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The Strictest Headmistress in Britain
Katharine Birbalsingh runs one of Britain’s top-ranked schools, free to attend and catering almost entirely to underserved low-income, minority kids. So why do progressives dislike her so much?
[Dear Subscribers, This piece originally appeared in the Toronto Star last spring and was hands-down my favourite long form assignment of the year. I’m reposting it here because it’s back to school time. (Happy Canadian Labour Day!) It was published and now lives behind a hard paywall but as Juvenescence subscribers you can now read it here for free. It was one of those pieces where I went in thinking, ‘Okay, standard profile of a polarising public figure,’ and came out with my head-spinning. The story was commissioned and expertly edited by the paper’s Executive Features Editor Sarmishta Subramanian. If you enjoy it please share and do leave a comment to tell me what you think. I genuinely welcome debate and endeavour respond to them all.]
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Michaela Community School, widely reputed to be the “strictest school in Britain,” is located on a windswept semi-industrial corner of a down-at-the-heels area of North West London, not far from Wembley stadium. It’s housed in a former office building, the classrooms stacked hive-like over six towering stories. A dug-out concrete car park serves as its playground. In a country known for its splendid and historied educational institutions, from the lush green quads of Oxford to the mythical spires of Hogwarts, Michaela isn’t going to win any beauty contests. Its wizardry is on the inside.
After being buzzed in by the school’s intercom I soon find myself seated on a sleek modernist sofa in the crisply appointed office of the headmistress and founder. Katherine Birbalsingh is about as famous as a high-school principal can be, which here in Britain—a nation as obsessed with social class as with its functionary and handmaiden, education—is surprisingly famous indeed.
A decade ago, while teaching at a culturally diverse, low-income public high school in South London, Birbalsingh began writing a blog under the pseudonym Miss Snuffy (as in Snuffleupagus). An educational cri de coeur, it was full of startling anecdotal accounts of classroom chaos, toothless discipline and dismal results, which Miss Snuffy blamed on a system in which educators are given an impossible choice: Lower standards or face accusations of discrimination. Birbalsingh outed herself dramatically in 2011 by delivering a barnburner of a speech at the Conservative party conference that prompted a standing ovation. In it she declared, “The system is broken because it keeps poor kids poor,” an observation that would later become her catchphrase. The speech went viral and Birbalsingh was sacked from her job amid concerns she had shared stories about her students, violating their privacy. A couple of years later, she was awarded government funding to found Michaela. A school – and a star – was born.
Today the headmistress is a sought-after public speaker, pundit and feisty and voluble Twitter presence for her nearly 90K followers. Last year she was appointed the Tory government’s “Social Mobility Tsar,” an appointment greeted in the British press with mixed reviews. She has since served as chair of a commission focused on the issue of changing economic outcomes for poor British kids through education.
While it would be daft to question Birbalsingh’s commitment to education, she is often criticised on the left for being a Conservative party darling and cultural warrior— a pretty accurate description in spite of her insistence to the contrary. Then again, surely the more interesting question is this: Do her radical teaching theories work in practice?
Tall and wiry in a nipped-in black frock with wild Sideshow Bob-style mop of screw curls, Birbalsingh is funnier and more fashionable than I’d expected. “They make me out to be this wicked old witch,” she jokes of her critics, “but I’m actually pretty cool!”
Though you’d never guess from her accent, or her outsized public persona, she’s also Canadian, or as she puts it, “sort of Canadian.” The daughter of a Jamaican mother and an Indo-Guyanese father, Birbalsingh was born in Auckland, New Zealand, but the family immigrated to Toronto when she was a toddler. Her upbringing was solidly middle-class
But Birbalsingh soon began to feel she was swimming against a riptide. The holistic, child-centred approach sounded great but, in her view, it wasn’t working. Too many kids were slipping through cracks. The worse a child performed the more they needed to be “nurtured,” but how to instil a sense of personal responsibility when the rule is to ask for less, not more? Birbalsingh says she decided to try a different method – one built on strict boundaries, traditional methods and firm discipline.
Birbalsingh herself was state educated in Toronto’s Don Mills area in the 1980s. She attended Cliffwood Elementary, then Don Valley Jr. High before spending a year in the International Bacalaureate pre-prep program at Victoria Park high school. She hated it. “I was the only black kid, the only girl with short hair and the tallest girl in school. I put my hand up too often in class, which made me a target.” The thing she remembers most, she says, is the feeling of constant terror. “I was terrified to go to school, terrified to walk down the halls. It wasn’t just the teasing but the actual threat of physical violence.”
She marvels at how experiences like hers are considered ordinary at schools in the English-speaking-world. “We behave as if bullying is normal, that its normal for clever children to get picked on,” she says. “That it’s normal for children to feel fear. But these things aren’t normal – they’re unacceptable. They’re the result of low standards, poor leadership and a culture of under-achievement. When leaders fail, the bullies take over.”
At Michaela the teachers are in charge, and the students receive a rigorous, traditional and – this is key — distraction-free education. According to Birbalsingh there is virtually no bullying. The expectations are so high that she insists there’s very little need for discipline. This begins to sound believable when you learn the primary infraction for detention at Michaela is using a non-school-issued pen.
Birbalsingh’s methods are, of course, at odds with the child-centred egalitarian education models adopted in the past half century by many Western English-speaking democracies, including many school boards in Canada. It’s a trend Birbalsingh has dedicated her life to bucking. When she says the “system” is broken, she means the “progressive state system.” It keeps poor kids poor, she says, because instead of being designed with underserved minority students in mind, it was designed to make middle-class white liberals feel good.
Michaela is not a selective school, meaning acceptance is based entirely on catchment area. Its student body is dominated by kids from low income and religious backgrounds; many are first-generation Britons or new immigrants themselves. There are almost no white and/or affluent children. Contrast those demographics to the numbers: Michaela is ranked fifth in the country with a 90 per cent overall pass rate in key subjects. Eighty-two percent of its graduates go on to universities like Oxford and Cambridge, and the school is ranked “Outstanding” in all categories by Ofsted, the UK’s federal school ranking body. You may not approve of Michaela’s methods, but you can’t argue with its results.
Tea arrives and Birbalsingh explains to me that she regularly attends education conferences where she talks to other educators in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and elsewhere. Their major complaint, she reports, is that the progressive ethos adopted by state education systems over the past 50 years has destroyed their ability to teach. The deleterious effects, she insists, are less obvious in Canada, but that’s only because the country has fewer social problems than the UK. “Canada’s just richer. It has fewer people, more space and resources.”
For her, education isn’t about politics, she says, but about practical solutions to improve social mobility in a society where inequality continues to deepen. Michaela, she contends, is engineered to improve the chances of poor black and brown kids – not just outliers, but average kids who enter the world with the deck stacked against them. “That’s why white middle-class parents don’t like my school,” she says of Michaela. “The silent halls, the merit system — they find it creepy. It offends their delicate sensibilities. But frankly, it doesn’t matter because privileged parents can send their kids anywhere they want. Even if the standards are rubbish, they’ll make up the deficit.”
She narrows her eyes and addresses me directly. “Say your kids struggle. What are you going to do? Hire a tutor? And if they’re interested in art, I bet you’ll take them round to galleries and museums. If they like history you’ll whisk them off Paris and chat about the French Revolution, yes?”
In London, where I live, this is easily done, and I nod, a bit sheepishly. She continues. “Here at Michaela, most of our parents don’t have those options. And look, if you’re a poor black kid your only hope of changing your stars is through education. So here, the school makes up the deficit. We don’t just teach these kids, we give them the skills that will carry them through life.”
At lunch in the dining hall, I grasp just how traditional Michaela is by contemporary standards. The kids file in silently, immaculate in their pressed blue blazers with smart gold trim, dress shoes polished, not a single shirt untucked. Taking up places at pre-assigned seats, they stand at attention and chant from memory the entirety of Rudyard Kipling’s If.
In the final verse, “If you can talk with crowds and not lose your virtue/Or walk with Kings – nor lose your common touch,” their voices rise in a crescendo, reaching toward the final stirring lines, “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/And – what’s more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” The poem is recited at such a volume and with such passion I wonder if I am imagining it, until – I promise you this really happened – I watch a boy at a neighbouring table surreptitiously wipe away a tear.
Like the seating, the lunchtime conversation topics are assigned. Today it’s historical, specifically the world wars and the sacrifices of the British war dead. The table of 15-year-olds I joined, quite randomly, turns out to be exceptionally outgoing, polite, confident and curious. Swiftly dispensing with the war dead, the kids pepper me with so many questions about my work, my children and Canada, I barely have time to ask if they always eat their pizza with forks and knives. (Only at school, they laugh, covering their mouths with their hands.) They tell me the discipline at Michaela takes a bit of getting used to, but after that it’s fantastic. Out of curiosity, I ask what happens when a student acts out.
“An outburst?” they murmur in unison. All six stare at me blankly. I rephrase: What happens if a kid is insolent, sassy, talks back to a teacher? More baffled silence. Finally, the boy to my left speaks.
“That’s unacceptable,” he says.
“Yes,” I say, “But what happens when it happens?”
The students confer. Five insist they have never – not even once -- witnessed such an event at Michaela. A sixth recalls that, well, there was this one girl who shouted at the teacher in his French class two years ago. “She got sent out,” he recalls grimly. “I’m pretty sure she got a bunch of detentions and demerits.” Then his face brightens. “But it was okay in the end because after that she really redeemed herself.”
The others nod, their memories jogged by the story of this one rebellious girl. “Yes, I remember her,” they say. “She redeemed herself. She really did.”
Michaela’s motto, stencilled on walls around the school is ‘Work hard, be kind.’” Birbalsingh explains she borrowed it from KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), the famous US network of tuition-free charter schools targeting at-risk children in poor, diverse urban neighbourhoods. KIPP, she says, was also the inspiration for many of Michaela’s policies, from silent halls and traditional teaching methods to a strong emphasis on character, rigour and academic achievement.
Then she adds in a stage whisper that KIPP recently retired their own motto, “Work hard, be nice.” In its announcement about the change, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, KIPP wrote that the old motto “passively supports ongoing efforts to pacify and control Black and Brown bodies in order to better condition them to be compliant.”
When I ask Birbalsingh about the decision, she rolls her eyes. “Apparently there were complaints it was racist,” she says. “Because obviously if a white teacher tells a poor black child to be ‘nice’ it’s implying total subservience and submission, right? Honestly, what a load of nonsense.”
Birbalsingh believes the so-called “politics of woke” have no place in the classroom – in particular the diverse classrooms areas of urban deprivation. “Why would you teach a disadvantaged child that the world hates them?” she asks.
I push back. But what if it’s true?
At this Birbalsingh throws her head back and roars. The view that systemic inequality and discrimination is a forgone conclusion is, she insists, simplistic, self-defeating and frankly racist. “It fails poor black and brown kids, who understandably take from it, ‘Well if that’s how the world is, why bother?’”
Birbalsingh does get pushback from educators and parents who embrace a more nurturing, politically progressive approach, mainly on Twitter, she adds. “To them I say, ‘Have you spent the past twenty-five years teaching disadvantaged children in the inner city?’ If you had, you’d know that so much bad education policy is just ideological window dressing. I’m interested in results.’”
She also has her champions. One of them is Tom Bennett, a high-profile education consultant and founder of researchED, an influential London-based non-profit. Bennett has worked with the U.K.’s Department of Education and his group has partnered with Oxford University Press. Birbalsingh, he told me in an interview, “has the kind of willpower that could power a spaceship.” And, he adds, “she has needed [it] in the face of the kind of bigotry, misogyny and racism she has had to fight to get where she is.”
According to Bennett, progressive norms of education spring from the 19th-century philosophies of educators with little experience of actual children. “They’re a busted flush,” he insisted. “They only ‘work’ with extraordinarily privileged children who can afford to be taught badly, and sadly these have become norms in many countries throughout the world.” Bennett speculates this is because “they appeal to our romantic notion of the child as naturally inclined to learn and be kind, when even a cursory interaction with a large cohort of children teaches us that this is not the case.”
“Katherine,” he says, “is simply one of many who have noticed the Emperor has no clothes.”
Birbalsingh is the unofficial leader of a tribe of so-called “Super Heads,” who have, over the past decade, transformed the UK’s state education system – in particular, the disadvantaged schools of inner and outer London. A new system of secular, state-and-charity-funded “academies” (known as charter schools in North America) has proliferated. Academies receive their funding directly from the Ministry of Education rather than local government. Principals have far more flexibility when it comes to hiring, firing, curriculum design and teaching methods. Critics argue that academies give heads unbridled power, and that state curriculum ought to be standardised. But 10 years since the academy revolution began, the critics have lost the battle. The reason? Academies work.
As a parent, I can attest. My own kids go to a primary academy not too far from Birbalsingh’s. It’s strict and traditional (though not as much as Michaela). From age four, kids wear shirts and ties and spend half the day sitting at desks doing literacy and math. When we first moved to the neighbourhood it was a failing inner-city primary. Today the student population is still culturally and economically diverse – but the test scores have sky-rocketed.
Birbalsingh’s new government appointment is part a question of whether such individual efforts can scale up. Asked about the role, Birbalsingh is blasé to the point of dismissive. “It’s just a few days a month. I get to meet and talk to a lot of fascinating educators, then write a report which contains a whole bunch of suggestions for policy changes which the government can either implement or completely ignore.” She says she has no interest in going deeper into that world: quitting teaching to become a consultant or run for office. “Honestly I could not think of anything worse,” she laughs. Her passion remains Michaela.
Later, while touring the school I sit in on several classes. In one, a tidily comported 30s-something blonde with a cut-class accent is teaching French verbs. When it’s time for the children to complete a written exercise, she instructs them to open their workbooks and remove a pen from their cases, which they do. Swiftly and without fuss.
“Slant,” she commands. In unison the children bend forward in their seats and begin to write. Their shoulders remain straight, their feet firmly planted on the floor, backs tilting from the waist at an angle of 30 thirty degrees, heads tilted slightly down. They remain in this posture writing in their notebooks until the teacher commands them to sit up straight again, whereupon they snap upright with the unified precision of a Broadway chorus line.
At one point a wasp flies in through an open window and begins buzzing near a boy in the first row. He jerks, then swats it away instinctively. There is a collective intake of breath as the teacher shifts her attention to the boy. She steps toward him and addresses him directly. “It’s okay,” she says. Her tone is firm but not admonishing. The wasp continues to buzz around the boy’s face. He flinches, stiffens and inhales, maintaining eye contact with the teacher, who instructs him to breathe and remain still. It’s difficult to watch -- the boy is trembling, battling his fear and his impulse to flail, but he manages to contain himself. The wasp buzzes back out the window. “Well done,” the teacher tells him before turning back to the lesson. The entire interruption was maybe 30 seconds.
Birbalsingh tells me afterward that in a normal school, a wasp flying into the classroom would cause instant chaos. “Fifteen minutes of an hour-long lesson — gone,” she says, snapping her fingers. There is perhaps a deeper lesson also being taught, an important life skill: the ability to tolerate minor irritants and distractions and focus on the task at hand.
Sometimes, at Michaela, what looks like tyranny turns out to be kindness. Later I observe a grade 10 English class in which a teacher is teaching a lesson on communism, background for George Orwell’s 1984. At one point, asking a question about the Russian revolution that stumps two successive students, the teacher pauses, then issues a command.
The children drop their foreheads to their desks, eyes shut tight, left fists clamped above their heads. Are they being punished? I can’t help but wonder.
“The point of the Russian Revolution was A) to install a new King? Or B) to replace the existing system of government entirely?” the teacher asks. A strange thing happens. With their heads still bowed, eyes shut, the students randomly begin to open their fists, spreading their fingers open so the classroom looks a field of blooming flowers. Then they close them into fists again.
“Heads up!” the teacher commands. The lesson continues. Later, I asked my two student tour guides what on earth was going on.
“It’s so the teacher can see what what’s going on inside our heads,” the girl says.
My eyes widen in alarm. Mind control?
The boy sees my confusion. “No, no,” he explains. “It’s for our privacy.”
Suddenly it dawns on me: The teacher was anonymously polling the class to figure out which kids were absorbing the lesson. Most of my teachers did the same, but openly, subjecting the slow kids to public humiliation.
Katherine Birbalsingh hotly denies being a culture warrior. But the delight she takes in raising liberal hackles is plainly evident. Her Twitter invectives —about the grime star Stormzy (“He wears stab vests on stage… what is the world coming to?”), her irritation at being overlooked as a Black female role model by the progressive establishment (“Yes Massah!”), the importance of a moral education for children, who must be “habituated into choosing good over evil” –become fodder for the national press. A former colleague wrote in the Guardian that the Miss Snuffy blog that inspired her memoir was “closer to fiction” than fact. Several outgoing members of the social mobility commission have decried her views as cynical. And Baroness Huissen-Ece, a lifetime member of the House of Lords – a safe space for hereditary peers and Anglican archbishops – recently tweeted: “No child is born hating others… Love and support is key.”
Emerging from the calm, silent corridors of Michaela onto the chaotic streets of Wembley, I find myself wondering if she hasn’t earned the right to be a culture warrior. She shoots from the hip, but at least she’s fighting from the trenches.
Having said that, I still can’t shake the feeling that there is something chilling about the school. I realise that Michaela is unsettling not so much because of what it is as what it suggests. It reminds me of other places, bad ones from dark chapters of human civilization. Those shameful institutions in which the strong have abused their power at the expense of the weak: orphanages, asylums, residential schools, religious cults. History has shown us that when traditional, top-down institutions go wrong, barbarity often ensues. But Michaela also has much in common with institutions that many revere.
Yes, Birbalsingh’s school feels a bit creepy, even cultlike, to me. Its practices are openly assimilationist. But then again, so are most private schools, elite universities, high courts, corporate boardrooms and political legislatures. For decades, the progressive liberal elite have debated the merits of these castles in the sky while safely ensconced inside them. Meanwhile, inequality has deepened across the globe.
What would the world look like, I wonder, if Katharine Birbalsingh was in charge? If we did not teach disadvantaged children the disillusioning accepted truth: That these castles have robbed them, that their towers are virtually unbreachable, that the people inside are spoiled and callous, their leaders corrupt? What if instead we taught poor kids the language, literature, history, private codes and secret handshakes of people in the castle, then handed them the keys?
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