Michaela: colonising the curriculum?

If all I’d known about the Michaela Community School was its day-to-day routine, I’d have raised little more than an eyebrow. That’s in part because day-to-day life at Michaela looks remarkably like day-to-day life at the grammar school I attended half a century ago. What prompted me to raise more than an eyebrow is the new book from the Michaela Community School, The Power of Culture.

As far as the day-to-day is concerned it’s packed with positive practical ideas. I noted particularly;
-creating liberating pathways for students
-taking a long term view of conduct
-catching the students being good
-not expecting them to ape experts
-presenting knowledge in context
-mini introductions to practical, useful non-academic knowledge
-the outside speaker programme
-whole-class marking
-no targets
-no performance related pay
-all school staff (including admin & cleaners) being involved.

On a day-to-day level, Michaela’s methods are obviously effective. Students learn, raise their expectations, improve their behaviour and get good exam results. It’s when it came to the school’s ethos (beliefs and values) that I felt the framework began to wobble.

The Michaela ethos might reflect the pre-existing beliefs of staff, but the school also appears to have resorted to a bit of post-hoc justification for its practices. Rather than practice emerging from a coherent, thought-through set of beliefs and values, I get the impression teachers have;
1. seen ineffective or counterproductive practices or values in other schools (students learn little, have low aspirations, and their behaviour is out of control),
2. reacted against those practices,
3. tried alternatives,
4. and only then identified beliefs and values that justify the alternatives.

The lack of coherence and thinking-through is important, because beliefs and values are taught explicitly at Michaela and can have a significant impact on students’ lives. In this post I focus on a key feature of the Michaela ethos highlighted in The Power of Culture – British history and culture.

British culture
Michaela has reacted strongly against calls to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum, as Katie Ashford explains in ‘Schools should teach Dead White Men’. Although her initial description of the aims of ‘decolonisation’ advocates is pretty accurate, I felt Katie goes on to caricature their position by citing extreme views. Some advocates of ‘decolonising’ might think ‘our society is entirely racist’ (p.59), be calling for the removal of dead white men from the curriculum (p.63), or want only black writers to be included (p.67), but most don’t. What they’re concerned about is the implicit assumptions underpinning the curriculum that can push our thinking in a particular direction without us being aware of it. They’re calling for a restructuring of the curriculum that views its content from an inclusive, egalitarian standpoint, rather than from the point of view of dominant cultures.

Michaela’s view in contrast, is that each of their students is British, lives in England, and in order to participate fully in British/English life, needs to know about British/English history and culture, a point Michael Taylor expands on in ‘National Identity’.

What is Britishness?
Michael understands why schools celebrate cultural diversity. But he claims that is ‘often associated with the rejection of Britishness and in particular, Englishness’. Despite this, people ‘feel British and people feel English’ (p.74). For Michaela, a sense of British and English identity is engendered by the Union flag, the Queen’s birthday, St George’s Day, ‘important national songs’ (National Anthem, Jerusalem, I Vow to Thee my Country), Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, St Paul’s Cathedral and WW1 battlefields. I wouldn’t question the importance of students knowing about those symbols, but St George’s Day is the only one that pre-dates the colonial era – which lends weight to the decolonisers’ point.

Now, I feel as British and English as the next British/English person, but what makes me feel British/English is older, more egalitarian symbols; leaders being ‘first among equals’ (a principle espoused by, amongst others, Celts and Anglo Saxons), observations such as “when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” (John Ball, Peasants’ Revolt, 1381) and Civil War battlefields. For me, the symbols embraced by Michaela represent a social hierarchy that has a longstanding tendency to take away people’s stuff and give it to its posh mates, something that all Michaela students need to be aware of. They need to be aware of it because Michaela points its students in the direction of the upper echelons of that social hierarchy (Russell Group and Ivy League universities, civil service internships etc).

Clearly, questions need to be asked about why those from ethnic minorities and/or state schools are under-represented in high status professions. And students from ethnic minorities and/or state schools should indeed be supported to aim high academically. But questions also need to be asked about why certain professions have high status, and why other equally important ones don’t. As a community, we don’t need only high flyers. We need people who can do the nuts-and-bolts hands-on work that keeps the country going. Many of those jobs don’t have much social cachet, but are interesting, demanding, well-paid and essential. I’m not talking about menial work here; I’m asking why farming, engineering, manufacturing, retail management, local government or nursing, don’t have the same allure for Michaela as say, wealthy bankers (p.64) or the civil service (p.115).

Unity and diversity
Michaela, with some justification, wants to shift the focus from our differences to what we have in common, from the individual to the community. But in doing so it overlooks an important principle. One of the functions of a democracy is to safeguard the diversity of individuals; to protect our liberty to live as we think fit, free from arbitrary constraint (see previous post). Human diversity isn’t an optional extra; it’s vital for our standard of living and quality of life. Communities simply wouldn’t be able to adapt or develop if we were all the same.

And although people in Britain do have much in common, we are also inherently very diverse, a point that Michael glosses over. For example, he says “language, law and custom are all concrete realities that link people from Caithness to Cornwall” (p.79). But in Cornwall you might encounter a campaigner for Cornish independence whose child attends a Cornish-speaking nursery. In Caithness you’d be quite likely to bump into an ardent Scottish nationalist, speaking Gaelic, living under Scottish law, and practising customs unique to Scotland. There are historical reasons for that, which Michael as a history teacher must be aware of, but doesn’t mention. (His chapter on teaching history is well worth reading, incidentally).

One thing most cultures throughout human history have in common, is that those with few resources have been exploited by those with more. And that doesn’t only entail some nations exploiting other nations; many have exploited others in their own community. It’s a feature shared by all cultures, and something they all end up trying to prevent. Getting students from ethnic minority and state school backgrounds into high status professions is one way to tackle inequality, but won’t effect much change if those same students are taught to revere symbols of the very system that has exploited in the past – and is still exploiting.

Michaela doesn’t seem to understand the problematic aspects of the political and social hierarchy. It’s as if the school has been so busy reacting against the prevailing focus in education on diversity, context and structural issues, it’s come up with an alternative model that ignores those factors completely.

Colonising the curriculum
There’s a good argument for students focusing on the history and literature of the country they live in, and as Katie points out there isn’t time to teach about all cultures in depth (p.70). But students don’t need to learn everything in depth. What they do need is an overview of world history and culture – from a world, rather than a British perspective.

But Michaela’s wider perspective isn’t a world one, it’s a Western/European one (pp. 53, 69, 71, 172). It’s as if agriculture, city states, administration, industry, trade, and arts and crafts didn’t exist prior to the ancient Greeks. I felt the Western/European perspective is epitomised in two sentences children are expected to learn. One is;

Shakespeare is widely recognised as the greatest writer of all time, and was a great dramatist. (p. 379)

Shakespeare is certainly considered by many to be the greatest writer of all time, but the word ‘recognised’ implies his status is a matter of fact, rather than a matter of opinion. Some ancient Greeks could be contenders for the title, especially if all their manuscripts were still in existence. And who knows what great dramatists preceded them?

The other sentence is the answer to the second of two questions:

What word means ‘the belief that there is one God’?
How were the Israelites different from the Canaanites? (p.197)

My childhood was steeped in Bible stories and my immediate answer to the second question was “the Canaanites lived in the land of Canaan; the Israelites invaded it”. But the answer students are expected to give is “the Israelites differ from the Canaanites because, whereas the Israelites were monotheistic, the Canaanites were polytheistic”. That’s certainly a difference, but it probably wouldn’t have been the one foremost in the minds of the Canaanites at the time – which again reinforces the decolonisers’ argument.

It’s possible Michaela staff are presenting students with a Western/European/British/English history and culture and Judeo-Christian beliefs from a critical perspective, but I didn’t spot any evidence of that. Instead, teachers appear to accept the current social hierarchy as a given – uncritically. And the criterion for ‘success’ (beyond academic achievement) is attaining high social status rather than leading a fulfilling and useful life. That’s ironic because the criterion for ‘success’ in the street culture familiar to many of Michaela’s students, is also high social status. I’m not convinced that the principles of loyalty to the nation and giving something back (p.78) will eradicate the inequities inherent in British culture.

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