The woman dubbed as England’s strictest teacher came to Ireland recently to address educators on curriculum reform or, to put it more bluntly, to tell how schools in the UK have gone spectacularly wrong.
And, if her advice is only half listened to and heeded, the Irish teaching system could see the wheel come full circle to what it might have been 50 years ago.
Katharine Birbalsingh is the co-founder of a second level comprehensive school in one of the tougher quarters of London. A robust advocate of ‘traditional’ teaching methods, she is a scathing critic of the move to child-centred teaching which, she claims, has gone a long way to perpetuate social inequality and deny opportunities to the less well off.
Birbalsingh came to national prominence when she delivered a blistering speech at the Conservative party conference of 2010. She told delegates that the English education system was broken because it was keeping people poor. Black children, in particular, were underachieving because ‘well meaning liberals’ were setting an agenda for them where expectations were low and where they were encouraged to see themselves as being discriminated against.
Her speech sparked huge controversy; she was vilified on social media as being racist, bigoted and gratuitously contrarian. At the school where she taught, her employers advised her to consider her position, before dismissing her.
But not all were turned off by her outspoken calling out of the new culture in education, and in 2014 she got her chance when she co-founded Michaela Comprehensive School near Wembley Park, a less-than-salubrious part of the inner city. A major factor in her motivation was because Birbalsingh was ‘sick of the lazy and bigoted assumption that children from poor families would only ever get a poor education and would never achieve as much as young people born into rich families’.
Her school was set up in an old abandoned office building, it was beside a train station, and dereliction meant that the rats scurried freely across the school yard.
Birbalsingh introduced her own recipe for educational success – a rigorous academic curriculum, high expectations and strong discipline, reflected in a ‘no excuses’ behaviour policy. Most of all, she insisted that teachers should lead the learning; classrooms were laid out with desks in a row; the prevailing trend of child centred learning, with students facing each other in groups, was anathema to her. In addition, she surrounded herself with a teaching staff which, according to critics, tended to reject all of the accepted wisdom of the 21st century.
Just how Michaela Comprehensive got students – and their parents – from such a deprived area to buy into the ethos of a school that resembled a military academy is not quite clear. But the exam results spoke for themselves, being among the best in the UK. Its proportion of A-grade students is twice the national average; more than 80 percent of students secured places in the top-tier of universities, including two at Cambridge; inspectors rated the teaching standards as outstanding.
In the meantime, Birbalsingh has been named as one of the most influential figures in British education, she has been conferred with the CBE in recognition of her services to teaching, and she has been selected by the Government to chair the new social Mobility Commission.
She has urged Irish teachers and educators to resist ‘progressive’ policies. Traditional discipline and teaching methods work best, she has warned.
But whether her call to turn back the clock will be heeded in Ireland is very much an open question.