Review by Adam Boxer

Head of science, The Totteridge Academy, and director of education, Carousel Learning

26 May 2022, 17:00


It’s safe to say I’m a fan, and yet I went into this documentary expecting to hate it

Review: Britain’s Strictest Headmistress




22 May 2022

I first discovered Michaela Community School over six years ago. I trained to teach in an era of group work, skills-based curriculums and discovery-based learning, and I was a true believer. Over time, I came to doubt these ideas, and the iconoclastic blogs, books and tweets of Michaela’s teachers about knowledge, explicit instruction, retrieval practice and smarter approaches to workload played a huge part in changing me as a practitioner.

By the time I visited Michaela a few years later, I saw my expectations meeting reality: genuinely brilliant teaching, a rigorous and uncompromising curriculum, students desperate to impress and expressing themselves with eloquence and poise. I later paid for my entire department to attend a Michaela CPD conference and we came away full of ideas and inspiration.

So it’s safe to say I’m a fan, and yet I confess that I went into this documentary expecting to hate it. I’ve found some of the public statements that “Britain’s strictest headmistress” has made recently needlessly combative, inflammatory and often utterly pointless. Birbalsingh appears intent on contributing to a culture war that benefits nobody but outrage-mongering newspaper editors, and I feared some of that rhetoric might seep into the documentary.

On the other hand, if it was going to hark back to those early Michaela years and present innovative and applicable ideas about education, I was ready to love it.

For better or worse, it was neither. Birbalsingh was typically blunt about her summation of the education system, but she didn’t stray too far into nonsense about decolonisation, silliness about maths being too hard for girls or government flag-waving about what a wonderful place Rwanda is. So, not a lot to hate. But there was nothing about teaching, curriculum or workload either. So I found myself stranded between two poles of excitement and, sadly, quite uninterested.

My indignation never graduated past lukewarm

There were times when I felt the stirrings of righteous fury, but my indignation never graduated past lukewarm. Yes, I find some of the micromanagement around behaviour distasteful. Yes, I find the constant harking back to the 1950s hilariously naïve. Yes, I find the relentless focus on individual responsibility for success and the sidelining of such petty concerns as money, racism and sexism blinkered. And I don’t agree with hard binaries like those presented – between authority and chaos, between “racism everywhere” and individual agency, between “being polite” and being “really rude”, even between going to Michaela and attending a school in Africa. They are silly and damaging; but emotionally, that’s as far as it went. I’d heard it all before.

Maybe it’s just me, but I simply don’t find Michaela that controversial any more. There are lots of schools with strong approaches to behaviour. Lots that employ explicit instruction and knowledge-rich curriculums. Perhaps not as well as Michaela, but they are at least rowing in the same direction.

Birbalsingh is clearly driven by a sense of mission. She wants to improve her students’ lot, but she also wants to “convince the world”. Eight years ago, this documentary would have excited me, challenged me and made me question my philosophies and pedagogies. Now, it just feels a little dated.

The fact is that many schools look to Michaela and say “that’s the bar”. But reaching that bar is damn hard, and what they need now is not platitudes and lazy binaries but the nuts and bolts of how to do what Michaela did. That’s where the real interest lies and where real progress can be made.

The true test of Birbalsingh’s legacy will be the impact she has on others. Unlike other highly effective headteachers, she’s put herself in the public arena specifically to achieve this. That’s her choice, and I don’t fault her for it. But if that early period of intellectual foment and creative generation has ceded to hackneyed tropes, she will most definitely fail in the endeavour.

In the meantime, this film neither excites nor angers. It leaves one not with a bang, but with a whimper. Let’s hope that’s not the fate of the school’s legacy.

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