A beginner’s guide to: Katharine Birbalsingh

A beginner’s guide to: Katharine Birbalsingh

Best known for:

Birbalsingh shot to fame following a speech she delivered at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference. Her heated rhetoric drew a lot of abuse on social media, and the nature of her sentiment apparently led the governors of the school she was teaching at to 'discuss her position'. Birbalsingh ultimately resigned her post, and turned her blog into a book of the same name. The book of To Miss With Love was chosen as Book of the Week and serialised on BBC Radio 4.

A strong believer in traditional teaching methods, discipline, and their role in promoting social mobility, Birbalsingh established the Michaela Community free school in the deprived area of Wembley Park, Brent. The school made national headlines and attracted criticism from the sector last year when a pupil was told he would be given just a sandwich and piece of fruit to eat in 'lunch isolation' because his parents had not paid the termly dinner fee.

Katharine Birbalsingh (image source: Twitter)

Quick biography:

Nationality: New Zealander

Twitter: @Miss_Snuffy

Blog: To Miss With Love

Born: 1973

EdCentral blog:  Birbalsingh, Tiger Teachers and the Michaela Way

Where do they work:

Birbalsingh is the founder and headteacher of the Michaela Community School in Brent, London. After graduating from Oxford University (where she read French and Philosophy at New College) and gaining her PGCE at the Institute of Education, Birbalsingh began teaching in the state sector, acting as a teacher, head of department, assistant head and vice-principal. In 2007 she began blogging about her experiences of teaching in her anonymous blog, To Miss With Love. She founded Michaela, a free school, in 2014.

What's it all about:

According to Birbalsingh the Michaela Community School combines all of the best elements of top performing schools – a rigorous academic curriculum, high expectations and strong discipline – and puts them into practice in an inner city comprehensive. A fan of E. D. Hirsch's The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, Birbalsingh's school follows a mantra of teaching knowledge, 'not learning skills' and its website claims that 'staff at Michaela tend to reject all of the accepted wisdoms of the 21st century'.

Responding to the criticism of her school's methods following the 'lunch isolation' incident, Birbalsingh argued that her school has made real improvements to the lives of its pupils, claiming that some of Michaela's pupils 'make up to five years reading progress in one year', and that 75 per cent of its Key Stage Three pupils achieved C grades on a recent GCSE maths exam paper, despite not having known their times tables when they started at the school two years before. 

What they say:

'We set up Michaela School in 2014 because we were sick of the lazy and bigoted assumption that children from poor families would only ever get a poor education and that they would never achieve as well as young people born into richer families.' 

What others say:

Birbalsingh has become a Marmite character within education: she was praised as a 'superhead' by former education secretary Michael Gove, who she likewise called an 'inspiration'. But others have criticised her uncompromising approach to education. Melissa Benn in particular has criticised both Birbalsingh and Gove for portraying state education in an unfavourable light in order to drive their own political agenda.

Why you should consider reading more:

Though controversial, Birbalsingh claims her approach to teaching does have positive results for disadvantaged pupils and parents. Together with other teachers at Michaela, she has written a new book about the teaching methods and ethos employed at the school: The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. Teachers and school leaders are likely to find much to discuss in Birbalsingh's advice, though whether they choose to follow it is a different matter. 

Top reads:


To learn more, check out This Week in EdResearch: Birbalsingh, tiger teachers and the Michaela way

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‘Diversity is dire in education’ – the grassroots ...
Birbalsingh, tiger teachers and the Michaela way

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