Interview: Katharine Birbalsingh

By Sian Williams Page. Posted

“The way to catch these kids up is to give them highly disciplined environments”

Katharine Birbalsingh leads one of the most successful state schools in England. The high standards expected of her students will serve them well when schools reopen, she tells Sian Williams Page.

Katharine Birbalsingh has long been an advocate of no-excuses discipline in schools. In 2014, she established Michaela Community School in Brent, London. The school is renowned for its silent corridors, watertight uniform policies, and assigned seating at lunchtime. Birbalsingh’s view, expressed in her book, The Power of Culture, is that students from chaotic upbringings need clear boundaries to thrive. 

Her school’s successes seem to be proving her right. In 2017, Ofsted rated Michaela ‘outstanding’ in all areas, praising the high expectations staff have of all pupils and the impressive progress made by pupils from poorer backgrounds. The school’s first set of GCSE results, received last year, were impressive. Over half of all GCSEs awarded to Birbalsingh’s students were graded 9–7, which is equivalent to an A or A*. In maths, students made more progress than their counterparts in any other state school. 

I meet Birbalsingh, 47, just days after the announcement that English schools will begin to reopen in June. The task of navigating the next few weeks is clearly weighing heavily on her mind. But she explains that she feels in a stronger position than most to reopen, thanks to a student body that is used to complying with strict rules.

“You’re more likely to succeed at social distancing in a school that’s highly disciplined,” she says. “The public don’t realise just how out of control some classrooms can be. Teachers at other schools, where the discipline is less tight, they will be genuinely worried.”

When it comes to when exactly her school will be open, and what form teaching will take when it does, she is in the dark. “I’m quite happy to do what I’m told. It’s just that I don’t know what that is right now. We’re being told there may be face-to-face teaching at secondary from 1 June; well, what does that mean? I genuinely don’t know what it means.”

“And if a head teacher needs to open up the school and needs to get the staff in, but the staff are being told not to go in by the unions, what’s a head meant to do? And if you have to leave everyone at home who has an underlying issue, then how many teachers do you actually manage to get in? I don’t know if all the practicalities have been thought through. It may be that the government has decided we don’t need to socially distance, because children don’t pass on the virus to adults. Certainly our local authority is telling us that.”

While her school has been closed, teachers at Michaela have been providing a mix of live learning and offline tasks. “It’s incorrect to think that the best type of online teaching is done live. It depends on who your intake is, so we’ve thought very strategically. For our sixth form, it will work. For the rest of the school, it won’t. It would be a waste of time; the kids would just spend their time trying to figure out how to get around it.” Her teachers are reporting that around ninety per cent of students are completing the work set for them, she tells me. 

One of the main arguments behind reopening England’s schools is concern around a widening disadvantage gap between children from poor and rich families. Birbalsingh’s students demonstrably receive a better education than most state school students, but come from some of the poorest families. They surely are likely to be among those worst affected by school closures. 

“Lots of our families won’t necessarily be able to support them with their work at home. Some of the parents are engaged, and some of the parents aren’t; some of them have had terrible school experiences themselves. Some of them don’t recognise what education can do for you. Some of them just want the kids to look after the grandparents. Some of them have five or six children in the house and aren’t able to look after them, and frankly are quite happy for them to sit on their phones all day on Snapchat and Instagram.”

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that Birbalsingh thinks concerns around a widening disadvantage gap have been overblown. “What bothers me is this myth that we’ve got in our heads that everything was brilliant before, and now everything is a disaster..”

“There’s no question that if they were in school, children would be learning more, but I think the same goes for private school kids. I know that all these Zoom lessons are happening in private schools, but that doesn’t mean that real learning is going on. I really don’t believe it is. I know kids. I don’t care if you’re rich, I know those kids trying to get away with doing as little as possible, because that’s what kids do. We know that the top ones are working all the time, but the vast majority of them can sit in a Zoom lesson and look like they’re working, and not really do much.”

“You know, those private school kids, the world is their oyster. Kids from more challenging backgrounds have a more challenging life. That has always been the case. I’m not sure the coronavirus changes it that much.” 

“Children will go back to what they used to be doing very soon, and that’s what worries me. It’s not schools being shut right now. What are children going to be doing for the next three years? What are they going to be doing for the next ten years? What kind of schooling are they going to access? Because the way to catch these kids up is to give them highly disciplined environments with the teacher standing at the front and leading the learning. And that isn’t going to happen all over the country, because that’s not what many schools do.”   

The Power of Culture is edited by Katharine Birbalsingh and published by John Catt Educational Ltd.

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