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24 May 2022

Is Britain’s Strictest Headmistress a visionary or a tyrant?

Many of Katharine Birbalsingh’s rules seem petty beyond belief – but she gets results. What does her approach tell us about our education culture war?

By Hannah Rose Woods

Katharine Birbalsingh, according to a new ITV documentary, is Britain’s Strictest Headmistress. We are told, as the opening credits unroll over sternly swelling string instruments, that the founder of Michaela Community School in Wembley and chair of the Social Mobility Commission is “controversial”; she is “uncompromising”; she is “taking on her peers” in advocating a return to tradition and good old-fashioned discipline. While her colleagues refer to her as a “one-man army” and declare that they’d happily go into battle for her, they feel that her critics view the school as an “abomination”, a “gulag”, and “think that we are North Korea”. The choice we are given in the programme’s subtitle is a stark one: is Birbalsingh a “visionary or deluded demagogue?”

Which is unfortunate, because my feeling is “somewhere in between”. Many of her rules and regulations seem – at best – petty beyond belief. Children detail how they are given detentions for things like making “a silly face in the corridor to my friend” or “not having my second pencil”. When they stand to speak in class they seem to be required to deliver everything in the staccato sir-yes-sir! intonation of trainee soldiers. Yet the documentary finds pupil after pupil enthusiastically explaining the benefits that discipline has brought them, that they like going to school there.

And it gets results. It is hard to argue with the footage of parents breaking down in sobs of relief that their child has been given the opportunity to study there, or of joyful pupils celebrating offers from top universities. As confronting as Birbalsingh’s manner can be, you don’t doubt for a second that she genuinely has her students’ best interests at heart. The scheme in which pupils are encouraged to voluntarily drop off their smartphones for a while to reduce their screen time seems not just positive, but actually nice.

[See also: “Euphoria” offers a much-needed, fresh perspective on mental health problems in teenage girls]

On the other hand, the school’s ethos seems resolutely committed to the doctrine that anything labelled “traditional” is de facto good, while anything with a whiff of progressivism must be hand-wringing leftist guff that will harm children in the long run. At times, discipline seems to be drilled with gratuitous unpleasantness. One teacher in particular issues commands with a combination of jabby hand signals and rapid-fire military delivery that seems designed to confuse in order to administer submission. You’d use a nicer tone if you were training a dog.

The documentary explains that it is important for adults to establish authority over children. But we see the same teacher later in the programme explaining his teaching philosophy to the camera in a voice that is at once understanding, reasonable and completely authoritative. Why can’t he use that voice to command children? There are several moments like this, in which the ethic that you must sometimes be cruel to be kind tips into the idea that apparent kindness should be avoided at all costs. But I’m not sure this kind of ambivalence is allowed at Michaela. If anything, it seems as if a mentality of embattlement against their detractors (both real and imaginary) is one of the institution’s main motivational drivers.

As teachers elsewhere have noted, many of Michaela’s traditionalist methods are not particularly controversial, and are practiced in other schools too. Birbalsingh’s USP depends on the straw-manning of any critique levelled at her approach. At one point she imagines her opponents to be pushing “the idea that giving children good discipline and excellent teaching and an opportunity to achieve is somehow bad? I just don’t understand it!”, she exclaims, in a tone of bafflement that would be understandable if anyone had actually said this. It perpetuates sectoral conflict and disagreement by joining up disciplinary methods that are controversial with perfectly commonplace principles on which there is near-universal agreement, and then pitting this against an imagined mob of haters who apparently “have the idea that adults shouldn’t be in authority”.

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Conspicuously, Birbalsingh seems not to subscribe to the principle of leading by example. Children, she tells us, need to be taught not to think of themselves as victims but to take personal responsibility, to learn from their mistakes. These habits are important, a colleague tells us, because they build up a child’s character. They are at the heart of Birbalsingh’s approach to education. Yet time and again she recasts any critique or disagreement with her statements – even the pointing out of factual inaccuracies, such as her claim last month that “research generally” says it’s “just a natural thing” that girls dislike “hard maths” – as akin to vicious abuse.

When it was pointed out to her on Twitter that a motivational quote on the wall of her school – reading “success is not final, failure is not fatal, it’s the courage that counts” – was falsely attributed to Winston Churchill, she characterised it as “hysteria”, imagining her critics to be demanding that she “repent” for committing “the greatest sin”. The factual inaccuracy didn’t matter, she maintained. (An odd attitude, you might think, for a teacher.) What was important was the truth contained in the quotation.

Well, quite. It might have been a perfect opportunity to embody her own teaching philosophy: to take personal responsibility, to have the courage to own up to a minor error and to learn from it. I think it’s a shame that she didn’t – but maybe I’m just a traditionalist.

[See also: “Stranger Things 3” deals with the pleasure and pain of adolescence]

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