, a summary of the Michaela ethos, with contributions from its staff. I found it perturbing and blogged about it here . But those were early days. The school recently published Michaela: The Power of Culture, which I hoped would offer more insights into its success. I got as far as Jonathan Porter (deputy head) explaining the rationale for the school’s culture, in ‘Michaela – A School of Freedom’. I’ve had to take a break. Here’s why…
Jonathan opens by claiming that we have a ‘romantic instinct’ that yearns for “emancipation rather than prescription”, for “a loosening rather than a tightening of the fence” (p.39). He says the romantic instinct has its origins, not in “ancient theory – which understood true freedom to mean virtuous self-government”, but in John Locke’s 17th century proposition that human beings in their natural state are ‘ungoverned and unconstrained’ (p.40). Jean-Jacques Rousseau largely concurred with Locke, and according to Jonathan, Rousseau’s views on education set out in Emile, or On Education (1762) have had a profound and detrimental influence on education in Britain.
Isaiah Berlin revisited Locke’s ideas in the 1950s. Berlin posited two types of liberty: Negative liberty that seeks to minimise the obstacles to people doing what they want to do; and positive liberty, the freedom to self-determine, which might require some input from the state. Berlin was wary of positive liberty due to the potential for state control. But Jonathan agrees with Charles Taylor that “…we cannot erase the view of positive freedom entirely, not least because our ability to exercise any freedom we might have hinges on certain ends” (p.45).
Michaela adopts a ‘no excuses’ principle for behaviour management and Jonathan sees this as grounded in the ‘ancient theory’ of virtuous self-government. His reasoning appears to be that children often make poor choices about how to use their liberty (he goes into detail about the temptations of social media), and that the ‘ancient theory’ had stood the test of time until Locke came along. Many of Jonathan’s claims stand up to scrutiny – but some don’t. Also, he tells only half the story – and the other half is important.
As I understand it, the ‘ancient theory’ of virtuous self-government recognised that people (individually and collectively) were generally unhappy about external control, hence the ‘self-government’ bit. But self-government alone didn’t guarantee true liberty – that was possible only for those not enslaved to their passions, a thread running through the liberty discourse. That meant virtue was essential for individuals and communities to enjoy true freedom.
Something Jonathan overlooks is that many (at least from Judea to Greece) who subscribed to the ‘ancient theory’ also believed that human beings had fallen from a prior state of grace. The human task was to remedy that fall via sacrifice, rituals, good works etc. Deities and their earthly representatives (prophets, priests, kings et al.) were usually involved. Promoting the idea that human moral status is inherently flawed, put the deities’ earthly representatives in positions of considerable power. But power structures don’t feature in Jonathan’s analysis.
Locke and Rousseau
Locke (and Rousseau) challenged the idea that we’re fundamentally sinful by nature and have to spend our lives making up for it. Instead, they proposed that whatever our moral status, we’re entitled to live our lives as we think fit, not as prescribed by social or religious institutions. Of course if we’re interacting with other people, our right to exercise our natural liberty is likely to conflict with someone else’s right to do the same, so we need some form of government to adjudicate, and some rules we all agree to comply with, to ensure a peaceful co-existence. This is the basis of Locke’s take on social contract theory, to which Rousseau also subscribed. Jonathan refers to social contract theory (p.40) but goes on, I felt, to caricature Locke’s liberty as Milton’s ‘licence’. Milton was right that for some “licence they mean when they cry liberty”, but that wasn’t what Locke and Rousseau meant. What they objected to wasn’t constraint per se, but arbitrary constraint – another point Jonathan refers to (p.40) but then bypasses.
Both Locke and Rousseau had direct experience of the doctrine of original sin being used to justify arbitrary constraint.The English civil war had begun shortly before Locke’s tenth birthday and his father served in the Parliamentary army. John was a bright lad and would have been well aware of what his father was fighting for. Rousseau had grown up in Calvinist Geneva but spent most of his adult life Catholic France, so had seen the doctrine of original sin from two very different theological perspectives. Locke’s and Rousseau’s ideas about liberty were responses to major issues of their day, and were popular because the ancient theory of virtuous self-government, and more importantly its implementation, were quite evidently no longer fit for purpose.
Virtue and power
Virtuous self-government is an appealing idea, but even by the 5th century BCE it had become clear it was feasible only in relatively small, completely independent communities. By then, the population of Athens had grown too large for direct participation in decision-making. Thucydides recounts discussions about whether decisions should be made by only a proportion of the population, or by representatives. And recounts the disagreements over who was ‘virtuous’.
By the 17th century CE, virtuous self-government had been found by many to be a necessary but insufficient foundation for society. You don’t need to believe in a deity to believe in virtue, but if virtuous self-government is the model a society has adopted, somebody ends up deciding what’s virtuous and what’s not. And that somebody is usually whoever has social or political power. After all, ‘virtue’ has been used to justify despotism, genocide, murder, torture and slavery – none of which feels particularly virtuous if you’re on the receiving end. The early Athenians argued that nature itself showed the strong should rule the weak, but unsurprisingly many of the tribes they tried to rule objected, on the grounds that they too wanted to govern themselves.
Of course by definition children don’t have sufficient experience or knowledge to make fully informed life choices. Locke considered the mind a tabula rasa; for him, it was important to ensure children’s early experiences were positive. Rousseau in contrast, had been a student in the school of hard knocks and felt it was important for children to find out about reality for themselves. I think Michaela is right that children need guidance and support from adults, to be taught effective life strategies, and to learn self-control in order to best exercise their liberty. But Jonathan doesn’t ask who decides what’s virtuous, or what the ends of education are – key issues for Locke and Rousseau.
Jonathan mentions arbitrary constraints, but sees them as political constraints (p.46) rather than social ones. There’s an example in his discussion of character (p.49). He says; “If pupils at Michaela are just one minute late to school, they will receive a 30-minute detention at the end of the day. We do make exceptions, although these really are exceptions. Most days a handful of detentions will be given to pupils who slept through their alarms, didn’t pack their bags the night before, or left home late but didn’t run to catch the bus… Although we are forgiving, a future employer may not be”.
I understand why pupils should be expected to arrive at school on time – it’s inconvenient for everybody if they don’t. But one minute late? And although the school might make allowances for exceptional circumstances, it isn’t forgiving – pupils are punished for transgressions.
The justification for the no excuses approach to tardiness is that a future employer might expect down-to-the-minute punctuality. It’s true that some industries (e.g. transport, manufacturing) do operate at that level of punctuality – but in those industries lateness has direct, real-life, non-arbitrary consequences. It’s also true that many employers require employees to clock in and clock out, but they usually use flexitime, which means arriving a minute later means leaving a minute later to compensate. And many employers, particularly in the type of employment Michaela encourages its students to aspire to, don’t monitor minutes or even hours, as long as the work gets done. So what is the ‘one minute late’ rule really about? There’s a fine line between discipline and control. It was a line Locke and Rousseau were aware of but it’s not clear where Michaela’s line is.
It looks to me as if Michaela has chosen a ‘no excuses’ approach to school culture because it has certain administrative advantages, then justified that choice by appealing to authorities that support their position, such as the virtuous self-government model, Aristotle, Graeco-Roman tradition, 1000 years of history, and Edmund Burke (p.46ff). Rather than use theory from opposing authorities (e.g. Locke, Rousseau, Berlin) to test the school’s model for possible flaws, it caricatures opposing theories as responsible for licence, undermining the British education system, and allowing children unrestricted access to social media.
Virtuous self-government is an appealing idea, but survived for 1000 years of history largely because it was shored up by religious and secular power hierarchies with those at the top deciding what was virtuous and how far self-government extended – as Michaela is doing. But Michaela’s students will take their place in an adult world that relies on people negotiating outcomes; at the state level, in the workplace and between individuals. Will a ‘no excuses’ culture prepare them effectively for that?
Virtuous self-government and a ‘no excuses’ culture work for some people and some institutions, but the ancient Athenians, contemporaries of Locke, Rousseau, and Berlin, and state education systems from Prussia to the UK, have found that they don’t work for everybody – which is largely why those systems changed. Virtuous self-government and a ‘no excuses’ culture have face value appeal, but as systems of governance they’re as full of holes as a Swiss cheese.