If you pride yourself on rejecting a wider culture, where do your benchmarks lie? If you boldly proclaim to be doing something different, to be rejecting the ‘blob’ of education culture which has failed children for decades, if your crusade consists of ‘cocking a snook‘ at ‘edufashion’ and ‘edubabble’, what compass exists to protect you from ethical solipsism? What keeps your righteousness righteous?
It is not impossible, of course, though it is a lot of pressure to put on oneself, to reinvent an educational culture. We might structure our pedagogy around evidence, that has bones, but what of our ethics? Appeals to the educational culture of prior eras might hold substance, but they do not hold immediacy – almost inevitably, the recovery of a past tradition from a ruptured history requires contemporary re-invention. And sometimes, we being human and fallible, this can misfire. Worse, it might not always be immediately evident what constitutes a misfire.
In a culture war, the other side are just wrong. The temptation is to slide into rejectionist politics, to define oneself against the other, to use difference as a distinguishing feature. They believe A, we believe B, and because they are wrong, B must be right. Only sometimes that hits up with reality: sometimes they’re not wrong, we are, but in assessing our righteousness through our difference, we already rule out one important way of knowing it. When elevated to the status of cultural significance, the lines become inflexible –the crowd, participants in the battle, beneficiaries of the status it provides, rarely provide perspective.
This phenomenon is particularly prominent in politics. Politicians, surrounded by sycophants and bathed in a narrative of delivering the right and the good against the hostility of a misguided (perhaps even malign) foe, can lose critical perspective. If your decision-making is defined against Them Lot Who Are Wrong, and your check-systems are all supportive because they, too, sign up to the same battle, then you have the recipe for an intellectual echo-chamber which raises ends over means and justifies egregious behaviour in the name of the good.
And so, over the last 48 hours, we have a situation where people who want Michaela to fail jump on a piece of evidence to bolster their cause, whilst those who want Michaela to succeed refuse the legitimacy of such allegations because the people making the case lack neutrality. The point at issue, that Michaela employ a policy of isolating children for non-payment of lunch fees, has been lost as two sides of a wider cultural battle face-off, with one side screaming evidence and the other demanding context, and both questioning the partiality of the other. And, somewhere in the middle of the two, a chunk of people with a multitude of biases though with no particular axe to grind, who just think the policy wrong. An ethical statement, not a political one.
I am not sure advocates for Michaela (of whom I count myself) aid their cause by adopting a kind of educational clericalism which rejects missteps by appeal to the wickedness of their foes and an appeal to all the other good things they do. It might sting a bit – nobody likes giving ground to someone whose motivations one questions – but Michaela the institution has little to lose from it. Hands up, acknowledge, move on. Framing the response in an ever deeper descent into culture war is risky (the reaction is the result of middle-class, liberal guilt, apparently – one thing I have never, ever been called is liberal: perish the thought!). Planting the flag might rally allies to the cause, but it can also inflame a minor issue – either a misguided school policy or a poorly drafted letter from a deputy – and nudge erstwhile allies toward becoming opponents. Righteousness might make us combative, but wisdom should temper our pugilism.
I want Michaela to succeed, in the same way I want Hyman’s School 21 to succeed, and UTCs, and free schools, and SEND schools, and church schools, and community schools, and everything else besides. The mainstream needs alternative models of success, institutions which embody particular virtues and turn them to an educational good. And if they work, all of us are the richer for the success of it. But not every step along the way can be a sure one. There are bumps. I hope Michaela, with its excellent staff and undoubted commitment to the children in its care, can soon overcome this particular bump in the road, and get back to serving its community, showing the rest of us the values and virtues of its own model of educational excellence.