The curriculum of Brexit: culture, education and power the Michaela Way


Exploring the nationalistic political agenda of ‘traditionalism’ in education.


In the introduction to her recent book The Power of Culture, the controversial London headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh describes how education in the UK has changed over the past ten years. Recalling her speech at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2010, she describes how she saw herself as a lone crusader, supported only by a few fellow discontents on Twitter. Back then, she suggests, a liberal orthodoxy held sway, in attitudes towards classroom pedagogy, behaviour and curriculum. The education system, she says, was fundamentally ‘broken’. But now, everything has changed.

According to Birbalsingh, education in 2020 has become ‘a very different place’. The traditionalist approach is now, she suggests, the Establishment view. Birbalsingh now enjoys a high media profile as the headteacher of what is often described as ‘the strictest school in Britain’, the Michaela Community School in North West London. Earlier this year, she was awarded the appropriate title of Commander of the British Empire (CBE). The House of Lords can only be a few steps away.

In fact, back in 2010, Birbalsingh had one strong supporter in a very high place indeed: the new Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. A couple of months before the election, he had laid out his stall in The Times, as follows:

I’m an unashamed traditionalist when it comes to the curriculum. Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of eleven, modern foreign languages. That’s the best training of the mind and that’s how children will be able to compete.

As I described in a previous post, Gove took up the cudgels against ‘progressive’ education much more explicitly and effectively than his predecessors: taking aim against what he called the ‘Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools’, he implemented a series of curriculum reforms, as well as extending the marketisation of schools, in ways that have fundamentally shifted the terms of debate.

While Gove lasted only four years in his new post (his confrontational manner ultimately proved too alienating for the teaching profession), his influence has been sustained and far-reaching. His form of neoconservative traditionalism has many vociferous supporters: alongside those who are active in the academies and free schools sector, like Birbalsingh, Daisy Christodoulou and Toby Young, there are academics like Frank Furedi and Michael Young (whom I’ve discussed in a previous post), as well as education ‘gurus’ like Tom Bennett. As Birbalsingh suggests, Twitter has also been a significant factor in this respect. While ‘Edu-Twitter’ can be a valuable forum for teachers to share ideas and classroom resources, it has also been an arena for some highly adversarial debate – not to mention trolling, bullying and abuse.

Despite some differences between them, the neoconservatives are united in their disdain and mockery of what they regard as a kind of political correctness. Academics and researchers in university schools of education – who apparently all subscribe to some form of hippy romanticism – are a favoured target. These ill-intentioned ‘experts’ have allegedly spent their lives promoting ‘myths’ and ‘failed theories’, and they have to be deposed. (This rejection of ‘experts’ was a line enthusiastically promoted by Gove himself, of course, in his populist campaign for Brexit; and here too, the target is not experts in general, but particular experts who are deemed to be promoting the wrong ideas.)

Birbalsingh sees herself – and is clearly seen by many of her 72,000 Twitter followers – as an outspoken crusader against this ‘progressive’ educational orthodoxy. In an interview with the government’s ‘behaviour tzar’ Tom Bennett, she described herself as leading a ‘revolution in education’: ‘I speak for those who cannot speak’, she proclaims, arguing that she is giving voice to ‘truths’ that a large number of teachers are too ‘scared’ to utter. Birbalsingh claims to be non-political – ‘I am a conservative with a small c’ – but to judge from the interactions on Twitter, and from the comments on YouTube, her following is heavily dominated by the far right, and the so-called ‘anti-woke’ movement.

If you wanted to know how such neoconservative rhetoric – and the kinds of ideas about ‘powerful knowledge’ and ‘cultural capital’ that I’ve been looking at in previous posts – might work out in practice, Birbalsingh’s school would be an instructive place to look. The Power of Culture, edited by Birbalsingh and written by the staff of Michaela, is the second of two full-length books that have sought to outline and promote its approach. (The first, symptomatically entitled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, was published in 2019.)

It’s tempting to describe Michaela as a kind of authoritarian cult – although unlike many cults, Michaela is the very opposite of secretive. ‘We are different. We are unique. We are Michaela,’ The Power of Culture proclaims. Its methods are branded as ‘the Michaela Way’. Despite her occasional protestations, Birbalsingh is keen to be presented as a charismatic Strong Leader: she appears to relish the title of ‘Britain’s strictest headmistress’ (and the book even contains a chapter by her Personal Assistant).

The Michaela Way is a ‘zero tolerance’ regime: no talking is allowed in the corridors, lateness is not tolerated, and there is extensive use of detentions. Year 7 begins with ‘Bootcamp Week’. Desks are arranged in rows, with the teacher at the front, and the school is keen on public rituals like collective chanting and ‘appreciations’ of praiseworthy conduct. The Michaela Way also has its own mantras. Key terms like authority, responsibility, duty, values, and knowledge recur throughout the book. One chapter is baldly entitled ‘we believe in authority’, while elsewhere we learn that ‘self-discipline is an act of freedom’ (I leave readers to make their own associations here…). There is clearly a distinction to be made between exercising discipline and being disciplinarian, although it’s not one that is readily apparent here.

In line with other neoconservative arguments, the book persistently caricatures the opposition, and presents a highly questionable version of history. The world is once again divided into ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’ (or ‘lefties’, as Birbalsingh calls them). ‘Skills’ are opposed to ‘knowledge’. Educational reformers are seen to be driven by superficial ‘fads’ such as technology, and by fundamentally mistaken ‘romantic’ ideas.

Prior to the neoconservative ‘revolution’, it appears that the educational orthodoxy was entirely ‘progressive’. Teachers were brainwashed by the romantic individualists who run university education departments, with their naive belief in ‘freedom’ and ‘discovery learning’. These ideas apparently come from two main authors, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Paolo Friere: no other sources are cited for these crazy progressive beliefs, although we are also reliably informed about ‘How Marxism became mainstream in education’.

Among other things, progressives apparently believe that ‘climate activism is the true purpose of education’; that ‘dead white men’ should be completely removed from the curriculum, and that black children should only study black writers; that British history is ‘a repository of malevolence’, and that teaching it is ‘an act of oppression’; and that schools should teach the rapper Stormzy rather than Mozart. This has led to a school system where, we are told, ‘adult authority is absent’, and where teachers no longer believe in maintaining structure, order and ‘clear boundaries’.

While one might expect such ludicrous assertions from right-wing columnists in the tabloids, or from Twitter trolls, second-hand caricatures are really no basis for sensible educational debate. One certainly wonders where these trainee teachers were forcibly exposed to Rousseau, Freire and Marx; and I would be intrigued to see the evidence that, as we are told, ‘most UK educators have sided with Freire’, when I suspect that very few have ever read him. I would also be interested to meet the progressive teachers who have apparently abdicated their own authority, on the grounds that any use of authority ‘stifles creativity’ and is necessarily ‘cruel’: I have never met one in more than forty years in education, nor have I ever encountered schools where chaos reigns in the name of freedom.

There is an implicit theory of teaching and learning underlying this position: it’s one that is hardly well articulated in The Power of Culture, although it is a kind of applied version of some of the more academic ideas I’ve considered in previous posts. The key point is that ‘knowledge’ needs to be taught before we explore specific cases or examples, or address broader issues. ‘Knowledge’ here appears to mean facts and central concepts (or, more accurately, dictionary-style definitions of concepts). So, for example, in History, pupils have to be taught a total chronology of British political history before they are allowed to address ‘themes’ (or indeed social history, or world history), or to think critically about historical sources.

However, there is also a clear political agenda that is apparent at several points here. Again, this is based on a particular reading of recent (British) history, which sees it as a narrative of moral and cultural decline. In this account, discipline, tradition, morality, national culture and social cohesion have allegedly been undermined by a form of ideological perversion. Apparently, modern Britain has lost its sense of patriotism and national pride: ‘our songs, stories and history have been sidelined’. There are too many people in modern Britain ‘who appear to believe that rights are not always mirrored by responsibilities’. There is too much emphasis on ‘diversity’ – on the things that divide us, rather than those which unite us; and this has resulted in a form of ‘debilitating collective ignorance’.

By contrast, at Michaela pupils are required to sing patriotic songs (‘God Save the Queen’, ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’), to wear poppies and celebrate the Queen’s birthday, and to support the England team at football. This form of patriotism, we are told, is a source of ‘uplifting unity’. Likewise, according to the Michaela Way, ‘powerful knowledge’ means a particular selection of British knowledge. The role of the curriculum is to prepare pupils for life in ‘our’ country, and to cultivate a sense of national pride. In History, Geography and Religious Education, they learn first of all about Britain: it’s only later that other parts of the world, or other cultures and traditions, eventually get a look in.

This is clearly not a multicultural, diverse notion of Britishness (or indeed Englishness); nor is it simply a matter of ‘knowledge-based’ teaching. On the contrary, it is about inculcating a particular nationalist political ideology – and doing so at a time when this is being asserted in the wider world in ever more vicious and racist terms. 

What this means in terms of the curriculum is probably predictable. When it comes to English, for example, it’s a matter of teaching ‘the best of our cultural treasures’ and ‘the best that human civilization has thought and said’ (or at least, dead white British Christians). To deny children access to this is apparently to sell them short, and to systematically exclude them from power. If pupils cannot understand the literary and Biblical references in newspaper headlines, or if they cannot talk about literary classics when they attend dinners in Oxbridge colleges, then we are apparently denying them ‘the chance of engaging in meaningful social and political discourse’.

This reaches its absurd conclusion in the chapter about Music, which is entitled ‘Why Stormzy Could Never Replace Mozart’. I tracked down the origin of this idea to a press report of a study undertaken by the charity Youth Music Network: the study in fact suggested that the music curriculum should teach a range of different types of music, including both Stormzy and Mozart, and points in between. On top of the polarisation and the caricature, the deficit model of culture is readily apparent here: it appears that ‘disadvantaged’ children have no musical culture, and that only ‘advantaged’ children do.

In line with neoconservative views of ‘cultural capital’, the only forms of capital that count in this situation are those of a particular, narrow tradition. The children who attend Michaela come from a wide variety of different cultural backgrounds, in many cases with a very rich cultural heritage. Yet it as if they and their families have no culture at all. Their lives outside are apparently an endless wasteland of violent rap music and vacuous social media – things that must be kept out of the classroom at all costs. The job of teachers is to inculcate them in ‘our’ British culture, a culture defined in terms of a stultifying, authoritarian nationalism.

This is not the curriculum of a modern country, confident and secure of its place in the wider world. It is the curriculum of Little Britain. It gazes not forwards and outwards, but backwards and inwards. Welcome to the curriculum of Brexit.