Reading about the Michaela Community School, the ultra-strict, high-performing state school in North London, is at once both a depressing and inspirational experience. Students are expected to walk between lessons in absolute silence, while a black line divides corridors, funnelling students to their next lessons on an impressively efficient yet bleakly joyless path.
Things are little better in the classroom, with students forced to keep their eyes fixed on the teacher unless told otherwise, with the emphasis on the rote absorption and regurgitation of knowledge, rather than learning any meaningful skills, or how to think critically.
But, while these methods, honed by its at times controversial head Katharine Birbalsingh, may seem grim and authoritarian, the school undeniably gets results. Its teaching has been graded as Outstanding by Ofsted – no small feat for a non-selective state school in one of the more impoverished areas of the country – and has achieved GCSE scores that some of the country’s more elite schools would be envious of, while Birbalsingh has a track record of helping students from non-traditional backgrounds successfully apply to top universities, including Oxbridge.
Perhaps it is this prospect of success that keeps Michaela’s students in line, with the rules – absurd or not – unwaveringly accepted by them as the prerequisite for future achievement and this perhaps explains why, when questioned on Michaela’s methods, its students defend it with the zeal of the converted.
If the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had chosen a different path, it is not difficult to imagine her whole-heartedly embracing the Michaelaian way, taking masochistic pleasure in forcing students relentlessly into line, and doling out punishments with the glee of Dickens’ Mr Bumble. The dogmatic, absolute rules that offer little room for discretion or independent thought would doubtless appeal to her authoritarian nature, as would the dictatorial powers that Michaela’s teachers wield in their classrooms.
This is the attitude that she has brought to the latest round of immigration reforms, put forward by the government in the Nationality and Borders Bill 2021 this week. Ostensibly, these are yet again about Britain taking ‘full control of its borders’, as Patel put it to the House of Commons on Wednesday, something which the British people have ‘voted for time and time again’. Yet, unfortunately for Patel, while Michaela’s methods may bear fruit in the realm of education – particularly after Michael Gove’s reforms as Education Secretary, which emphasised rote learning over critical thought – such an unwavering, unthinking approach is unhelpful when trying to solve problems like illegal immigration or asylum seekers- assuming that you think, as Patel does, that asylum seekers are a problem to be solved rather than a desperate class of people to be extended a helping hand.
Patel’s logic is seemingly that if Britain is made a disgustingly unpleasant country, where asylum seekers face persecution from the state at every turn and the environment is permanently hostile, would-be refugees will eventually get the message, and turn to other more welcoming and generous states instead. There may be something to this – after all, Germany, which generally presents a less hostile stance towards refugees, received almost three times the number of asylum claims the UK did last year – but all the current evidence suggests that deterrence and hostility is a policy that has run out of steam. Last year, just under 10,000 people set sail across the Channel, yet despite Patel’s constant condemnation of people using such routes throughout 2020, that number is expected to almost double this year.
But despite this obvious proof that hostility towards asylum seekers is not deterring them from entering the country, Patel’s solution is not to consider whether other, more humane, policies may be more propitious, but to double down. The Nationality and Borders Bill allows for the ‘differential treatment of refugees’ based on how they entered the country, with those that enter via unconventional means – like crossing the Channel – or those who enter after passing through safe countries – like all of western Europe – treated differently to those who travel directly to the UK via ordinary routes. And as if this wasn’t enough, the bill also criminalises asylum seekers who enter the UK without ‘leave’, or permission, to do so.
Seeking to discriminate against people seeking asylum like this is not only cruel and contrary to international humanitarian law, but contradictory. The very nature of asylum seekers’ plight means that for a vast number, if not the overwhelming majority, fleeing their home country under the cover of darkness via any means possible, is the only route to safety, while reading up on the specifics of the UK’s border policy is unlikely to be a priority for most. Moreover, the policy on travelling through safe third countries completely disregards the fact that it is wholly dependent on nations like France or Germany being willing to take back asylum seekers who have already passed through their borders. That is a naive hope, if ever there was one.
It may be that the Home Office knows that the bill will be unlikely to meaningfully deter refugees, and that this is why the bill does not only target asylum seekers and immigrants, but also those who offer them support, or help them to enter the country. In theory, this section of the legislation is intended to target people smugglers who extort from asylum seekers, promising them the world in exchange for vast sums. But once more, theory fails to marry up to reality. It will come as no great shock to discover that it is already a crime to help an asylum seekers enter the country ‘for gain’, but it may come as a shock to discover that the new bill removes this qualification, meaning that for some charities, like the RNLI, helping refugees floundering in the Channel could open them up to prosecution.
Even by the standards of Johnson’s government, this bill is devastatingly cruel. It persecutes some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, while doing little, if anything, to redress the actual problem of illegal immigration. If the government was serious in addressing this, rather than just relentlessly painting refugees as bogeymen to be feared rather than vulnerable people to be helped, it would reform the asylum process from the bottom up. There would be proper funding for the immigration tribunal system, adequate legal advice given to asylum seekers from the outset, and effective ways for people to claim asylum before reaching British shores. Instead, as with everything this government does, we have policy that appeals to the lowest common denominator, designed to get votes rather than engage with the problem. Some might criticise the Michaela school for being brutal and cruel, but at least it gets results. Priti Patel’s latest immigration reforms don’t even manage that.