The phrase bloody but unbowed was familiar but I hadn’t known where it came from until I came across a reference to it yesterday in this post at Kiwiblog quoting a story by Dan Hannah about Britain’s strictest headmistress.
The documentary about Michaela Community School in Brent shows kids who begin life with few advantages leaving school confident, ambitious and qualified.
But it may do more than cheer you up. It may restore some old truths that, deep down, we always recognised, however unfashionable they became among educationalists
Katharine Birbalsingh, the headmistress in question, did not start out as a traditionalist. At Oxford, she joined the Socialist Workers Party. When she began her teaching career, she went in with all the usual assumptions: schools were underfunded, the biggest obstacle facing non-white kids was structural racism. But she found that her classroom experiences could not sustain those pre-conceptions. The real problem, she came to realise, lay in the attitude of the people who oversaw our schools.
Instead of imparting knowledge, teachers were overseeing child-led discussions. Instead of promoting confidence, they were encouraging victimhood. Instead of upholding the canon, they were seeking out obscure texts on grounds of identity politics. Instead of expecting high standards, they were indulging pupils from under-privileged backgrounds, and thus unintentionally condemning them.
Birbalsingh began to dream of a different kind of school – a school with houses and uniforms and discipline and classics. Why, she wondered, should these things be the preserve of the rich? Didn’t children in deprived boroughs need them more? . .
She had to battle the council, but eventually got permission to take over an old office block.
In these unpropitious surroundings, she has pulled off what I can only call a secular miracle. Many of Michaela’s children come from estates poisoned by drugs and gangs. Perhaps nine in ten are from ethnic minorities, with dozens of different home languages. Forty-one per cent of her first intake were officially classed as disadvantaged, meaning they had qualified for free school meals. Yet in 2019, that cohort, the first to sit GCSEs, secured some of the best grades in the country: 54 per cent got 7, 8 or 9 (the top grades, equivalent to A or A* under the old system) as against a national average of 22 per cent.
What is Michaela’s secret? A set of principles that could be made to work in any school: gratitude must be taught; phones banned; competition encouraged; learning teacher-led; national cohesion promoted; high standards expected; adult authority upheld.
I did; and I did. I have never met more impressive teachers. They engaged their students through dozens of techniques that would work in any classroom. For example, when questions are posed in class, instead of responding immediately, pupils are encouraged to pair up and explain their answer to their partners, so that everyone has to formulate it.
As they walk into lunch, the kids belt out verses that they have memorised – Kipling’s If, Henley’s Invictus, passages from Shakespeare. This is the only time they make a noise inside; there is usually no talking in the corridors – which means no misbehaviour and no bullying.
Over lunch, they are given a topic to talk about. Afterwards, they express their appreciation for someone – a teacher for helping them, another student for making them feel welcome, their mother for always having their uniform ready. Gratitude is a happier emotion than grievance, and perhaps the most striking feature of Michaela is how cheerful its children are. The school’s detractors imagine it as a Dickensian poorhouse; in fact, children like order and respond to being stretched. The listlessness, anxiety and rudeness that I have seen in schools that pride themselves on their liberalism are unimaginable here.
Invictus – William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.