The Unspeakable Truth About Children
My visit at the "controversial" Michaela Community School
There’s an incredible new documentary out about the Michaela Community School.
Originally titled “The Unspeakable Truth About Children,” it was renamed to “Britain’s Strictest Headmistress.”
I attended the premiere in London, and the documentary is now available here.
I visited the Michaela School a few months ago, which has been called “the strictest school in Britain.”
The school is located in Brent, an impoverished borough of London where one-third of households live in poverty. The students come from the local neighborhood.
I toured the school, had lunch with the kids, and then spoke with the teachers after the school day had ended.
I thought I’d share the transcript of my talk with the teachers here. Below the talk, I also recount my experience of touring the school.
Speaking with the Teachers
I’d like to thank Katharine and the rest of you for welcoming me here today.
I’m going to speak for about 10 minutes, and then we can just open it up to a conversation or Q&A, because I’d really like to hear about all of your experiences.
About four years ago, I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times introducing myself to readers by describing the origins of my name: Robert Kim Henderson.
My first name, Robert, comes from my supposed biological father, whom I’ve never met. The only information I have about him is his name from a document provided by a social worker responsible for my case when I was a foster child in Los Angeles.
My middle name, Kim, comes from my biological mother. It was her family name. She came from South Korea to California as a young woman. When I was three years old, she succumbed to drug addiction. I spent the next five years in foster homes in Los Angeles before being adopted by a working-class family in Northern California.
And my last name: Henderson. It comes from my former adoptive father. After my adoptive mother divorced him, he severed ties with me in order to hurt her. He figured that my emotional pain from his desertion would transmit to my adoptive mother. He was right.
These three people all have something in common: They all gave me their names, and they all abandoned me.
I used to think that I’d lived in only four different homes when I was in the system. But recently, my adoptive mother gave me some documents from when I was in foster care. The documents revealed that I’d actually lived in seven different homes, which means 3 of the placements were never encoded in my memory. Either those memories blended with the placements I do remember, or I have no recollection what those homes were like, and perhaps that’s for the best.
Throughout my years in the system, I had been enrolled in five different elementary schools before entering the third grade.
When I was seven, my grades were so bad that the State of California mandated that I take an IQ test. Apparently, there was concern that I might’ve had a learning disability, or some condition that prevented me from keeping up with my peers in school. I don’t know if they had considered that never having had a family and moving all the time might have been a big reason why I wasn’t doing well.
I was in an unfamiliar foster home. Roiling with emotions I did not understand. And I had absolutely zero interest in this stupid test. I thought to myself, Who was this person asking me these silly questions. Another adult with a sing-songy voice trying to be nice while knowing neither of us was ever going to see the other again.
Before the test, the psychologist asked if I wanted my foster mother to stay in the room or not. I asked if she could stay because even though I’d only known her for a few weeks, she was still more familiar to me than the psychologist who I’d only known for a few minutes.
For many of the questions, I gave vague or wrong answers. I was purposely defiant. After a while, I zoned out. I didn’t care about this psychologist’s questions. I didn’t care about school.
A couple of months before my eighth birthday, I was adopted by a working class family and we settled in a dusty town in Northern California called Red Bluff. At that time in the late 1990s, the median household income was about twenty-seven thousand dollars a year, less than half of the average for California. In other words, Red Bluff was a very poor town.
I was happy to call my new parents “mom” and “dad,” and I enjoyed saying that I have a “sister” without having any fear that either she or I would be taken to another home and never see each other again.
When I lived with my new adoptive family, my environment was stable, and my grades improved.
But a year later, my adoptive parents divorced. My mom got full custody of me and the guy I called my “dad” stopped speaking to me.
So now I was being raised by a single mom in a duplex, heartbroken when I saw my sister go off to stay with her dad on the weekends and wishing I could go with her. Being abandoned by one dad when I was a baby and never knowing him was hard enough, but now, after all those foster homes, I was abandoned by a second dad.
My grades plummeted. I started experimenting with drugs, smoking weed with kids in my neighborhood. My friends and I would take large doses of cold medicine or generic Vicodin or play the choking game to get high. Most of them were raised by single moms, too. Or grandparents, or some other alternate family arrangement. One of my friends and I set another friend’s house on fire. Other times we vandalized buildings. We had little to no supervision at home.
There’s a lot more to this story, but I want to fast forward to the end of high school.
During my final year, a male history teacher, an Air Force veteran, encouraged me to enlist. He knew my grades were awful—I graduated near the bottom of my class—but he saw something in me, potential that I hadn’t yet discovered or maybe didn’t even want to discover. But I respected this teacher a lot.
After being shunned by both my biological father and my adoptive father, some part of me was probably seeking a male role model. Though, at the time, I never would have understood or admitted this.
I enlisted out of desperation right after graduating, when I was 17. In the military, I had the structure and stability that I lacked as a kid. On the first day of basic training, one of the instructors told me and the other recruits that the only two reasons people fail to achieve their goals are: Either they don’t know what’s expected of them, or they don’t care to do it.
That was fourteen years ago, and it’s remained with me ever since.
Those experiences redirected my life trajectory to later graduate from Yale and to enter a PhD program at Cambridge.
I’m going to conclude by talking about an idea from the twentieth century Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin. He was a proponent of what he described as “negative liberty,” which is essentially freedom from external constraint. It’s the ability to do what you want without interference from others.
I had an abundance of negative liberty as a kid. That freedom simply allowed me to make a lot of bad decisions. The military stripped me of those freedoms; it was a giant coercion machine. It demanded I conform to certain beliefs and behaviors, which, at age seventeen, was beneficial.
Isaiah Berlin believed people should not be tampered with or coerced. But he observed that taking this idea to an extreme would mean that we’d have to eliminate schooling and education. Because these institutions involve “tampering with” or “moulding” children, often against their wishes.
But he went on to state that coercion for children is a necessary evil because children come into the world having no knowledge of it.
Allowing children total freedom to exercise their will means they could “suffer the worst misfortunes” from both nature and other people. In other words, children really do need rules from a higher authority that knows better than them. Restricting some freedom is essential for children to grow up, or, in the case of my experiences, recovery from the process of growing up.
Anyway, I’ve noticed “Britain’s strictest school” knows something about the importance of rules, so I’ll leave it at that.
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Visiting the School
Here is my experience of touring the Michaela Community School.
It was founded by Katharine Birbalsingh. She delivered an infamous speech about the education system in 2010.
She described a “culture of excuses, of low standards…chaos in our classrooms…the system is broken, because it keeps poor children poor.” She lost her teaching job because of that speech. And then started the Michaela Community School in 2014, where she is now the headmistress.
More than half of the kids at the school from families so poor that they are eligible for the “pupil premium”—additional funding for kids from low-income backgrounds. Yet the students tend to do well. More than half of all exams taken by the students were graded in the top bracket, compared with only 20.8 percent in the UK overall. The quality of education was recognized as “outstanding” by the UK government.
I arrived at the school’s reception at 12:15pm. Right away, I could see this was a different kind of school. Two boys were in front of me, and the receptionist was interrogating them, asking why they were late. Back when I was in school I was late a lot. Seldom was I ever asked why.
The kids lined up for lunch in the schoolyard while the teachers berated some of them for violating various rules. The kids stood silently and respectfully.
Michaela is known for their “Family Lunch.”
Students sit at tables of six, often with a teacher or guest at the head of the table. The kids set the table and served one another and their guest, which was me.
Before we began, a teacher announced the topic for lunch discussion. Apparently each lunch starts this way. The teacher asked, “What would life be like if people could only ever tell the truth?”
A boy on my left asked where I was from, and I explained I was from California but had traveled that day from Cambridge.
The boy then asked me what life would be like if we could only tell the truth. I said life might become more difficult. The kids agreed. I asked why they agreed. Everyone at the table said that more people’s feelings would be hurt.
I asked what their favorite books were. A girl on my right said she was reading a book about a girl who is looking for her parents. Another kid at the table said a lot of stories are about orphans.
Suddenly a teacher raised her arm, and then all of the kids raised their arms as well. Silence fell upon the room. It was time for “appreciation.” Students took turns publicly thanking somebody for their positive contribution to school life. Teachers awarded “merits” based on the quality of each kid’s comment, as well as their vocal projection and clarity.
The teachers then described how to place their fork and knife to indicate they were finished eating. “If you don’t know how to do this, you will embarrass yourselves when you eat somewhere else.”
This reminded me of my own embarrassment when I didn’t learn about this custom about cutlery placement until I was 23. That was also the age when I learned that cutting food with the side of my fork was considered tacky (“use your knife” I was advised).
After lunch, the kids gathered the plates and cleared the table.
The school emphasizes “soft skills” in addition to academics.
A lot of these kids are overlooked or neglected at home. Many don’t learn about the importance of punctuality, or eye contact, or handshakes, or table manners. Each time a kid walked past me, they would look me in the eye and say, “Good afternoon, sir.”
For many kids, these soft skills might be the most important thing they learn. Not every poor kid (or rich kid, for that matter) is going to win a Fields Medal or a Nobel Prize. But the vast majority are capable of learning the basics of politeness, courtesy, and gratitude.
And to do well in life, learning those skills is more important than knowing the quadratic formula or the literary motifs of The Giver.
All of my high school friends were capable of showing up somewhere on time. But many of them chose not to. Maybe because no one had ever drilled into them its importance, the way this school constantly did. One of my high school friends got a job at Applebee’s when he was 19. On his first day he simply didn’t show up. If he had attended Michaela, maybe he would have.
Some critics respond that there are selection effects.
But the school actually excludes slightly fewer children than other local schools.
Still, the “strictest school in Britain” presumably ejects already-enrolled students who don’t manage to get along in such a rigid environment.
A lot of kids, though, act out because they are seeking attention. But the kids at Michaela get a lot of it. They are given exquisite focus from the teachers. Teachers encourage the kids to have a sense of pride for speaking well and acting responsibly.
Kids aren’t allowed to bring their phones to school or speak in the hallways.
The teachers have subdued the typical status games of the schoolyard. And replaced them with their own status games.
Status is awarded for good behavior (from the teachers).
Status is not awarded for rebelliousness (from the students).
At my middle school and high school, I saw an average of around 1-3 fights a month. There was plenty of bullying.
There is virtually no bullying at Michaela. I asked a couple of kids if they ever saw any fights break out at school. They said no.
At the Michaela School, I felt the intense social pressure to behave well and observed the kids respond powerfully to it.
Authority and conformity in and of themselves are not bad. But they remind the chattering class of fascism or authoritarianism or something so they freak out about it.
I couldn’t help but contrast what I was seeing with what my friends and I experienced growing up. Yeah, we had way more freedom than these kids. But that freedom mostly just led to us making a lot of self-defeating choices.
Most kids need guidance. They need adult figures to model and enforce good behavior. Not make excuses for them.
Apparently a few years ago there was some controversy about Michaela’s “lunch isolation” policy.
The poorest kids at the school are on free lunch programs. For the rest who are not on the free lunch program, their families are supposed to pay for lunch. The school’s policy is that if a student’s family has overdue fees, the kid has to sit at a table alone with a sandwich and a piece of fruit instead of joining for family lunch with their classmates. When the school didn’t enforce this policy, 40 percent of families did not pay.
This policy doesn’t seem controversial to me. At least the school alerted the kid’s family about the overdue fees. And the kid still got a lunch. Back when I was in first grade, my foster mom didn’t sign my free lunch form. So my school wouldn’t let me have lunch. Probably one reason among many that I was doing so poorly in school.
After lunch, I browsed the headmistress’s bookshelf. I saw Life At the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple, Charter Schools and Their Enemies by Thomas Sowell, Atomic Habits by James Clear, and Please Stop Helping Us by Jason Riley, among many other books.
Katharine and I spoke about how all kids benefit from rules and strict expectations. But the kids at the lowest end of the socioeconomic ladder benefit the most. Kids who are advantaged can often manage to navigate the world without strict norms or rules.
But disadvantaged kids benefit the most from strict standards. Not necessarily for academic excellence, which may be out of reach for some of them, but for basic soft skills, which are not out of reach.
Many schools are dismantling both academic standards and expectations of social decorum. I was happy to see Michaela firmly uphold both.
After classes ended, Katharine and I spoke for a few minutes and then I did a Q&A, answering some questions from the teachers at the school. I got some tough questions. One teacher asked me what I would do if I saw one of my friends from high school allowing his son to listen to the same music and comedians that my friends and I listened to as kids.
I said I would advise against it. I still enjoy listening to the music of my adolescence. And I am aware there is some hypocrisy here.
But when you are being hypocritical, you are acknowledging that a virtue is still worth upholding.
As Theodore Dalrymple has written, “The only way to eliminate hypocrisy from human existence is to abandon all principles whatsoever.”
As a kid, I had to sneak around. I secretly bought burned Dr. Dre CDs from a kid at school. I had a copy of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City under my mattress in seventh grade. Even though there was often little supervision at home, I knew the adults around me had rules and standards the adults about what was considered acceptable.
Parents used to form a bulwark against the coarsening culture. This seems to be receding. At some point, adults decided that not being a hypocrite is the summum bonum of morality.
And now kids feel adrift because they lack boundaries.
Today, a lot of adults don’t uphold boundaries that kids can press up against. When adults abdicate responsibility to uphold standards, behavior gets worse all around.
Jordan Peterson has observed that when his daughter was a teenager, he and his wife were aware that some of her friends would smoke weed. But Jordan told her friends that he “should never be able to tell” when they were high.
The idea is that yes, kids do dumb stuff sometimes, but there is a difference between acknowledging this reality and having no rules at all.
Some say that because poor kids are at a disadvantage in learning the rules for how to behave well, we should eliminate the rules.
Conveniently, this excuses not only the children who act out, but the adults for not enforcing standards.
Others say we should teach the kids the rules. This is much harder. The teachers at Michaela were switched on and far more alert than most of the teachers I had. They quite clearly care about the kids.
After lunch two kids took me on a tour of the school. When I introduced myself, I was about to say, “My name is Rob,” before remembering the name tag the school gave me had “Mr. Henderson” on it.
I asked the kids if they ever wished the school was less strict. They said no, they liked the rules and expectations.
You can support the school here. The documentary about the school is available here.