Katharine Birbalsingh: Why conservative values are needed in our schools now more than ever

Over the coming weeks, ConservativeTeachers.com will be revisiting some of our most popular posts. Today’s instalment is outlined below.

Katharine Birbalsingh is the Headteacher of Michaela Community School, a free school in the London Borough of Brent. She was a supporter of Michael Gove’s reforms in the last Parliament but is not a Conservative Party supporter at present. She tweets at @Miss_Snuffy

Katharine BirbalsinghFor our education system to succeed, we need successive Education Secretaries to understand how crucial conservative values are to our success as a country. Any of the main political parties could make conservative values central to their education policy. And we should not assume that the Conservative Party has a monopoly on such values simply because they call themselves ‘Conservatives’. I have met many a liberal Conservative.

A conservative with a small ‘c’ believes there should be an appropriate relationship between effort and reward. Any good teacher knows this. You give a gold star to the child who produced excellent homework, and a detention to those who did nothing. Even in the more equal society that most people in Britain want, conservatives accept the necessity of inequality because they recognise people have different levels of talent and, most importantly, some people make more effort than others. We conservatives believe that effort should be rewarded, that we should not have a ‘prizes for all’ culture. Effort must be rewarded, or pupils are discouraged from making any effort at all.

Our school Michaela, opened in September 2014 with 120 Year 7s. We expect 100% from all of the pupils, for everything. When an Ofsted inspector recently took issue with our expectation that 100% of pupils should complete homework, I told him his standards were too low. At the root of the disagreement were our values. Mine were conservative: that we should reward effort, that we should expect effort from everyone. His were more liberal: some children have difficult home lives and so we should not expect the same of them because it is unfair to do so. I think this type of liberal attitude is very damaging to our schools because it lowers the standards for some children, often the poorest and most vulnerable.

As a conservative with a small c, I believe in pupils and people taking responsibility for themselves. While I naturally believe in people having rights, I also believe in duty and obligation. Pupils have obligations to their parents, to their teachers, to society. That is why they should not be rowdy on buses, or get into fights at school. There is no excuse in my book. The liberal can often feel sorry for young people, and not hold them to account. Senior managers can often not follow through on behaviour systems because they listen to the mitigating circumstances, they consider the teacher’s inability to entertain the child, or they consider the child’s background and are more lenient. The teacher in the classroom is then left unsupported and the child is taught that self-responsibility is not important. This belief has a ripple effect and soon enough the whole school is run on an understanding that it is the teachers who are responsible for ‘engaging the child’ and not the child who is responsible for his own participation and commitment to learning.

At Michaela, we believe in authority and in tradition. The pupils stand for their Headmistress. The teachers teach from the front of the class. We expect obedience from the children and we use that word without hesitation. We insist on kindness, deference, politeness, having respect for yourself and for others. We believe in an objective right and wrong.

We do not believe in authority and tradition for its own sake. We believe in legitimate authority based on reason and performance. Hierarchies are necessary for order and order and routine are not chains, as the liberal believes, but necessary conditions of freedom. And this sense of order and respect for authority emphatically does not produce cowed and conformist children, as anyone who visits Michaela will testify.

We do not believe in subjectivism, where something is right for one, but not for the other. It isn’t ok for Jonny to skip detention today because he lives far away, or has a football match, or he has to walk home through a rough estate. We believe in zero tolerance. The liberal winces when reading the above sentences, and feels I lack compassion. But the compassionate conservative is the one who will help Jonny to succeed by insisting that Jonny meets the same standards as everyone else.

Giving Jonny a way out makes the liberal feel as if they are being understanding of Jonny’s underprivilege. But the liberal does not think about the long term and the whole school. They underestimate the damage done to other children in teaching that such behaviour is sometimes acceptable and the damage done to Jonny who learns that less is expected of him.

Why are conservative values needed more now than ever? Because we are losing our country to a vampire squid of liberal values, values that are so embedded in our thinking that we often no longer question them, or worse, to question them is branded as unkind or prejudiced. It is only our schools, our teachers and our education secretaries who can save us by reintegrating conservative values into the heart of our education system.

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