Katharine Birbalsingh, the outspoken head of the outstanding Michaela Community School – who has been dubbed Britain’s strictest teacher – has been made chief of the social mobility commission, tasked with helping disadvantaged children get ahead.
In this interview from July last year, Mattie Brignal speaks to Birbalsingh about her school’s controversial philosophy, how a victim mentality is holding children back and why she’s still teaching dead white men.
The fact that fame and teaching don’t usually go hand in hand makes Katharine Birbalsingh’s rise to prominence all the more striking. Overnight, after addressing the 2010 Conservative Party Conference, she became Britain’s most notorious and controversial educator.
She launched a scorching critique of the country’s education system, declaring it “broken” and “blinded by leftist ideology”. She told of how kids were “lost in a sea of bureaucracy” and claimed that “black children underachieve because of what the well-meaning liberal does to them.”
Birbalsingh went down a storm and became a pariah in the process. The backlash from the teaching establishment forced her to resign as deputy head of a Streatham academy. She was told she would never work in the state sector again. The episode ruined her life, she says.
Birbalsingh’s purgatory ended in 2014 when she founded Michaela Community School, a radical free school in the deprived area of Wembley Park where she remains headmistress. “We had lots of detractors who tried to stop us from opening,” she tells me. “There were protests. People would shout names at me. They would infiltrate our parents’ evenings to disrupt them. I was branded a Conservative and they hated me. They thought I was evil.”
Under the pseudonym “Miss Snuffy” she has written about her life as a teacher for over a decade. In 2011 she turned the blog into a novel, To Miss, With Love – an exposé of classroom life – which was serialised on Radio 4. She has blogged for the Telegraph and penned a column for Standpoint Magazine.
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement coupled with Birbalsingh’s outspoken views on race have put her back in the spotlight in recent weeks. She is a commentator in high demand.
Michaela divides opinion just as much as its head. The draconian behaviour code enforces silence in the corridors and a zero-tolerance stance on smartphones which Birbalsingh has likened to “heroin” for kids. The school made headlines when it emerged that pupils were being given detention if their parents failed to pay lunch fees.
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It is hard to argue with the results, though. More than half of Michaela’s first batch of GCSEs were at least grade 7 (an A in old money) – twice the UK average. Ofsted has rated the school outstanding.
A newly published book, Michaela: The Power of Culture – written by the teachers and edited by Birbalsingh – sets out the school’s traditionalist philosophy of tough love, self-discipline, duty, personal responsibility and patriotism. It feels authentic; teachers are reporting from the chalk-face, calling things as they see them with the authority of the daily slog behind them.
The book is a manifesto rather than a prospectus. And with chapters titled “Schools Should Teach Dead White Men” and “Why I Am Still Talking To White People About Race” it’s easy to see why it has ruffled a few feathers. I ask Birbalsingh about the dead white men chapter and the growing calls to divide the teaching of history into black and white.
“There’s a weird sort of essentialism going on – stemming from identity politics – that says that a black child couldn’t possibly understand Shakespeare because he was white. It’s the same with French and algebra. Well-meaning teachers think to themselves: ‘I want the children sitting in front of me to engage with the topics I’m teaching so instead of teaching French verbs I’ll teach them some French rap or, rather than Shakespeare, we’ll do a modern black author.’ I’ve got nothing against modern black authors – I am one! – but I don’t think schools should be teaching my stuff instead of Shakespeare. His themes bind us together as human beings more than race does.”
“It doesn’t really matter what colour your skin is,” she goes on. “That’s one of the beautiful things about modern Britain. If we see everything through the prism of race then nothing has changed. Once upon a time it was the far-right who did that. Sadly, it’s now the progressives who look at the child and see his race first.”
I had wondered how the country’s “strictest head teacher” would come across. But Birbalsingh’s manner is closer to the gently inspirational Miss Snuffy. She is chirpy and matter-of-fact, occasionally slipping into the near-manic enthusiasm of an impassioned teacher. She is reluctant to talk about her private life – she is “completely dedicated” to her work at Michaela. So I start by asking her why the school is particularly focussed on teaching British history.
“Because we’re all British,” she deadpans. “This should be obvious.”
I feel like a slow student.
“Every child ought to learn the history of their country. It’s not that British history is more important than other history. It’s just that we are British, so that’s what we should learn.”
Birbalsingh has said that singing Jerusalem and I Vow to Thee My Country instils a sense of pride in Michaela’s students. I put it to her that patriotism has become a bit unfashionable.
“Yes, it has. We divide each other up by race as opposed to us all belonging to the nation state. And it’s really worrying. We’re going back to tribal times, moving away from the Western tradition which binds people together according to their nation state. British values and a British way of life – that’s what should bind us together! And that’s not to say that race doesn’t exist. I believe it does and there are different experiences that people have. But every child deserves to feel like they belong in Britain and to learn their own history. Feeling like you belong is a one of the basic building blocks for being successful.”
This last insight feels personal. Birbalsingh, who is 46, was born in New Zealand to a Jamaican mother – a nurse – and a Guyanese academic whose family was so poor they couldn’t afford to put shoes on his feet. She grew up in Toronto but moved to England in her teens after her father secured a post as a visiting fellow at the University of Warwick and then as a professor at York University. She attended a “forward thinking” comprehensive and went on to read Philosophy and French at New College, Oxford where she was a self-proclaimed leftie.
Being an outsider didn’t prevent Birbalsingh from achieving success. One of the things she says is preventing today’s children from doing the same is the victim mentality that the educational establishment cultivates in many youngsters.
“It holds kids back,” she says. “The thing that people are struck by when they come to the school is how resilient and ambitious the kids are. I think that comes from the fact we don’t tell them they’re victims. We don’t indulge in blaming the world for obstacles that may be in front of us. And some of our children have some serious obstacles in their way. Instead, we teach them gratitude because there’s always someone who’s worse off than you. If, on the other hand, you indulge a child in victimhood and tell him that the world is against him then he’ll never make anything of his life – it’s impossible. Too often this is done by very well-meaning people. They just don’t realise the damage they are doing.”
Birbalsingh is – along with Michael Gove – a fan of the American educator and academic E.M. Hirsch whose big idea is that education should be about teaching knowledge, not learning skills.
“If we want to make life better for our children – whether they’re black or white – it kind of doesn’t matter who’s failing. What’s really failing is the education system – failing to embed certain things in their heads. I was a French teacher and I would often come across kids in their final year who didn’t know that Paris was the capital of France.”
“Improving the education system is what will improve black lives, white lives, and everybody, really! It would improve our country. People get side-tracked by more romantic notions. Revolutionising the education system takes a lifetime and requires dedication – it’s far easier to put a black box on Instagram.”
Does she think the Black Lives Matter movement is furthering the cause of racial justice? So far she has been strident and emphatic during our conversation. Now she slows down and becomes pensive.
“In order for people to live in harmony in a multicultural, multiracial country it’s true that we need to talk about issues of difference and make people more aware. But what we can’t do is bash people over the heads and call them racist. Because they’re not going to come with us. You’ll end up as enemies. Some black people would say ‘it’s for white people to make the first move and understand us.’ We can keep shouting this but things won’t improve for anybody.”
So what’s the solution?
“Each person, whoever they are, needs to be forgiving, even if you feel that the other side has done terrible things. And it’s important for both sides to be accurate about what the other has done. For black people it’s important to ask whether racism is as bad as it was in the ’50s – are there still laws against us? Are we still spat at in the street or called names regularly? In fact, there’s a freedom about race here in Britain – compared to the rest of the world – which is quite extraordinary. We need to start from a point that is real. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to improve. What I’d say to the white side…”
She checks herself and sighs.
“See – isn’t it awful that this is how things have become. It’s reduced us to race – we’re first black or white, not British… Anyway, the “white side” needs to think about why black people are angry. Why is it that they’re saying that white people should think about these things? Too often I see white people on Twitter who dismiss all claims of racism. Maybe they think that there are 200 far-right skinheads in the country, and that’s it. They don’t see racism as any more complex than that. But, on the other side, there are far too many black people who exaggerate the impact of racism. And what you get is a Palestinian/Israeli situation where neither side will budge and you’re at a standstill.”
I ask if she feels any more optimistic about the British education system ten years on from her notorious speech.
“Yes, absolutely. Michael Gove and Nick Gibb (education minister) have done an extraordinary job and things have moved on massively from 2010.”
“That being said, it’s a long fight. I don’t expect to win it in my lifetime. It’s like slavery – it didn’t just end. The abolitionists had been going for decades. It’s the same with education – it’s a long battle. So you give what you can when you’re alive. Then you hand the baton on.”