No phones, no slouching, no excuses: Britain’s strictest teacher has lessons for Irish schools

Katharine Birbalsingh says Irish parents should resist ‘progressive’ education policies

It is mid-morning and Katharine Birbalsingh is sitting in her office where she has been since 6.45am. It's where she spends most of the time, she says, and not stalking the corridors with "whips and chains" and "making children's lives a misery".

That, however, is the impression many have of a school principal dubbed "Britain's strictest teacher". At Michaela Community School, an inner-city secondary school near Wembley in London, the school's emphasis on order and discipline resembles a military academy.

Detentions are issued for the slightest errors: forgetting a pen, slouching, tutting or rolling eyes and for persistently turning around in class after being told not to. The “no excuses” behaviour policy extends to an insistence on neat school uniforms, silent corridors and timetabled toilet breaks.

I'm here to ring the alarm bell for all of you to say 'don't go down the route of no rules and no uniform', because you will just have chaos in the end

Birbalsingh is a robust advocate of “traditional” teaching approaches and rails against the use of smartphones, social media and “progressive” ideas like child-centred learning and allowing children to teach themselves.

She seems to be doing something right. The exam results for the school – established in 2014 – are among the best in the country. Its proportion of A-grades is twice the national average. More than than 80 per cent of students secured places in the top tier of universities last year, including two at Cambridge. The record of the school – rated “outstanding” by inspectors – is remarkable given its location in a grittier part of London.

Birbalsingh, who will speak to Irish educators on Saturday at a conference on curriculum reform, says she is passionate about well-run schools. That, she says, is why she is worried about reports that the Irish system has been moving towards a more “progressive” and child-centred approach.

The notion of schools where children don’t wear uniforms, where rules are not strictly enforced, where students teach each other or refer to their teachers by their first name is anathema to her.

“I’m here to ring the alarm bell for all of you to say ‘don’t go down the route of no rules and no uniform’, and so on, because you will just have chaos in the end,” she says.

“I am not some weirdo who just loves uniforms, right? ... but we’ve got to pretend like we care, right? ... As an adult you have got to make the rules about little stuff. Because if you don’t make it about the little stuff, the big stuff is what comes into play,” she says.

“The way in which a uniform works wonderfully is that you are outraged: ‘just look at that tie – so disappointing! How could you come to school looking like that?’ Obviously, we don’t actually care about ties, but it means that a child doesn’t bring a knife in.”

Don't assume they're going to be taught well. The fact is parents need to be teaching their kids at home

“People laugh when I say that ... I can tell you that in the inner city that is what happens. The end result of not dealing with the little stuff is that the big stuff happens.”

The same rules should also apply for schools in middle-class communities, she says.

“The big stuff there might just mean students skive from school once in a while or they shout at each other. Maybe you can deal with that. But do you really want kids skiving? Do you really want kids shouting at each other? Wouldn’t you rather have more order and structure? Would you rather the kids be inspired and want to learn and do lots of homework and push themselves to their absolute limit? That’s what happens here at Micheala.”

Birbalsingh rose to media attention when she addressed the Conservative Party conference in 2010. The daughter of a Jamaican nurse and an academic of Indo-Guyanese origin, she told delegates that the education system was broken because it “keeps people poor”.

She railed against falling standards and said Black children underachieved because of what "well-meaning liberals" were doing to them. In the ensuing controversy, she lost her job. Three years later she opened Michaela Community School. Boris Johnson is said to be a fan and she was recently chosen to chair the British government's social mobility commission.

In relation to the Irish education system, she says she worries when she hears about schools wanting to ditch some of the “ritual and tradition” associated with their Catholic background in the rush to embrace more progressive teaching methods.

“You assume if you get rid of all that, that all the good stuff will stay. I’m telling you, it won’t stay. We’re living proof of that. You should take heed of that,” she says.

While most schools are moving towards teachers being less of a “sage on the stage” and more of a “guide by their side”, she says this is a big mistake.

Teachers, she says, must lead the learning. A traditional classroom where desks are in rows, facing the teacher, means that the teacher is the authority in the classroom and is leading the learning.

She has little time for “progressive” or child-centred teaching approaches, such as assembling children in groups facing each other.

“In a progressive classroom like that, the teacher is not leading the learning... The fact is that the teacher needs to impart knowledge. The caricature of the traditional classroom is that children are sat there, repeating what the teacher says...

“The reality of the traditional classroom is that you do something, then have a class discussion. You might have a bit of pair work. But the point is all these exercises that are happening are being led by the teacher. The teacher is in control.”

Birbalsingh also has strong words for parents: don’t assume that you can rely on the school to properly educate your children.

“Don’t assume they’re going to be taught well. The fact is parents need to be teaching their kids at home. Parents will say, ‘that’s not my job’. But the fact is there’s a whole lot of parents who do believe it is their job.

“And when your child is going up for a job next to their child, your child is not going to be able to compete. And that’s because you thought ‘I’ll just leave it to the State to do it’.”

Do not give them unsupervised access to the internet. Do not be surprised when your child is telling you how depressed and anxious they are

She also warns that parents may be, unwittingly, contributing to high rates of anxiety among schoolchildren due to hands-off parenting.

“Parents – get them off phones. They should not have a smartphone until they’re 16 years old and even then I’d be saying, not then. And do not give them unsupervised access to the internet. Do not be surprised when your child is telling you how depressed and anxious they are,” she says.

Social media, she says, is destroying girls’ sense of confidence and self-worth and leading boys into negative circles and gang-style behaviour.

“Also, are they getting breakfast. Are they in bed by 9.30pm every night? Are you talking to them every day? Are you talking about their schoolwork? Are you supporting them? Are you just leaving them to themselves?”

“When they’re four years old, parents are there for their kids all the time. When they’re 14 they think ‘well, they’ve grown up, they can be on their own’. That is the most crucial time that you need to be holding your child’s hand. So, children get anxious because you’ve just abandoned them as parents.”

Birbalsingh, for all her tough-talk, admits she is far from perfect. She can be late, she says, and doesn’t drive. But she is happy to keep her mystique as the school’s uncompromising headmistress.

“The fact is, we have rats in our yard. We’re right next to the trains. We’re in an old office building,” she says. “We’ve existed since 2014. So, we create an aura around the whole school, around each class, around me. They call me the ’Wizard of Oz. I come out at assembly and the children have to stand and people think ‘oh well, she’s obviously just got a big head’. No, it’s just that I’m the headmistress. I’m in charge. So, we’ve created this aura around me.”

Katharine Birbalsingh is speaking at a free online conference on "navigating curriculum change" on Saturday, March 5th, organised by Dublin West Education Centre and Monaghan Education Centre (dwec.ie).

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