31 May 2018

Katharine Birbalsingh: The UK's strictest teacher

From Nine To Noon, 9:41 am on 31 May 2018
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Photo: ©Larry Bray

Controversial New Zealand-born head teacher Katharine Birbalsingh founded Michaela Park Community School, a charter-style inner-city school in North West London, in 2014.

She has been called the "strictest teacher in Britain" and Michaela, Britain's strictest school, but as she told Lynn Freeman, the school's military ethos works, especially for the disadvantaged inner-city pupils who go there.

"Michaela enables these children to make something of their lives."

Birbalsingh shot to fame in 2010 at the ruling Conservative Party's annual conference where she declared Britain's state education system "broken because it keeps poor children poor." In her equally controversial blog "To Miss With Love", the "diary of an inner-city school teacher", she wrote:

"It isn't easy being hated. But any amount of hatred is worth tolerating in order to have our extraordinary school Michaela with our dedicated staff and delightful children."

Michaela is in Wembley Park, North West London, with what Birbalsingh calls "the kinds of inner city issues that you might find in Hollywood films."

"The children might be involved in gangs or carry knives...on the street.

"Yet when they come through our doors, it's this wonderful oasis of calm where the children feel safe [and] there isn't any bullying."

Michaela Community School principal Katharine Birbalsingh with former Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

Michaela Community School principal Katharine Birbalsingh with former Mayor of London Boris Johnson. Photo: Michaela Community School

Children have to attend a seven day boot camp before starting at Michaela to learn the school's strict rules, which include no talking in the corridors and demerit points given for forgetting a pen, or slouching.

"Our children love our strict rules", Birbalsingh says, because they create a space where learning can take place. Rather than feeling crushed, "they are liberated".

"The kids are really excited about learning - and they are learning an enormous amount.

This is especially valuable for children from the poorest and most disadvantaged backgrounds who don't have access to the "cultural currency of the day."

"In a more middle-class home, children might get taken to art galleries and museums and talk about the politics of the day around the dinner table but if you come from a poor background you don't have access to books at home and that kind of thing.

"School is your only opportunity to have access to [this]...cultural currency." Michaela offers French and Shakespeare and Birbalsingh doesn't believe in teaching information technology.

"All [these children] have got is the small amount of time they've got in school. That time [is] precious in lessons. It's so important that we as teachers use every possible moment in the school day to give them that exposure so that they have a chance to compete with the rest of us for the best places at university and jobs."

That means lots of maths, science and reading practice. "The focus is on memory."

"We wouldn't do things like group work because we want the teacher to be the font of all knowledge, in that old-fashioned way with desks in rows and the teacher standing at the front."

Her own New Zealand education was "a little chaotic. Too much project-based learning, I'd say."

"I'm a real believer in traditional methods of teaching.

"I want New Zealand to go down that route."

Katharine Birbalsingh is in New Zealand as a guest of the New Zealand Initiative, and is presenting at researchED in Auckland on Saturday.