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.

Chris McGovern

  • North Angle

    Long may this continue. If I lived anywhere near Brent I’d be knocking on the door for my kid!

    • Belinda Brown

      I have visited the school – it was truly amazing – kids all sitting really quietly at their desks working away to a really high standard, kids really friendly and thoughtful to chat to at lunch time – it really is a good school.

      • Let me guess: no black or white students competing for child centred education, just well behaved and polite pupils focused on the teacher, the blackboard and learning, and no under-achievers, more or less?

        • Belinda Brown

          Yes exactly. They follow the didactic method i.e. teachers teach and pupils learn – up front teacher led classes. And those with ADHD or spectrum disorders – their special needs evaporated because they didn’t have to deal with all the stresses of the disordered classroom. Amazing place.

  • This seems to be like my days at grammar school. No-one assumed because someone came from a poor family that they were stupid, which seems to be the current belief at most state schools. Teachers taught their own subject and didn’t get involved in other issues. Our history master took the view that history concerned events that took place more than a hundred years ago, anything more recent was current affairs and he refused to discuss anything that might be considered political. Looking back, it was a great school, not like schools today when a girl at the local grammar school recently told me that “We didn’t have human rights before we joined the EU” and where “We don’t have to learn facts because we can look them up on the internet”.

    • North Angle

      What annoys me most about today’s schoolkids is that clever kids are sneered at and much michael is extracted from them simply for being clever, or good at schoolwork. This results in kids who are clever not wanting to be clever because they don’t want to be laughed at.

      The old “Teacher’s Pet” accusation – which seemed to me to be just a bit of fun back then – now includes everyone who bothers to do any school work properly!

      • I think that there was also more ‘push’ from the parents, particularly from the less well off parents. These parents wanted their children to do better than they had done. Now it’s the better off parents who are pushy, the rest don’t seem to care.

        • North Angle

          We do, trust me.

          • Too many blame the school for everything. If poor little Wayne is told off by the teacher for not paying attention, it is all the teacher’s fault. Little Wayne can do no wrong, a late friend of mine told as boy off for texting and had the boy’s mother up at the school complaining before the class had ended threatening him for stopping the boy using his mobile. This seemed to be typical of certain groups of people.

          • Compare and contrast, when I was in school, the teacher was always assumed to be right – by our parents. They weren’t always, but you had to prove it, to everybody’s parents. The way it should be, I think.

          • That’s true. If you got into trouble at school you kept quiet about it or you’d be in trouble at home as well.

          • English Pensionerwrote:

            This seemed to be typical of certain groups of people.

            Chavs? Single mothers?