What can we learn from the strictest school in Britain?
Tiger Teachers: Principal of Michaela Community School Katharine Birbalsingh and her staff have published a book to educate other teachers and parents of the benefits of strong discipline
‘Britain’s toughest teacher’ Katharine Birbalsingh at the Michaela Community School in north-west London during a visit by former London mayor Boris Johnson. The school has been dubbed ’the strictest school in Britain’.
Everyone remembers their strictest teacher – the one who stood out from the rest of the staff, who always gave the most homework, tolerated nothing but the best and expected obedience at all times.
For the most part, this strict discipline was balanced out by a few more relaxed educators who often turned a blind eye and could, with a little cajoling, be persuaded to ease off on extra work every once in a while.
But Katharine Birbalsingh of Michaela Community School in north-west London has not only earned the accolade of the greatest disciplinarian within its four walls, but the school itself has been dubbed the strictest in Britain.
She had her fellow staff members pride themselves on running a very tight ship and have just published a book entitled The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher in a bid to educate other teachers and parents of the benefits of ruling with an iron rod.
“Adults are always underestimating children and expect far too little of them,” says Birbalsingh. “Across the UK, teachers spend their days entertaining students and acting the clown for them in a bid to keep them interested and in their seats.
“But this is not the way for children to learn – we run a very strict school and not only do our students abide by the rules but they are excelling at their studies and revelling in their progress – they want to do well and we are helping them to achieve their goals.”
Silence in both the classroom and in the corridor, maximum time spent learning and regular expressions of gratitude for the opportunity they have been given are just some of the ways in which the children at Michaela are to behave.
But the principal says far from expecting too much from children, these rules are the only way to guarantee success.
“Most of our children come from challenging backgrounds as we are an inner-city school,” says the 43-year-old. “We want to offer them the best opportunities and this involves adhering to our policies.
“Teachers in Michaela teach from the front of the class, they don’t merely ‘facilitate learning’ as seems to be new thing. We are very hot on discipline and getting as much work done as possible, so, for example, if someone has to give out books in class, they will get a countdown so they can distribute quickly and everyone can get on with their work. We use every minute wisely and there is a very brief changeover between lessons so no time is wasted.”
Earlier in the year, the school made headlines when a pupil was given a cold lunch, instead of the hot meal his classmates were eating, as his parents had neglected to pay the dinner fee. And as well as jewellery, logos and make-up being banned from the premises, pupils can be sent to isolation for being caught fighting, lying or even messaging on social media.
But while these measures may seem harsh, the controversial head teacher says the pupils at Michaela revel in the strict environment.
“Children need to have boundaries in order to flourish,” she says. “They know what is expected of them here and if they work within the rules, they will do well. We believe children should be given the chance to succeed so while our policies may seem strict, we also encourage our pupils to do well so have created an environment where they can learn and make a success of themselves.
“Our motto is ‘work hard, be kind’ and we are very big on kindness, gratitude and appreciation. Every day, children will stand up during lunch and tell the school what they are thankful for that day – it could be extra help from a teacher or to another child for some kindness they did for them. Because we show how grateful we are, the children are happier, nicer and kinder to each other – and there is absolutely no bullying in the school.”
The free school opened in 2014 with 120 pupils. Today, there are 360 and it is estimated that numbers will rise to 840 by 2020. The pupils (currently aged between 11 and 14) have not yet reached state examination stage, but they have been independently tested and results show the Michaela teaching methods seem to be working.
“We have no GCSE results yet, but the children have done external exams and these have suggested that they have made twice the amount of progress across the board than would be expected for their age group,” says Birbalsingh. “And we have pupils who make up five years’ reading progress in one year.”
Birbalsingh and her staff have been inundated with interest from other schools around the UK looking for advice and guidance and this prompted them to put together a book on their policies and teaching methods.
The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher is a collection of stories, methods and experiences from within the trailblazing school, which Birbalsingh says she hopes other teachers, and indeed parents, can learn something from.
“We have had so many queries on our methods so decided to put them into writing and collate into a book,” she says. “Teachers, including myself, have written how things are from our different perspectives, what we believe in and why we are sure it is working.
“The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher explains why children are grateful for being reprimanded as they know it will make them better people. And it shows how we too have changed since working at the school – one teacher even writes about how it has made her a better parent and we hope that by reading the book (which also includes quotes from visitors, politicians, parents and pupils), other people will learn how to be a better teacher, or even parent.”
No one likes to think they aren’t doing their job properly and the Michaela school (which was named after a colleague of Birbalsingh’s who passed away in 2011) has caused controversy in Britain, with some parents and educators believing their methods are somewhat draconian – the principal, however, remains steadfast.
“At Michaela we believe that it is our duty as adults (both teachers and parents) to give children wings so they can fly. We need to be disciplinarians; we need to teach children the correct way of doing things. Nowadays, people are far too concerned with being liked and too afraid to say no.
“Yes some parents don’t like school rules and may criticise policies, but each school is unique and they are perfectly entitled to choose a different school for their child.
“People have also criticised our way of doing things, and there will always be those who disagree with us. But despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that we run a very strict school, the children have a very good relationship with their teachers and there is a great bond between them – and we can see that they are all really proud of their achievements and continue to want to do well.”
And in her book, the mother of one has a word for her detractors.
“I wish the small minority of unsupportive parents could be in our assemblies and our boot camp lessons. They would learn about personal responsibility, duty and mindset. They would understand that they, like their child, are master of not only their fate but of their child’s fate too.”
The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher is published by John Catt Educational and costs from £10.33 on www.amazon.co.uk