Katherine Birbalsingh, also known as “Britain’s strictest headteacher”, is not shy of media attention. On the very day that I talk to her there is a story about her in the paper. She has said that parents should supplement their children’s schools by doing a bit of teaching in the evening, even if it’s just asking them about what they’ve done that day at school. It reflects her view that people should take control of their own lives, not expect “the system” to deliver. At Michaela Community School, the free school that she runs in Wembley, personal responsibility and respect for authority are drummed into children with an alacrity that alarms most liberals involved in education. The last time she was in the news it was for saying that the concept of original sin was very relevant to the teaching of children – of which more in a moment.
She was raised a Baptist, but drifted away as a teenager, and remains an agnostic. She jokes that her Jamaican-born mother is the sort of born-again zealot who sings and dances about Jesus on street corners. In her early teaching career she worked in faith schools, both C of E and Catholic, as well as secular ones. Dismayed by the lack of discipline in the average state school, she keenly backed the “free schools” movement launched by Michael Gove in 2011: their freedom from local authority control allowed for traditional teaching methods and a greater focus on the moral formation of pupils. When she launched Michaela in 2014, she made exceptional use of such freedom. She must have known she was in for a fight or two, I suggest. “Yes, my views do tend to annoy people – to a lot of people, they seem to come from the dark ages. So I knew what I was getting into.”
Michaela’s ethos is clearly “strict”, but how is that underpinned by shared values? Is there a belief system similar to that at a faith school? “There is a strong overlap, yes. When people from a religious background visit, they tend to find they are at peace with what we offer, when we show them around. For example, they like the silence in the corridors, which many liberal types might say is oppressive.” She is referring to the rule forbidding pupils to speak as they walk between lessons. “My head of science is a Hindu – he says it’s the most Hindu school he’s ever seen.”
It sounds stricter than most faith schools, I suggest. “Yes, I have a Catholic friend who says that here at Michaela we get the human nature bit really right, but don’t do the grace bit. But I would say that the opposite is possible as well – some faith schools can get the grace bit right but might not get the human nature bit right. In our day, even Christians can lose their way and lose sight of how to properly raise children. I think Christians are more likely to be immune to the general degradation of our moral values than others, but it can affect everyone.” Such comments probably make her sound like some sort of Dickensian dragon. But in person she is funny, thoughtful and relaxed, with an air of urban cool. So her conservatism feels surprising – one wonders for a moment if she ramps up her rhetoric to shock the liberals and get attention.
When she was setting up the school, was she influenced by some of the faith schools she had seen? Did she want to create a secular version of that? “Yes, I wanted to have the sort of ethos I had seen in certain faith schools, especially Catholic schools, and of course it was quite hard replicating that in a secular context. It’s much easier when you have Jesus Christ to point to – you can say this is what Jesus did in this story, you should be like Jesus and so on – it’s like what happens at church, there’s a ritual basis. When you do that in a secular way you’re not able to point to an objective authority, and so you’re having to create an objectivity that the children can look to. We manage to do that but it’s harder.
“We talk about ‘the Michaela way’, as if it’s a form of religion, and ‘being Michaela’ – we talk about the school as if it’s an entity outside of ourselves – ’the school would not approve of that’ – as if it’s godlike force. It can feel a bit weird, but it works. And you can’t expect most headteachers to do that. So yes, I’m recreating a religious-style institution in a secular way. And it often feels like an uphill battle, compared to a faith school. We argue with the parents all the time, and our ethos is often not upheld at home.”
Presumably upholding this ethos takes a lot of consensus from the staff? “That’s right: when someone comes for an interview, I’m very clear that they might not like it here – for example, would they be happy to give a child a detention for not having brought a pen to the lesson? There’s no room for people not buying into our values – and that extends beyond teachers, to caretakers and so on. They have to agree with our values, of personal responsibility, duty, respect.”
Are many of the staff religious believers, I wonder. “No, a few are, but most are not – but they do believe in the school.” And they support her when her remarks are reported in the press? “Yes, they thought it was ridiculous that so many people were shocked by the original sin remarks.”
Last autumn, she caused a stir when she said that children had original sin, and good schools should be mindful of the fact instead of pretending that they were naturally good. “I was just saying that children need to be moulded into being better human beings because human nature is flawed. I was amazed that such an opinion could be deemed offensive.”
When she articulated her view, was she conscious of drawing on her Christian background? “Well, not really – when I say “Merry Christmas” I’m not drawing on my own Christian upbringing, it’s just part of our culture. Our whole culture has values that were influenced by Christianity, and I was picking up on one aspect of that – like ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – but I was talking about a less fashionable aspect.”
Does she feel part of a wider educational movement, is there a kinship with other free schools? “This particular style is still very rare, but traditional teaching has become more established – teachers leading from the front, as opposed to child-centred learning – and there has been a rise in better behaviour, linked to the rise of free schools and academies. But we go further than most, in terms of pushing personal responsibility, having a coherent philosophy of how children should behave. We are not simply pragmatic – saying that good behaviour gets good results – we have a more holistic approach, a sense of what is right and wrong.”
Does she see herself as a sort of evangelist for this form of education? She pauses for a moment. “That’s not quite how I see it, but I do think this approach reflects a more profound understanding of what it is to be human. So maybe I am a sort of evangelist for it. I certainly like it when these ideas spread, when other headteachers do similar things.” There is a surprising frankness to her manner: none of the politician-like circumspection with which many education leaders speak.
Finally, I wonder what she thinks, as a non-believer, about faith schools: is she glad that they are part of the state system? Again she pauses, seeming to think freshly on the matter. “I think in theory I’d be happy with all state schools being secular, and religion being a matter for the home – I don’t really like the idea of segregating children by religion. In fact, even here we’ve had to guard against that. To begin with, we found that all the different religious and ethnic groups were eating lunch separately, partly because of different dietary habits around meat-eating. So we moved to vegetarian food, to ensure that people were mixing with each other – we insist that lunch is a time to socialise, we call it ‘family lunch’.
“But on the wider question of faith schools, I suppose that in the real world they do a necessary thing: offering a more traditional form of education, for families who want that. If a family with conservative values came to ask my advice, I’d probably recommend they try a Catholic school – but they still might not find what they’re looking for there.”
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund