No, independent schools have not 'gone woke'​

Posted on: 27 Jan 2023
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

ISC chairman Barnaby Lenon challenges claims that independent schools are succumbing to 'wokery' and discusses the realities of teaching and learning within the sector.

Independent schools are apparently “woke”. That’s according to Katharine Birbalsingh, headmistress of Michaela Community School in London, anyway. She caveats her claim – made in an essay for The State of Independence (edited by David James and Jane Lunnon) – by saying she is aware she might be talking nonsense. Let me take away any doubt: she absolutely is talking nonsense.

Katharine has done many impressive things with her school, a school that proudly heralds itself as having a “private school ethos”, and her exam results should be rightly lauded. But her claim that independent schools have fallen victim to the “woke brigade” is not likely to land as one of her proudest moments.

It may serve her purpose to paint our schools in the way she has, with Katharine and Michaela as a lone beacon of traditionalism, but reality simply does not align with her rhetoric. While many in the media have picked up and run with her assertion, it’s worth reading the essay itself for the evidence. Or rather, the lack of it. There is not a single example of any school’s policy, ethos or curriculum. Instead, there is a broadside against what she considers to be “woke” behaviour.

Firstly, let’s take that word: “woke”. What does it actually mean? Reading between the lines in the recent media round, it appears to mean “things I don’t necessarily agree with”. It’s become a catch-all word used to deride behaviours and practices that don’t align with an individual’s view of the world – some of which might deserve such derision, much of which simply describe reasonable adjustments made to make sure all students and staff feel welcome and included in their school.

Katharine complains that students are assuaging their “privileged guilt” by making empty gestures. I’m not sure which independent schools Katharine is frequenting, but it’s certainly none of the many with which I am acquainted. The idea that our students do not have a sense of duty or any interest in giving back to society in a meaningful way is, frankly, laughable. Partnerships and charitable work are at the heart of our schools, and that is true from the leadership right through to the student body, many of whom will give up their time and talents to benefit others. And that is not, as she claims, to show the world that they are “a ‘good person’”, but because they understand it is the right thing to do.

Similarly, Katharine’s assertion that the sector has a “misplaced love of child-centred learning” will come as a surprise to many working in independent schools, including those I meet regularly as part of my job in teacher training. They are taught about the importance of following robust evidence-based practice that gets results, rather than the latest trends and fads in education. The great majority are traditional schoolteachers who would run a mile from “child-centred learning” and are completely familiar with the techniques used in Michaela – high expectations, firm discipline, no excuses, etc.

It's true that many of our schools encourage pupils to set up societies, and some of the subjects they choose to focus on might be thought to be woke – climate change, anti-racism, LGBT+, etc – but each generation of pupils has different interests and we are pleased to give them the opportunity and the freedom to explore these while at school. The mainstream school curriculum remains fairly traditional in most independent schools.

I will allow Katharine one thing: she is right that independent schools are at the mercy of market forces – or, as she describes it, “the sharp-elbowed parent”. In that case, if schools were succumbing to wokery, it would be because that’s what parents want. But our parents are, in fact, pretty conservative and far more concerned with their children growing into interested, interesting adults.

If our schools were truly turning out the sort of vacuous City fodder she claims, the media would have picked up on the roar from parents long before they came across her essay. The fact that they haven’t suggests that she’s wide of the mark. Katharine may worry about the survival of traditionalism but all she need do is take the time to visit just a few of our schools. She’ll see fairly quickly that traditionalism isn’t just surviving in our schools: it’s thriving.

About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the ISC.