Review by Jules Daulby

8 Jan 2017, 5:00


Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way

This book is a pastiche of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It substitutes matriarchs attempting to create divine children with teachers (at Michaela free school in north London) trying to shape disciplined and erudite scholars.

Both rely on the same premise: a strict, no-nonsense and rigorous regime underpinned with fierce competition because the outside world is cold and unforgiving. These wards will serve you, thank you (even for a detention) while the Tiger looks on proudly. It is not so much a battle hymn the teachers are singing but a haka cry.

Joe Kirby writes an interesting chapter on curriculum design; mapping out and overlapping subjects chronologically. It makes perfect sense. However, the book goes downhill after this. A didactic, teaching-me-to-suck-eggs chapter was flick through-able which I did… quickly. Each subsequent chapter uses a similar format: criticise “most schools in England”, intersperse with “research says” then triumphantly announce “we did this and it works perfectly”. It became tiresome. Whatever magic the teachers believe they possess, it is overshadowed by criticising “most” schools.

It is not so much a battle hymn the teachers are singing but a haka cry

Their success is built on others’ failure, yet relies on the false impression that most schools are inadequate. In fact, more children are reaching expected key stage standards, more schools in England are now rated good and outstanding than ever before and the most successful region for school improvement is Michaela’s own. Other schools are not broken.

I also wonder how poor the students are (one, we are told, has a tutor that the parents pay for) and whether families mind being labelled as “disadvantaged” and stereotyped as feeding their children sugary cereals in a “language-deprived” environment. The feeder primaries may also feel aggrieved. Students that they have nurtured for the past seven years are labelled as being unable to hold eye contact or use cutlery, turning up cussing and making misogynistic insults, some defecating in the urinals. Within a week of boot camp, this changes.

At what cost is this transformation? Even lunchtime is controlled with themes given to students, “Here’s your vegetable pie and a Brexit discussion.

Under no circumstances must you talk about Honey G.” There are no displays, windows have blinds to keep the daylight out and the students’ minds in. Dreaming prohibited.

The sparrows in Game of Thrones remind me of the Tiger Teachers. It’s the virtuousness: nothing seems to go wrong. God knows I have days where I question whether I know anything at all. In Battle Hymn, however, teachers ooze with self-assurance, chapters drip with certainty and the book punches you in the face.

It reminds me of extreme ironing: impressive, but completely unnecessary

Staff at Michaela play misunderstood heroes, ahead of their time and persecuted for their beliefs. Cynics might argue that they revel in the attention but this is denied. Why, I then wonder, put a false claim on the front of the book? “THIS BOOK SHOULD BE BANNED” it screams like controversial tomes before it. The quote, however, is not from “the blob”, outraged by Michaela’s traditional methods, but BFF and fellow provocateur, Toby Young.

The other half of the quotation “because parents will want the same for their children” hides inside. A devious publisher’s device to court controversy, which perfectly highlights the marketing strategy. In short, it offers a veneer of effortless perfection driven by a hidden system of suffocating micro-management.

The Tigers question everyone other than themselves. They won’t adjust for SEND; nevertheless, clients must obey unquestioningly. No parent partnership. No excuses. Love is conditional.

It reminds me of extreme ironing: impressive, but completely unnecessary. A school is a school is a school. With strong leadership, committed teachers, consistency and a clear identity, all schools do well. Michaela has the correct ingredients to be successful but it’s not the faddy ideas in this book that make it so.

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  1. Cary Cotterman

    The rant of a typical leftist teacher’s union shill, defending miserably failing schools while smugly criticizing one that works by reverting to traditional methods.