The organization of a serial space was one of the great technical mutations of elementary education […] It made the educational space function like a learning machine, but also as a machine for supervising, hierarchizing, rewarding. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle dreamt of a classroom in which the spatial distribution might provide a whole series of distinctions at once: according to the pupils’ progress, worth, character, application, cleanliness and parents’ fortune. Thus, the classroom would form a single great table, with many different entries, under the scrupulously ‘classificatory’ eye of the master […] Things must be so arranged that ‘those whose parents are neglectful and verminous must be separated from those who are careful and clean; that an unruly and frivolous pupil should be placed between two who are well behaved and serious, a libertine either alone or between two pious pupils.’
– Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
Today’s dystopian nightmare comes courtesy of Michaela Community School, a free school in Wembley, whose policy of ‘Lunch Isolation’ for children whose parents are behind on payments has predictably rankled the Twitterati. Aside from proudly outlining a practice that amounts to a kind of junior debtor’s prison, the letter informs us that the regular (non-isolated) meal at Michaela is known as ‘family lunch’, a horrifying detail which reminds us of how the most impersonal, authoritarian institutions are also the most likely to masquerade as an extension of the safe and the domestic: just think of Tories likening the government budget to a ‘household budget’. This is your family, and you just wait until your father gets home.
So what’s the deal with this school? It was set up a couple of years ago under the leadership of headmistress Katharine Birbalsingh, a Tory darling notable for being practically the only teacher in Britain to come out in favour of Michael Gove’s notoriously harebrained educational reform schemes. She also writes trashy chick-lit under the name *squints* Katharine Bing (yeah, me neither). The fact that Birbalsingh read French and Philosophy at university leads me to believe that her school’s choice of motto – “Knowledge is Power” – can only be meant as a cruel swipe at the memory of Michel Foucault, who once wrote, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resembles prisons?” Certainly, the school’s website describes a kind of Foucauldian fever dream, promising prospective parents that, for example, “by the time [their children] leave Michaela, they will read novels for pleasure,” forgetting that you can’t force someone to do something for pleasure, because these are words which have meanings.
But the notorious letter wasn’t written by Birbalsingh, it was written by her deputy, Barry Smith. Luckily for us, like all narcissistic psychopaths, Mr. Smith has a personal blog. There’s a lot of appalling stuff on it, of which I can only scratch the surface, and if you feel your day has been lacking in blind rage, I encourage you to have a read. The most striking thing about Mr. Smith’s depraved transmissions is his unabashed contempt for children as such. He writes, “In my experience most kids are bone idle unless you’re right on top of them” (grow up), tells us that any pupil complaining of stress is “making excuses for lack of self-control”, and claims that every excuse beginning “I forgot” is unquestionably a “blatant lie”. The number of times Mr. Smith haughtily proclaims that, among his student body, “nobody talks”, is astounding. Ctrl-F the word “silence” on his WordPress if you want your computer to crash forever. Mr. Smith and his colleagues are very proud of the fact that their school is apparently devoid of bullying, but don’t seem to have noticed that they have solved this problem by eliminating the entire idea of socialisation, which is actually the most important function of schooling. Probably “socialisation” sounds too much like “socialism” for Birbalsingh.
But wait! It’s not all silence! Mr. Smith gaily informs us that, when allowed out of their panopticonic school, his pupils are permitted to emit some noise, but only in the form of “chanting Kipling or a bit of Shakespeare or Invictus or Ozymandias”. Lots of observations spring to mind here. Firstly, the, uh, interesting image of black and brown children from North London cheerfully reciting the work of a man who called their ancestors “half-devil and half-child” and “lesser breeds”. Secondly, the question of what “bit of Shakespeare” is being chanted here. In my mind it’s Isabella’s speech from Measure for Measure: “But man, proud man, Dress’d in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d”. Or King Lear’s observation that even “a dog’s obeyed in office”. We can only hope. Thirdly, the sublime irony of putting ‘Ozymandias’ in this list, a poem about the folly of pride and the hubris of authority, written by a man who hated his oppressive schooling and was so anti-authoritarian that he was expelled from Oxford aged 18 for promoting atheism. Look upon Mr. Smith’s works, and despair. Despair indeed.
Despair is not a luxury extended to the Michaela students, however. In perhaps his most disturbing scree, Mr. Smith writes:
“The real scourge of society isn’t the supposed epidemic of mental health issues.
What we really need to battle is procrastination, the media fuelled obsession with fame at any cost and in any domain – too many teenagers live for notoriety, the excuse culture that permeates everything, the pseudo medicalisation of normal emotions, the overuse of words like ‘depression’, ‘mental health’ and ‘pressure’. That’s what we need to fight rather than handing out limiting and harmful labels.”
Reading this, I found it hard to maintain ironic distance from the man’s nonsense. I have written elsewhere and spoken publicly about the crisis of youth mental health, and I won’t rehearse all my remarks about the subject here. I’ll only note that the World Health Organization reports that “[suicide] rates among young people have been increasing to such an extent that they are now the group at highest risk in a third of countries, in both developed and developing countries”, and that, in this country, teen suicides have been linked to stress at school (the stress that, let’s remember, Mr. Smith believes to be nonexistent). In his book Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, sociologist Michael Zielenziger links that nation’s obsession with discipline and ‘pressure-cooker’ education system to its astonishing suicide rate, as well as to the phenomenon of hikikomori, adolescents and young adults – numbering perhaps over a million – who remove themselves from social life and rarely leave their homes. Does it make me a mollycoddling liberal softie if I feel pretty strongly that we shouldn’t follow suit in the UK?
It’s bizarre that Mr. Smith thinks the real problem is teenagers “liv[ing] for notoriety”. I’m not certain what he thinks he means by this, but when I was diagnosed with depression, it had nothing to do with a desire for “notoriety”. In fact I wanted the exact opposite, to permanently escape the gaze of others, to disappear from the world entirely. My diagnosis wasn’t “limiting and harmful”; it was a lifeline, the first step towards a way out.
Mr. Smith summarises the nature of his unique school as follows: “You send your child to Michaela and he’s going to receive a superb education, in silent classrooms, where kids sit up straight, arms folded, no pen fiddling, no doodling, no gazing out the window or whispering to your mates on the sly.” What he has precluded here is actually school itself. If you take those things away, you haven’t got a school anymore. Michaela trumpets its “private-school ethos”, but Birbalsingh is deluding herself if she thinks the Tory leaders she so idolises didn’t engage in all of the above (plus some altogether more disturbing rituals) at Eton, Westminster et al.
The teachers people remember are the ones who maintained a healthy distance from the party line; management rules and protocols (both for staff and pupils) have to exist in a school precisely so that they can be pushed against, because otherwise everyone in the institution would go insane, and the sort of eye-opening formative experiences people carry forward from school couldn’t happen. The teacher who had the most influence on me at school was the one who has never once in his career given a detention to anyone. Did people behave in his lessons? Of course. Because he respected his pupils’ intelligence and autonomy, and treated us like individual human beings, and so we respected him. Loved him, even. I’ll never forget teachers like that, who allowed me to develop my writing and critical thought, beyond – perpendicular to – exam requirements and received, parroted wisdom. Meanwhile, Michaela students flawlessly recite what The Great Gatsby tells us about the American Dream. I really worry for these kids. Bound to an institution obsessed with deference to authority, what figures do they ultimately have to look up to? A Tory hack and an arrogant sociopath. Perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub.