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There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free School at Michaela Community School

The Independent recently reported that the Michaela Community School (MCS) in Wembley, London, is being accused of giving its students detention if their parents are unable to make payments for their child’s lunches. As punishment the school enforces a “lunch isolation” where a child is given fruit and a sandwich instead of a hot meal and separated from the rest of the students.

Children are kept in this period of isolation for a total of 60 minutes and are seemingly punished for their parents lack of sufficient resources. But the headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, disagrees asking whether “…we [should] charge a poor single mum twice so she can pay for Jonny just because she has a sense of personal responsibility and Jonny’s mother doesn’t?”

Birbalsingh clarified that these penalties wouldn’t apply to those with free school meals or families with monetary problems. But it seems difficult to believe that this system works well enough to account for families that may have been formerly financially stable but ran into difficulties suddenly. In addition, one parent reportedly attempted to change to the free meals program and still had their child punished before they could be accepted into the program.

And whether it is applied fairly or not, the policy seems to punish the parent and the child because the parent doesn’t have enough money for the lunch program. A parent named Dionne Kelly who had received a letter from the school concerning lunch isolation called the policy “degrading” for the children and “embarrassing for poor families”.

Birbalsingh was well noted for her speech during a 2010 Tory convention where she advocates conservative reform to the schools and she has held well to this standard, imposing strict restrictions on children on whether they can slouch, swear, idle or anything that would be considered disruptive. The school has a broader “zero tolerance policy” program and touts itself for instilling an almost sort of robotic politeness and mannerisms in their students.

For example, Barry Smith, the deputy head of MCS remarked on his blog that, “They walked in single file and in silence, eyes front, from school to the tube. They stood tall and proud. Ties tight, shirts white, shoes shining bright.” And the blog post continues on with various references to how “polite” and “silent” and generally well behaved the children are.

Obedient is the word Smith is looking for.

These children aren’t allowed to take any actions that are outside the areas that the teachers or adults design for them. And given how everything is set up for the children there seems to be little to no areas of freedom. Even the seating charts in the school are completely designed by the teachers to ensure an abundance of friends but seems more about control.

Control, however, doesn’t seem to always work with the school often having to give children detentions. Birbalsingh argues this teaches the children some idea of real-life consequences. But this methodical punishment of action seems to be unrealistically harsh and teaching children that there is a 1:1 relationship between failure and punishment also seems ill-advised.

The punishments and routines these officials are instilling in children only serve to reinforce narratives about power, authority and control that can style a child’s individual liberty. For example, one child who studied there remarked that he had learned that, “…it’s easy to react in a crazy way if you’re accused of something you haven’t done, but it just makes people think you’re guilty.”

MCS isn’t a “free school” in either the economic or social sense. The children have a perpetual lock down on their self-expression and no control over the day to day lessons, let alone their own body movements or even after school activities.

These children, according to Birbalsingh are forced to do the after school programs, forced to do their homework (which can take as long as an hour or more of the children’s day) and forced to do extra work even during lunch.

This is a system based on punishment, coercion and adult supremacy laid bare.

There is a long proud history of children going on strike from school in the UK, let’s bring it back.

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