THE word hero is bandied about far too easily. But someone of whom you’ve probably never heard who is a true hero is Katharine Birbalsingh.
Ms Katharine Birbalsingh is the founding head teacher of south London’s Michaela community school
Ms Birbalsingh is the founding head teacher of Michaela community school which was set up, after many battles and amid much opposition, in a converted office block close to London’s Wembley stadium in September 2014. Michaela and its founder are controversial because its ethos is based on traditional education methods: strict discipline, pedagogical teaching where a teacher imparts knowledge to children and learning by rote. To the education establishment these are all something close to evil. From the moment Ms Birbalsingh first emerged as a public figure, she has been attacked for her views, often viciously. When she began the process of setting up Michaela, the education establishment did all it could to stop her.
On Thursday the school received its first set of GCSE results. To describe them as stellar barely comes close.
Over half (54 percent) of all grades were level 7 or above (the old-style A and A*). That is more than twice as good as the national average of 22 percent.
Nearly one in five (18 percent) of all grades was a 9, compared with 4.5 percent nationally. In maths, one in four results was a level 9.
As Ms Birbalsingh tweeted: “Michaela pupils SMASH it.” Now those results would be brilliant for a selective grammar school. They put Michaela among the best schools in the country.
But Michaela is not selective. It has achieved such incredible GCSEs as a local inner city community school whose pupils are mainly from challenging and deprived backgrounds.
Over half of GCSE grades at the school were Level 7 or above
There is not a single white, middle-class child in the school. But the lessons from its pupils’ achievements are far wider than just for Michaela.
The fundamental lesson is that being an inner city school with children from deprived back- grounds is never a reason for failure.
As Michaela shows, with the right school environment, every child should be expected to achieve their potential.
In 2010, as deputy head of a school in south London, Ms Birbalsingh spoke at the Conservative Party conference.
She attacked attitudes to discipline as being far too lax: “In schools and in society, we need high expectations, of everyone, even if you’re black or live on a council estate.
Katharine Birbalsingh: It is important to believe in British values
“Why can’t they sit exams at the end of the year? We need to rid the classrooms of chaos by unshackling heads and setting our schools free.”
There was, she said, a “culture of excuses, of low standards”. The system was “broken because it keeps poor children poor”.
As a result of voicing such controversial thoughts – controversial, that is, among educationalists – she lost her job and was the subject of vitri- olic abuse from fellow teachers.
She was told she would never and should never be allowed to work in the state sector again.
But she had a rare mix of vision and determination and, instead of cowering, set about starting a new school under the free schools scheme launched by Michael Gove.
Katharine voiced opinions that the broken education system “keeps poor children poor”
History will laud Mr Gove as one of the greatest of all education secretaries. For decades schools have been in the grip of an ideology that places equality over excellence and where pupils’ supposed self-expression is valued above self-discipline – let alone discipline imposed by authority.
The tougher GCSEs at which Michaela pupils have excelled have been one mechanism through which Mr Gove sought to change this.
Another is the creation of free schools, which allowed the likes of Ms Birbalsingh to offer parents an alternative.
Opponents have attacked Michaela’s methods, such as handing out demerits or detention to pupils who forget to bring in a pencil or pen or for talking in corridors between lessons, and for learning poems and multiplication tables by rote.
Katharine on Good Morning Britain
It has a “no excuses” policy. Arrive even a minute late and you will get a detention.
The discipline – and everything else the school does – is designed to instil a belief in personal responsibility, respect for authority and a sense of duty towards others. And it works.
In its Ofsted inspection two years ago, Michaela was judged outstanding in every category. The last laugh is truly with Ms Birbalsingh – or rather, her pupils.
As maths teacher Thomas Kendall said: “I’m so proud to be a Michaela teacher today. It feels like winning the league. The kids deserve it so much for all their hard work.”