One of the best questions from the Michaela Battle Hymn event was: ‘how would you draw the distinction between authority and authoritarian?’
It is a vital distinction, and one that must be disentangled rather than conflated.
My definition of an authoritarian state is one that maintains power by using violence to repress dissent. This definition can be tested by asking: do any authoritarian states refrain from using violence to repress dissent?
One major hallmark of authoritarian regimes, then, is using violence to suppress opponents. Examples of authoritarian regimes are Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, Russia under Vladimir Putin, Cuba under Castro, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Chile under Pinochet, Libya under Gaddafi, Uganda under Amin, South Africa under apartheid. What these regimes have in common is ruling through violent repression.
In Russia, 21 journalists have been killed since Putin came to power in 2000. In Libya, regime opponents of Gaddafi were hanged in purges and at least 25 assassinations between 1980 and 1987 alone. In Chile, Pinochet’s regime tortured thousands of prisoners and left over 3,000 dead or missing, forcing 200,000 into exile. In Cuba, estimates of Castro’s victims of repression range from 10,000 people murdered in firing squad executions and extrajudicial killings. In South Africa, 40,000 politically offending Africans were whipped every year, and hundreds were executed for treason; between 1960 and 1994, the South African government were responsible for 2,700 assassinations by secret security forces. In Zimbabwe, under Mugabe’s authoritarian regime from 1980 to the present, tens of thousands of political opponents: in one attack alone, 20,000 opponents were killed. In Uganda, between 1970 and 1979, Idi Amin is estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 500,000 opponents. In Cambodia, over 2 million people were executed in mass shootings and buried in mass graves. With millions murdered at the hands of these regimes, a revulsion towards authoritarianism is understandable.
What is an authoritarian approach to schooling? If violence is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes, one major hallmark of an authoritarian school might be using corporal punishment. In England, this is banned in state schools, since 1986. It remains common worldwide, in Africa and Asia, although many developed countries have banned it.
One behaviour consultant asked if we would use corporal punishment at Michaela if it were legal. Let me categorically state: we would never use corporal punishment at Michaela, even if it were legal.
To brand Michaela Community School as authoritarian, especially without even visiting, is astonishing. Authoritarian regimes have blood on their hands. They have imprisoned, tortured, executed and assassinated millions of people in illegal killings around the world. Frankly, to compare Michaela to these states is an insult to all those who have died resisting these brutal regimes.
By contrast, Michaela is a school of teachers educating children without any violence, torture or terror whatsoever, but rather with great love, passion and enthusiasm. We believe in adult authority, not in authoritarian repression.
There is a prodigious danger in conflating authority and authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is brutally repressive; authority in schools is vitally necessary. If we undermine teachers’ and headteachers’ authority by tangling it up as authoritarian, if we shame school leaders for imposing authority and enforcing school rules, if we as a country are averse to authoritative schools, we put authority in crisis, and we undermine our own children’s education.
Hannah Arendt’s 1954 essay ‘The Crisis in Education’ was prophetic. Although Arendt was an escapee of the National Socialist authoritarian, totalitarian, genocidal regime in Germany and the Holocaust in Europe, she argued against a ‘radical distrust of authority’:
‘by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority … handed over to the tyranny of the group.’
‘Authority has been discarded by the adults, and this can mean only one thing: that the adults refuse to assume responsibility for the world into which they have brought the children.’
‘The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.’
‘Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.’
The consequences of attacking strict, authoritative school leadership as authoritarian have been disastrous. School leaders all over England feel uneasy about imposing too much authority, for fear of being denounced as fascist. As a result, new teachers and supply teachers are being sworn at and abused by unruly pupils all over England; bullying is rife; and low-level disruption is prevalent, as hundreds of teachers as well as the schools inspectorate attest. Thousands of children’s lives have been damaged as a result of vilifying authority.
It is time to throw off the shackles of guilt about adult authority. To establish clear adult, expert and professional authority and orderly discipline is a moral duty of school leaders. Benevolent authority reduces disruption, bullying and abuse. We owe it to all the children we teach in this country.