1) Daniel Hannan, “Britain’s strictest headmistress’ is transforming lives by defying the educational blob; With her traditional principles and high expectations, Katharine Birbalsingh is helping to lift kids out of poverty, The Telegraph, May 21, 2022 (5:00pm);
2) Sally Weale, “UK’s ‘strictest headmistress’ fears schools will stop teaching Shakespeare; Katharine Birbalsingh says move to decolonise English curriculum could mean Shakespeare replaced with black and female authors,” The Telegraph, May 22, 2022 (19.24 BST).
Hannan calls attention to a documentary on ITV on Sunday night (May 22), “Britain’s Strictest Headmistress”, which tells the story of Katharine Birbalsingh.
Birbalsingh did not start out as a traditionalist. At Oxford, she joined the Socialist Workers Party.
When she began her teaching career, she went in with all the usual assumptions: schools were underfunded, the biggest obstacle facing non-white kids was structural racism. But she found that her classroom experiences could not sustain those pre-conceptions. The real problem, she came to realise, lay in the attitude of the people who oversaw our schools.
Instead of imparting knowledge, teachers were overseeing child-led discussions. Instead of promoting confidence, they were encouraging victimhood. Instead of upholding the canon, they were seeking out obscure texts on grounds of identity politics. Instead of expecting high standards, they were indulging pupils from under-privileged backgrounds, and thus unintentionally condemning them.
Birbalsingh dreamed of a different kind of school, which she founded in 2014. In 2019, the school’s students had some of the highest scores in the country on national tests.
What is Michaela’s secret? A set of principles that could be made to work in any school: gratitude must be taught; phones banned; competition encouraged; learning teacher-led; national cohesion promoted; high standards expected; adult authority upheld.
The students are from ethnic and national minorities. But they are given the benefits of discipline, high expectations, and exposure to the classics. The results impressed Daniel Hannan, who cites a few examples:
As they walk into lunch, the kids belt out verses that they have memorised – Kipling’s If, Henley’s Invictus, passages from Shakespeare. This is the only time they make a noise inside; there is usually no talking in the corridors – which means no misbehaviour and no bullying.
Over lunch, they are given a topic to talk about. Afterwards, they express their appreciation for someone – a teacher for helping them, another student for making them feel welcome, their mother for always having their uniform ready.
Gratitude is a happier emotion than grievance, and perhaps the most striking feature of Michaela is how cheerful its children are….
Hannan and the documentary make a strong case for using Birbalsingh’s and Michaela’s approach to educating students, in any school.
This may be one way to form and preserve eighteenth century minds.
The Spirit of Voltaire