American Wokeness Invades Britain’s Schools
Katharine Birbalsingh, principal of a ‘free school,’ says identity politics makes it hard to educate minority youths.
The WSJ Weekend Interview by Tunku Varadarajan, July 7, 2023
British educator Katharine Birbalsingh used to look to America for inspiration. Now she sees the U.S. as a threat to schools in her own land. American ideas on race and identity are making “alarming inroads” in British education, she says, with activists demanding that “white privilege” be rooted out of the curriculum, the teaching of history be “decolonized,” and “systemic racism” be acknowledged as the primary cause when minority students fail. “Black Lives Matter” has become a raucous leitmotif among Britain’s youth. “You see protests with people saying ‘Don’t shoot,’ when our policemen don’t carry guns,” Ms. Birbalsingh says. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
What Ms. Birbalsingh describes as woke American cultural imperialism is warping Britain’s way of life and its educational system. “We are,” she says, “just lapping up all these bad ideas from America.” In New York to observe and help a new charter school in the Bronx, she also expresses fears for the future of American education. Charter schools, she says, have “lost their way,” beset by the “social and political forces unleashed by the killing of George Floyd.”
Ms. Birbalsingh, 49, is the irrepressible principal of the Michaela Community School in the northwest London neighborhood of Wembley. She founded Michaela in 2014, as a “free school,” a type of institution that came into being through British school reforms in 2010. Free schools are akin to U.S. charter schools: public schools (in the American sense of that term), free from the baleful influence of teachers unions, that hire their own staff and set their own disciplinary rules and curriculum. Although Michaela’s teachers “tend to be white British,” Ms. Birbalsingh says, the students are almost entirely from ethnic minorities, including “Afro-Caribbean, African, Indian, Pakistani, Arab” as well as Eastern Europeans. Ms. Birbalsingh herself is of mixed heritage, with an Indian-Guyanese father and an Afro-Jamaican mother.
The British media never tires of calling her “Britain’s Strictest Headmistress”—the title of a friendly ITV documentary—sometimes with the peculiar affection that the British reserve for women who wield a firm hand, but usually as a way of marking her out as a prickly anachronism of whom you should be wary. She started Michaela four years after she was run out of a state school for making a brief speech at the annual Conservative Party Conference, in which she said that Britain’s school system “is broken, because it keeps poor children poor.” As she sums up her argument in our interview, it is that “black children fail because of what white liberals do and think.”
The reaction to this heresy was swift and vengeful. She was ostracized by hostile colleagues and had to quit her job. “I was essentially told I would never work in the public-school system again. I was told, ‘Forget it, you’re going to have to leave the country. You’re toxic. You cannot, as a teacher, speak at the Tory Party conference.’”
After failing to find another job as a teacher, she decided to set up her own school, inspired by American charter-school pioneers such as Geoffrey Canada and Eva Moskowitz, respectively founders of Harlem Children’s Zone and Success Academy Charter Schools. A few days before we speak, she met Ms. Moskowitz for the first time: “I said to her, ‘This is like my meeting Brad Pitt moment.’ I was so excited.”
The teachers unions tried their hardest to foil Ms. Birbalsingh’s plans. “I’d hold an evening event for prospective parents, handing out flyers that said, ‘Possibility of a New School. Come and Find Out.’ And all these single black mums in Brixton”—a predominantly Afro-Caribbean area—“would be excited and come along.” At the event, “these white people who don’t even live in London would’ve been bused in and would be shouting abuse outside, holding placards that said, ‘Tory Teacher.’ ” Union agitators would infiltrate the hall and “drown out what we were saying with their shouting, so the meeting just couldn’t happen.”
When the school finally opened, union picketers stood outside “handing leaflets to the kids, 11 years old, telling them the building was unsafe and that their lives were in danger. I just photocopied the leaflets and made sure every kid had one, so they could wave them at the pickets and say, ‘My headmistress gave me one, so thanks very much.’”
What irks her detractors most is the emphasis Ms. Birbalsingh places on discipline, a word she deploys often, as well as her insistence that she is a “small-c conservative.” To hear her talk about her educational philosophy is to be transported back in time. Children, she says, “need lots of discipline. And when I say discipline, I don’t just mean they need to be able to sit on a chair.” They need to be able “to work hard both in the classroom and outside, to engage with the learning and really want to listen to the teacher, to be interested in the subject matter, to be able to strategize for their lives and have goals.” They need to understand “how their behavior now will affect their futures, and the kinds of people they will be.”
When people recoil from the word, Ms. Birbalsingh tells them that she means “a discipline of mind, of attitude. Ignoring this is one of the ways we let our children down—all children, but it especially hurts the disadvantaged.” Her small-c conservatism is equally plain-spoken, with its emphasis on “personal responsibility, and a sense of duty towards others. People don’t like it when I talk about that.”
What do these values mean in the context of education and schooling? Ms. Birbalsingh responds by saying that the idea that a child has “agency” and can “choose between right and wrong” is “quite contentious.” The view that is gaining ground in schools—thanks a lot, America—is that children “cannot help the way they behave because they are poor, or they are black, or their father isn’t in the home.” But apart from “some very exceptional situations,” she says, the vast majority of children can engage with lessons and behave themselves. “If we allow them not to because of some idea that they’re not able to do it, that they don’t have the agency to decide to do so, or that something is preventing them from exercising that agency, then I think we’re letting them down.”
Instead, teachers reach all too easily for underlying causes—to use the modish phrase—as an explanation for a child’s nonperformance at school. “So when he doesn’t do his homework, you can’t blame him, you have to blame his circumstances.” If you send students to detention or otherwise punish them, “you’re just being mean, or harming their mental health. If you insist that they do their homework every night, that is traumatic for them.” So children get waved through school, frequently innumerate, often functionally illiterate.
Teachers accept “very low standards for certain children,” Ms. Birbalsingh says. Race plays a part when instructors are “white and a bit guilty about being white and privileged. And so they feel very awkward about holding an ethnic minority child to account and insisting that they meet the standards that they would have for a richer white child.”
Sometimes this attitude takes the form of overt prejudice: “You could have a black child who comes from a middle-class family, very supportive of education, father is in the home, but the teacher looks at him and thinks, ‘Oh, you are black, therefore I have to lower my standards for you.’ ” And for children who actually are disadvantaged, “the school could have made up quite a lot for that.” Instead they shift the blame to “the situation, to the father for not being there.”
Contrast that with Michaela. “We are a ‘no excuses’ school,” Ms. Birbalsingh says. “No excuses for nonperformance are accepted from a child, and no excuses are offered by the school for failing to hold a child to standards.” That approach makes her school increasingly unusual in Britain—and also differentiates it from the trajectory a large number of U.S. charter schools have taken. Under pressure from racial activists, especially since the killing of George Floyd, the American schools have come to treat the idea of “no excuses” as anathema.
“The problem with Black Lives Matter is that if children see themselves as victims, instead of powering through and picking themselves up when they fall down, they will end up wallowing in despair and giving up,” Ms. Birbalsingh laments. “It’s really quite sad how destructive the movement has been for young ethnic minority children.”
She is careful to cite Success Academies as an exception—as well as the Vertex Partnership Academies, whose new school she visited in the Bronx. Apart from them, “we’re in a situation culturally when charters and teachers are not allowed to do the things they once did, to think as they used to do. The George Floyd situation has really endangered the progress that was being made by the charter-school movement.”
She offers as emblematic the KIPP schools, which retired their motto, “Work Hard, Be Nice,” in July 2020. Michaela’s own motto, “Work Hard, Be Kind,” is a variation. KIPP’s replacement, “Together, a Future Without Limits,” leaves her cold. “It lacks the clarity and vision of the original,” she says. “The old one had a purpose. You want every child in your care, at the very least, to leave school working hard and being nice. But they got rid of it because—since George Floyd’s death—they were pressurized into believing that the ‘be nice’ aspect was teaching black children to be subservient. And so it was racist.” She shakes her head, flummoxed by the notion that “somehow teaching children to be nice has now turned into this idea of them being servile.”
And not only that. According to KIPP’s announcement, the old motto promoted “social norms that center whiteness and meritocracy as normal.” That quote came from the head of KIPP’s “equity programming.” Michaela has no such programming, and Ms. Birbalsingh rejects the idea wholesale: “Equity should never be your goal as a teacher. Your goal should be helping children to fulfill their potential. And if equity is your goal, you necessarily have to keep some children from doing that.” The word ‘equity’ makes her “cringe.”
“Oh my goodness!” she exclaims archly, as she hears her own words. “Can I say that?”
Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.