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Chris McGovern: Here’s one comp that’s getting it right


Imagine a comprehensive school full of enthusiastic, well-mannered and considerate children from a range of ethnic, linguistic and social backgrounds. Imagine a school that is hugely successful in realising the academic potential of its pupils even though over half come from families that are deprived enough to qualify for “pupil premium” funding.

Imagine a school in which traditional ‘whole-class’ teaching is the norm and where it is common for pupils to thank their teachers at the end of a lesson. Imagine such as school in the UK, today, now. Am I dreaming? No.

This is a real comprehensive – the Michaela Community Free School – in Brent. Amid the low expectations, underachievement, poor behaviour and lorry load of excuses that characterise too many state schools, a beacon is shining in north London.

Its founder and head, Katharine Birbalsingh, lit up the Conservative Party Conference back in 2010 when, as deputy head teacher in a comprehensive, she told a few home truths about the awful state of many inner city schools. She is not, to the best of my knowledge, a card-carrying Tory but she had the courage to speak out in support of Michael Gove’s crusade against the embedded defects in our education system.

Needless to say, she did not survive long in her deputy head role. She compounded her crimes against the ‘Blob’ by publishing a book – To Miss with Love – in which she lifted the lid still further on what is really going on behind the school gates and, indeed, beyond them. Made of stern stuff, Katharine was not to be squashed by an outraged educational establishment. She set up a free school, the Michaela, to put her principles into practice.

A group of teachers at the school have recently published a book that sets out their philosophy of education – The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. It includes input from pupils as well as from parents and visitors to the school. The message is simple – ‘tough love’ works both for behaviour and for learning. The school expects the best, the very best, from its pupils in all areas of school life. This philosophy is not open to negotiation and the teachers are in charge.

Such a philosophy is ubiquitous in the educational super-star states of the Asia–Pacific and, before the rot set in, was the norm here in the UK, too. One reason for success of the Michaela school might be its willingness to employ teachers who are very well-qualified in their subject but who have not been brain-washed by formal ‘teacher training’. Fortunately, those who have been through this ‘training’ seem to have been de-toxified of its worst excesses.

It would be utterly naïve, of course, to believe that a ‘Brent Spring’ has broken out amongst the schools of north London or, for that matter, anywhere else in the UK. Indeed, the stunning success of the Michaela Community Free School is not going down at all well with the educational establishment. Its vile and ugly intolerance is becoming increasingly evident. Katharine Birbalsingh told The Guardian that the “emails are the worst”:

“They wish us cancer and things like that, because they don’t like what we are doing,” … “People ask me, what’s your biggest challenge running the school? It’s the detractors on the outside. On the inside there are daily challenges. But the detractors on the outside are very time-consuming, emotionally draining. And they are obsessive.”

In the battle to improve our schools, it is helpful to understand what we are up against.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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