Beyond the expected controversy, Sonia Thompson finds a persistent and persuasive argument that will take time to digest
The Power of Culture is a totally self-assured book. Michaela School in north London is confident enough in its second battle hymn to extol its virtues and declare war on every one who has doubts. This book fires provocations at the reader like a well-aimed cannon and takes no prisoners. Simply, it is the Michaela way or the highway.
The front cover clearly sets out Michaela’s stall and hurls down the gauntlet to all comers. From the cover design, to the quotes, to the writers, it feels like a deliberate and strident call for the reader to take their educational medicine (even though it might not all be palatable) and know that in the end it will be good for you.
The school’s charismatic and inimitable headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, writes that her educational philosophy comes from a small-c conservative school of thought and The Power of Culture seems to take pleasure in distancing itself from what it calls “the establishment”. It positions the school as a pioneer where knowledge is king and mediocrity is sin.
Its confidence exudes and mounts with every chapter, drilling the reader on why its culture is successful and why it is so different to everyone else’s. The more I read, the more I began to feel a sense of admiration for the dogged determination of every teacher. Their belief in what they represent flows like a torrent.
As expected, The Power of Culture doesn’t shy away from controversy
For them, the school’s culture is one that has changed the lives of their pupils. From the senior leaders to the newest teachers, each chapter is an impassioned appeal about eradicating complacency and replacing it with personal responsibility, duty and authority. This mission penetrates every level of leadership, every subject disciple and even the office staff.
Chapters are organised under five headings with a useful summary of each at the beginning of the book. Those on curriculum captivated me, as did those on teaching. If you love knowledge organisers, not reading Kate Ashford’s chapter will most certainly be to your detriment. However, having every teacher contribute does make it a very long read and I began to get a palpable sense of déjà vu. I did ask myself whether this was deliberate – a type of interleaved and spaced process to ensure the reader never forgets the importance of the Michaela mandate.
As expected, The Power of Culture doesn’t shy away from controversy. Its chapter titles mention that we should teach dead white men, that we should not teach Stormzy, and that they are still “talking to white people about race”. Michaela’s stance seems dogmatic, and all the more poignant and controversial in the shadow of the killing of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and the debate around the need to decolonise the curriculum. When the conversations and discussions are this raw, some will find such controversy unhelpful and problematic.
What is crystal clear is that, love it or loathe it, the Michaela way works. Phenomenal GCSE results prove that. Yet for some, regardless of the successes, reading The Power of Culture may leave a bitter taste. Birbalsingh and her teachers are used to these dissenting voices and I get a sense that they welcome them on the grounds that all publicity is good publicity.
I think I love this book. I may not agree with all of it, but the courage of their conviction is compelling and convincing. I found myself wanting to be a part of their movement and the discussion, but there was still a niggling feeling. Birbalsingh’s advice to readers like me is to perhaps read it and then leave it for six months. I may need longer, but I shall take her advice. I don’t know how I’ll feel about it in a year’s time, but maybe that’s what makes this such an interesting book.