Britain’s strictest headmistress

Dan Hannan writes:

Do watch Britain’s Strictest Headmistress on ITV on Sunday evening – especially if you are a teacher. It will cheer you up. The documentary about Michaela Community School in Brent shows kids who begin life with few advantages leaving school confident, ambitious and qualified.

But it may do more than cheer you up. It may restore some old truths that, deep down, we always recognised, however unfashionable they became among educationalists

Katharine Birbalsingh, the headmistress in question, did not start out as a traditionalist. At Oxford, she joined the Socialist Workers Party. When she began her teaching career, she went in with all the usual assumptions: schools were underfunded, the biggest obstacle facing non-white kids was structural racism. But she found that her classroom experiences could not sustain those pre-conceptions. The real problem, she came to realise, lay in the attitude of the people who oversaw our schools.

Instead of imparting knowledge, teachers were overseeing child-led discussions. Instead of promoting confidence, they were encouraging victimhood. Instead of upholding the canon, they were seeking out obscure texts on grounds of identity politics. Instead of expecting high standards, they were indulging pupils from under-privileged backgrounds, and thus unintentionally condemning them.

Sound familiar?

Note Birbalsingh is Indo-Guyanese and Jamaican and is technically a Kiwi – she was born in NZ.

Birbalsingh began to dream of a different kind of school – a school with houses and uniforms and discipline and classics. Why, she wondered, should these things be the preserve of the rich? Didn’t children in deprived boroughs need them more?

Not in the view of the councillors who ran those deprived boroughs. The last thing they wanted was a traditionalist school showing up its neighbours. Again and again, Birbalsingh was rebuffed before, in 2014, finally being allowed to take over an old office block by Wembley Park tube.

In these unpropitious surroundings, she has pulled off what I can only call a secular miracle. Many of Michaela’s children come from estates poisoned by drugs and gangs. Perhaps nine in ten are from ethnic minorities, with dozens of different home languages. Forty-one per cent of her first intake were officially classed as disadvantaged, meaning they had qualified for free school meals. Yet in 2019, that cohort, the first to sit GCSEs, secured some of the best grades in the country: 54 per cent got 7, 8 or 9 (the top grades, equivalent to A or A* under the old system) as against a national average of 22 per cent.

So her school got results two and half times as good as the national average, despite being in a very poor area. It shows the difference one person can make.

What is Michaela’s secret? A set of principles that could be made to work in any school: gratitude must be taught; phones banned; competition encouraged; learning teacher-led; national cohesion promoted; high standards expected; adult authority upheld.

Not rocket science.

I did; and I did. I have never met more impressive teachers. They engaged their through dozens of techniques that would work in any classroom. For example, when questions are posed in class, instead of responding immediately, pupils are encouraged to pair up and explain their answer to their partners, so that everyone has to formulate it.

As they walk into lunch, the kids belt out verses that they have memorised – Kipling’s If, Henley’s Invictus, passages from Shakespeare. This is the only time they make a noise inside; there is usually no talking in the corridors – which means no misbehaviour and no bullying.

Over lunch, they are given a topic to talk about. Afterwards, they express their appreciation for someone – a teacher for helping them, another student for making them feel welcome, their mother for always having their uniform ready. Gratitude is a happier emotion than grievance, and perhaps the most striking feature of Michaela is how cheerful its children are. The school’s detractors imagine it as a Dickensian poorhouse; in fact, children like order and respond to being stretched. The listlessness, anxiety and rudeness that I have seen in schools that pride themselves on their liberalism are unimaginable here.

Gratitude not grievance,. I like it.

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