19 April 2024

Katherine Birbalsingh’s victory hides a dark truth about education

By Abbie MacGregor

At a time when the Conservative Party seems to have succumbed to ban-hungry, tax-heavy social democracy, it can be difficult to have any real enthusiasm for the legacy the Tories will leave on Britain’s political landscape. The Conservative Party – once a powerhouse of freedom – seems withered, desperately chasing ideas that won’t work. 

The exception to this prognosis is their achievements in education. Michael Gove’s free schools framework gave pioneering giants like Katharine Birbalsingh, founder of the extraordinarily successful Michaela Community School, an arena to transform how we educate some of Britain’s most deprived children. 

Back in January, it was revealed that ‘Britain’s strictest headmistress’ had been taken to the High Court by a pupil for refusing to allow an Islamic prayer room on her school campus (it’s worth noting here that there is no legal requirement for schools to have a designated space for prayer). The verdict of the court came this week: her argument that it is wrong to separate children according to religion or race,’ proved victorious. 

The demonisation of Birbalsingh is a frightening example of what happens when an individual deigns to take on the establishment by refusing to indulge in fashionable dogmas. So entrenched are the culture warriors in their confected virtue, that they are prepared to destroy things they know work to reinforce their ideological crusade (the legal team representing the pupil in question were, of course, from the former chambers of Cherie Blair). Ironically, during this public display of faux outrage, Birbalsingh’s approach has been proven correct: this moral panic shows clearly that exemptions and special treatment breed division.

Given the media storm that Birbalsingh has been forced to weather for merely enforcing the rules of her school, it’s little wonder that our state education sector is experiencing such a chronic shortage of teachers.

Vacancies for teaching were 93% higher in 2023 compared to 2019. At the same time, the number of new entrants to Initial Teacher Training has fallen from 40,377 in 2020-21, to 28,991 in 2022, just 71% of the Government’s target, and missing key subject-specific targets. This episode is just the latest in a high-profile series of teachers being throttled by the court of public opinion, or indeed an actual court for promoting a value that innocuously challenges a minority view. Who can forget the Batley Grammar School case where a teacher received death threats for showing a Prophet Muhammad cartoon in class. 

I left my job as a teacher, having taught in both state and independent schools for several years. In the end, it was something more akin to being a manufactured pop act than an educator, with your management constantly monitoring what you wear, what you say, how you say it and how you smile. Many MPs often anecdotally acknowledge the abuse they receive dissuades talent from entering politics, so by the same standard, who would embark on a career in education if half your time was spent pandering to militant shrill? In my former school, most were terrified of something controversial happening on their watch, so many opted to simply give into students rather than risk offense – being courageous, but ultimately, losing their job. This state of affairs clearly cannot continue.

The statistics around teacher retainment are just as bleak as teacher recruitment. In 2021-2022, 40,000 teachers left the profession before retirement. I suspect, aside from the promise of hefty pensions, much of this is to do with the epidemic of disruption we see in our classrooms. This erosion of authority will only get worse if students continue to have avenues down which they can dictate the rules of their school.

Educational settings, in shaping the minds of young people, are the prerequisite for entering mainstream society. As we saw in Batley, where the teacher in question continues to be entirely ostracised, the weakness of our political class has allowed ideological extremists to take exclusive ownership of their argument, positioning themselves as the final arbiters of their cause. They make the rules, and we are bound by them. It is therefore of little surprise that we see groups of individuals projecting antisemitic chants onto Big Ben. They have been educated in a theatre where displays of politico-religious dogmas are of little consequence. 

Under a Conservative government, leaders, experts, and entrepreneurs should have the freedom to transform their sectors. If they are allowed to be dragged to court every time someone disagrees with them, we have failed them. If we allow our educators to face public and alarmist punishment for simply doing their jobs, dragging the societal perception of teachers through the mud, we have failed our children. This orthodoxy-based farce should have ended in Batley, and now, after Birbalsingh, it is vital that we protect those unwilling to be pawns in a game of cultural chess.  

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Abbie MacGregor is a communications professional and former teacher.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.