Chloe Westley is the Campaign Manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Declinism has been creeping into British discourse for decades. Increasingly, we hear that Britain is an unremarkable country, that she has little to offer the world, and that it is much safer to be a member of an international bureaucracy than an independent sovereign state. The message from Westminster, with regard to Brexit, is that it’s just all too difficult. MPs don’t want the responsibility or the hassle of huge political change. After all, it takes far less effort simply to persist in mediocrity than take the initiative to change.
But countries aren’t built on the foundations of naysayers and gloom merchants. We can’t face the challenges ahead of us by embracing defeatism. The people who make this country great are those who think outside the box: entrepreneurs, free thinkers, scientists and mavericks.
Last week, I met with one such maverick – someone who is changing the lives of hundreds of children, and shaking up the state education system from the inside. Her name is Katharine Birbalsingh, and you may remember her as the brave teacher who spoke out about Britain’s state education system at the Conservative Party conference in 2010.
Today, she is the founder and headmistress of the Michaela Community School, a free school which is breaking the mould in state education. The school has been dubbed as one the strictest in the country, and for good reason. Students are expected to be absolutely silent in hallways, to sit up straight with their shoulders back and to smile and say good morning to teachers. Good behaviour is rewarded with merit points, and bad behaviour with demerit points.
When I visited the school, all of the students who were in class were attentive, completely silent unless spoken to, and respectful and courteous. At lunch time, students sat around tables together and shared a meal with a knife and fork, with teachers leading discussion topics. Either someone had hired some child actors to play perfectly well behaved children for the day, or these teaching methods are seriously working.
What I admire most about the school is that teachers and staff have high expectations of every young person in their class. Instead of making excuses for students, or explaining away why they might not be performing, teachers and staff still demanded that they all follows the rules. By expecting more from these young people, they bring out the best in them.
Labour branded free schools as an “expensive vanity project”, and it took three years to open the school because of detractors and protestors. But how could anyone object to inner city kids attending an outstanding school, where they are given the tools to become the best version of themselves?
The Michaela Community School challenges the assumption that the only way to improve education and social mobility is more taxpayers money. But actually, motivated and driven people can drastically improve outcomes for young people by doing things differently.
Katherine has explained why she is so motivated to speak out about the problems with state education:
“We need us all believing in this idea of equality of opportunity. Teaching children self-control will make them free. Having an ordered environment where children can learn will enable them to learn them lots of stuff so they can be motivated to do something with their lives. Because they will make themselves free by grabbing the opportunity. It’s that sense of self determination that conservatives believe in more.”
I like Katharine. She’s a change-merchant, not a doom-merchant. Instead of carrying on with business as usual, and accepting the education system as it is, she has decided to try and change things. Katherine decided to do something difficult – to disrupt the natural order of things, and her bravery means that thousands of young people will achieve more than they could have without her.
I wish our politicians had the same attitude. We need to do away with declinism, with business as usual, and with politics as usual. As Dominic Cummings warned, you cannot implement huge political change without shaking up the rusty and complacent Whitehall machine.
But of all the speeches in Parliament since the vote on June 23rd, very few have outlined a vision for post-Brexit Britain. The Conservative Party an opportunity to adopt Vote Leave’s vision, and to disrupt the stagnant Westminster system. Instead, at the last general election, we were presented with one of the least inspiring pieces of literature to ever reach the doorsteps of Britain.
If the Conservative Party wants to capture the hearts and minds of the British people, it must do away with cautious complacency. The age of the technocrat has come to an end. Let’s put some mavericks in charge.