Suella Braverman: What Johnson learned from a London school amidst deprived communities
Suella Braverman is a former DexEU Minister, and is MP for Fareham. She was Chairman of Governors, Michaela Community School, 2013-2017
312AD? Or was it 313AD? Forget questions on Brexit: I know this is what many of us spend hours pondering: what was the date of the conversion of the Holy Roman Empire to Christianity?
It’s a question that Boris Johnson debated when he visited the free school which I co-founded in 2015. The 12 year old pupil at Michaela Community School was adamant that it was 313AD. Johnson – with his Oxford degree in Classics – was convinced of 312AD. A subsequent Google search confirmed that the Mayor of London was indeed wrong, and our Year 8 pupil correct on this point of Roman history – The Edict of Milan being the authoritative source.
Such was Johnson’s very gracious admission later that day when he talked about the pioneering teaching methods that are being deployed at Michaela. For, as one of the early free schools, Michaela is a beacon of empowerment and aspiration in Wembley, a community marked by social deprivation and under-achievement. It’s my home town and, had Michaela been around when I was a child, there is no doubt that I would have attended.
Michaela intakes generally consist of approximately 50 per cent children on Pupil Premium, 10 per cent eligible for Special Education Needs support and over 50 per cent with English as a second language. In some years, a third of pupils arrived with a reading age below their chronological age, or two thirds below the national expectation in maths. Some of our children have been under child protection, in care or excluded from previous schools.
But our robust knowledge-based curriculum, coupled with high standards on behaviour and discipline, is the way forward, as the ex-Mayor himself attested. He said this of Michaela: “I saw the way forward for our city and our country. I have never seen any other single institution in London that was so dramatically transforming the problems of our society. I’ve never seen any single programme that would reduce inequality and encourage social mobility.”
We opened the school in 2014 and, after much opposition from left-wing ideologues, proved the critics wrong. Thanks to the freedoms allowed to these schools, Michaela was rated outstanding by OFSTED in 2017. Seeing some children make two, three, four or even five years progress in reading and maths in the space of a single year, or others metamorphose from out-of-control and excluded into studious and respectful has only been possible thanks to greater autonomy enjoyed by teachers, like our inspirational Headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh. Children enjoy a bully-free environment, aim high and their teachers have instilled in them perseverance and stoicism. Just as Johnson did, visitors from all over the country marvel at what they see.
How is this working? Johnson summed it up perfectly: ‘These children are learning natural self-esteem that comes from genuine academic achievement. They are learning not only how to achieve and use knowledge but they are learning to want to achieve. They are learning aspiration…With discipline, competition and the acquisition of knowledge, they are putting on a suit of armour and bit by bit becoming stronger and intellectually resilient to take on anything that life throws at them.’
That is why Johnson’s commitment to increase spending on our primary and secondary schools is a real reflection of his passion for social justice. The extra £4.6bn per year into our schools that he will deliver will help to re-energise them. Under his plans, primary and secondary school pupils will receive more resources than they do today. This is a welcome step-change in education funding which will help break down barriers in our society.
If we want to restore trust in the power of what Conservative policies can achieve we need to deliver Brexit by October 31st, and it is only Boris Johnson who will do this. If we really want to tackle that poverty of aspiration, let’s make him Prime Minister. If we want to create a nation where it truly doesn’t matter what your parents did, or which side of town you came from, but where you have learnt to want to achieve and are resilient enough to take on what life throws at you, Boris Johnson is the man to make that a reality for our children.
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