Katharine Birbalsingh: ‘It’s not easy being Britain’s strictest head’

Her old-school rules have turned this state academy into one of the UK’s biggest educational success stories. So what’s Katharine Birbalsingh’s secret? Being tough on her kids and even tougher on herself, she tells Richard Godwin. PHOTOGRAPHS: CHRIS FLOYD

Do not get Katharine Birbalsingh started on modern music. Britain’s self-styled ‘strictest headmistress’ does not consider the majority of today’s popstars to be appropriate role models with all their bad language, misogyny and cavorting around in their underwear. She prefers the classics and recently played Beethoven’s Fifth in assembly as a wholesome alternative. ‘I’m always saying to my girls, “I want you to be strong, independent women who are going to do something that you love.” But they are surrounded by a culture that says to them, “You’re not attractive unless you do this…” it is poisonous.’

Her old-school rules have turned this state academy into one of the UK’s biggest educational success stories. So what’s Katharine Birbalsingh’s secret? Being tough on her kids and even tougher on herself, she tells Richard Godwin.
Katharine Birbalsingh with some of her pupils at Michaela Community School in Wembley, Northwest London

We are talking in Birbalsingh’s office at Michaela Community School, the London academy that she founded in 2014. Depending on your temperament, the school is either a shining example of what a determined head teacher can do within an underfunded state system, or a quasi-fascistic social experiment run by Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge with a Twitter account. Birbalsingh tweets as @Miss_Snuffy (the name is a relic from the days when she wrote an anonymous blog about teaching), promoting what she calls ‘small-c conservative’ values. In practice, this usually means tearing into the sort of ‘wokeness’ that removes Philip Larkin from the curriculum.

Birbalsingh is no fan of the recently resigned Boris Johnson, either. She thinks he should have tucked his shirt in and learned to tell the truth – but still, big-C Conservatives tend to be fans of hers.

She first came to fame with a speech at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference, in which she railed at a ‘broken’ state school system that ‘keeps poor children poor’. She would become a champion of Michael Gove’s Free Schools policy and more recently was appointed chair of the first Social Mobility Commission. One of the main recommendations? We should focus less on poverty and housing and more on ‘culture and values’.

None of this has won Birbalsingh friends on the left. However, no one can deny what she has done for her students. Her school accepts 120 pupils per year; 59 per cent of them don’t speak English as a first language and around 40 per cent received free school meals at some point in recent years. And yet they outperform their peers in far more affluent parts of the country. At GCSE, 73 per cent score Grade 5 or above in maths and English (compared to 43 per cent in England on average), and 75 per cent of her leavers have been offered places at elite Russell Group universities.

How has she done this? Rules, detentions and a culture of remorseless self-improvement through discipline. No excuses, no answering back. ‘You’re either on the bus or you’re not’ is how one staff member puts it. And she counts herself very much on the bus. So do her colleagues: Michaela is oversubscribed with enthusiastic young teachers. And so are the students who give me a tour, showing me class after class of well-drilled, attentive pupils, insisting on calling me sir, despite me repeatedly protesting that I am not yet a knight of the realm. A year 8 pupil tells me how, in her Saturday Arabic classes, everyone messes around, so no one learns anything. Here, everyone participates. It’s fairer.

It’s hard not to be impressed.

Nevertheless, I stand outside the headmistress’s office feeling a little nervous. I have interviewed Birbalsingh once before, shortly after her Tory conference speech. I came away impressed by her dedication – yet something about her conviction that she knew best about everything filled me with a schoolboy urge to flick V-signs behind her back. But maybe that’s the secret. If you provide children with a common enemy, everyone knows where they stand.

Birbalsingh doesn’t remember me. Hardly surprising as hundreds of journalists, film crews, educators and administrators have passed through the school since then. But she is friendlier than I remember, and at 48 has the queenly air of a woman in her element. ‘I wanted this school to be better than what’s considered to be normal in education, but I didn’t know that it could be this good,’ she says. ‘I’m always amazed by how brilliant the classrooms are, how engaged the children are, how much respect there is for the teachers, how much love there is.’ Her office has pictures of Maya Angelou and Muhammad Ali on the walls as well as the right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton, just beneath a clothes peg, peeping out from behind one of Birbalsingh’s Hobbs dresses.

Her old-school rules have turned this state academy into one of the UK’s biggest educational success stories. So what’s Katharine Birbalsingh’s secret? Being tough on her kids and even tougher on herself, she tells Richard Godwin.

Clearly it’s not easy being Britain’s strictest headmistress. She is highly protective of her privacy outside school, to the point of refusing to answer any questions about her marital status, love life, parenthood – anything. While inside school, other problems arise. At a recent Year 11 prom, Michael Jackson came on the stereo and Birbalsingh had the urge to dance with the other teachers. ‘I was saying to my head of year 11: “Is it OK for the strictest headmistress in Britain to dance?”’ It wasn’t, she decided.

She doesn’t drink alcohol, either: ‘I never really picked up the habit.’ Nor coffee, nor tea – not even herbal tea. She recently gave up sugar, too, and struggles to think of any other vice. Tweeting? ‘But that is very much a part of my work,’ she insists. Lots of people tell her to stop but she can’t. ‘I’m authentic. You know that if I’m saying it, it’s because I believe it. I wish we could all be like that. Too many people aren’t saying what they believe and it makes us worse off as a country.’

She credits this outlook to the old-school Caribbean values of her parents, as well as her former colleague Michaela Emanus (who died in 2011), for whom the school is named. Her mother Norma was a nurse from Jamaica. Her father Frank was a Guyanese academic who had a distinguished career in New Zealand (where Birbalsingh was born), Canada (where she gained her accent) and finally in England, where the family moved when she was 15.

She was reminded of this journey when she took a group of students to watch a production of Andrea Levy’s Small Island at the National Theatre recently. ‘They came here, they got off the boat, they experienced all the racism that their people came across,’ she says. ‘And they went through all of that so that I could live a life with purpose and satisfaction and happiness. It’s funny because both of them are very much on the left – but that’s because they come from a time when the left thought like I do.’

Her old-school rules have turned this state academy into one of the UK’s biggest educational success stories. So what’s Katharine Birbalsingh’s secret? Being tough on her kids and even tougher on herself, she tells Richard Godwin.
Katharine speaking at the 2010 Tory Conference.

Still, it was only when she won a place to read French and philosophy at Oxford that she realised how wide the educational divide really was in Britain. ‘I was so out of place,’ she says. ‘It was dominated by obnoxious people who were just awful. I always felt completely inadequate.’ This remains one of her prime motivations: she wants her children to be able to step into an Oxbridge college and feel that they belong there.

Michaela’s fans tend to fixate on the military discipline but other schools have implemented similar regimes with mixed success. To give one example, Holland Park School in West London was recently downgraded from Outstanding to Inadequate by Ofsted after an investigation found that a ‘culture of fear and favouritism’ had set in. The way Birbalsingh sees it, her success is more down to a remorseless attention to detail. ‘It’s not that you have this vision and you start here and you fulfil that vision and that’s it,’ she says. ‘It’s that you’re constantly altering the details, making things better as you go along.’

A lot of thought went into how to make class changeovers as frictionless as possible, for example. Bags and coats are banished to form rooms; talking is banned; the children pad noiselessly from room to room with books and pens in identical transparent wallets. Most schools have lino corridors as it’s easier to scrape gum off lino. At Michaela the corridors are carpeted. Much quieter. And no one dares to chew gum, so that’s not a problem.

Then there is the phone policy. Birbalsingh is trying to persuade parents not to let children get phones at all, as she has noticed a direct correlation between phones and grades. If a teacher sees or hears one in school, it’s locked up until the end of term – and if it’s the last couple of weeks of term, you won’t get it back until the end of next term. She sees rules, in general, as a game. ‘They’re always thinking, “How am I going to cheat on my homework and get away with it?”’ she says, and laughs. ‘It’s not because they’re bad people, it’s because they’re children and that’s what children do. They’re naughty and that’s why we love them.’

Her old-school rules have turned this state academy into one of the UK’s biggest educational success stories. So what’s Katharine Birbalsingh’s secret? Being tough on her kids and even tougher on herself, she tells Richard Godwin.
Boris Johnson visited the school in 2015 when he was Mayor of London. Her thoughts on the ex prime minister? He should have tucked his shirt in more and learned to tell the truth

The rules are relaxed a bit in sixth form but the idea is that, by that point, the children have internalised them. one boy told her as much recently over lunch: ‘He was saying, “Now that I’ve got to sixth form, I’m just the kind of person who does my homework, who sits up straight, who turns up on time.” I said: “Bingo!” The reason why we have all these rules and detentions and so on when you’re younger is to get you to a point where it’s just who you are.’ The idea is to give them a sense of agency.

Still, as she continues, I worry about those who fail to internalise those rules. ‘That boy in particular… When I think of what he was like lower down in the school, he was nothing. I mean, he was certainly not deputy head boy material.’

It is not, generally, the silent corridors that worry Michaela’s critics, it is this strict hierarchy, in which children are ‘nothing’ until they conform to Birbalsingh’s idea of model behaviour. When I watched all the children line up, silently and obediently at the end of break, I felt a pang of melancholy at the contrast with the laughter-filled playground at my son’s school. There was something unnatural-seeming about it, as if something had to be broken to make the children so compliant. While the school is officially non-selective, it is, in a sense, selective by temperament. There are many parents and children who will walk in and say: ‘No thanks.’ Notably, only 0.5 per cent of Michaela’s pupils have a special educational needs plan, compared to 1.7 per cent on average in England as a whole. You’re on the bus – or you’re not.

Still, listen carefully and the words ‘love’ and ‘kindness’ come up in Birbalsingh’s conversation just as much as ‘rules’ and ‘discipline’. ‘I’ve always been in this game in order to enable social mobility for kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds,’ she says. ‘That’s why I wake up in the morning.’

Her old-school rules have turned this state academy into one of the UK’s biggest educational success stories. So what’s Katharine Birbalsingh’s secret? Being tough on her kids and even tougher on herself, she tells Richard Godwin.

Too many people, she feels, are motivated by what looks good. ‘What actually helps people is a lot more complex than what looks good. In fact, it is often the opposite of what looks good.’

She could have blamed everything in her Social Mobility report on racism or housing or the evil Tories, she says – everyone would have cheered and nothing would change. Whereas there are things that individual families can do that will make a difference. Such as not buying their children phones.

Ultimately, then, despite any criticism you could aim at Katharine Birbalsingh, there is no denying that she has dedicated herself to improving the lives of her pupils, and the results so far are extremely impressive.

She says what keeps her going isn’t some steely inner core but her naivety. ‘It’s so hard to make change that I think some people give up – some people feel really downtrodden. But I think my naivety keeps me believing that it is possible. It keeps me loving the kids and loving my job. Because I do – I love the kids and I love my job and knowing what we’re doing it for: to make the world into a better place.’

Katharine’s commandments

Sneakers or heels? Sneakers. don’t we say trainers?

Tea or coffee? Water.

Shower or bath? Shower.

Indoor or outdoor? Indoor.

Summer or winter? Summer.

Jeans or joggers? Jeans.

Night out or early bird? Early bird.

Ikea or John Lewis? Ikea.

Sun or shade? Shade.

Red or white wine? I don’t drink.

Bach or The Beatles? I can’t decide. They’re both culturally relevant and important and children should know both.

Netflix or night out? Netflix.

Book or podcast? Probably a podcast.

WhatsApp or phone call? Whatsapp.

The local pool or wild swimming? A local pool.

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