'Britain's strictest teacher' is a Kiwi and she has some advice for our schools

Long Lunch 31/05/2018
Photo credit: File.

She’s been labelled by UK media as ‘Britain’s strictest teacher’ – but this famously outspoken New Zealand-born head teacher is making waves in London’s education scene.

Katharine Birbalsingh runs a charter school, Michaela Community School in London’s Wembley Park, of which she founded in 2014.

She’s not afraid of punishing pupils, handing out detentions to children who speak while they move between classes. Ms Birbalsingh wouldn’t call it punishment though, but rather “order and structure”.

We wanted to do things differently.

“We are a free school. Free schools have the opportunity to be a bit disruptive and do things differently, which I think is good for any organisation and any system to have some parts of it doing things differently,” Ms Birbalsingh told RadioLIVE’s Wendyl Nissen.

“The way in which we do things differently is we have very high expectations of our pupils, even though it’s in a city – you can imagine that some kids down the road have died from being nice to people, there are gangs,” she explained. “And yet, when you come into our school it’s an oasis of calm. The kids are really excited about learning - and they are learning an enormous amount.”

Speaking at a Conservative Party conference in 2010, Ms Birbalsingh said Britain’s state education system was broken and kept poor children in poverty.

In response, she decided to open her own school.

“Children who come to us with a reading age of a five or six year old, even though they’re 11 years old, within two years we’ll catch them up to their chronological reading age.

She says that is thanks to the school’s robust teaching methods and expectations.

And as ‘modern’ schools move toward a digitally focused curriculum, Ms Birbalsingh is doing the opposite.

She doesn’t believe in teaching information technology, opting to teach Shakespeare and French instead.

We’re traditional. We believe in lots of reading, writing and maths.

“And we believe in breaking the subject down to its smallest component and then building back up from that – the way in which teaching has been done for hundreds of years.”

“It’s only in the last 50 years that things have become a lot more progressive across the world. And it’s only now that some countries are coming to realise that those progressive methods haven’t been working,” Ms Birbalsingh told RadioLIVE.

Ms Birbalsingh told RadioLIVE that she is concerned New Zealand is going down a progressive route.

“Cutting out testing, moving to project based learning.

“If you do that, in 20-30 years you’ll realise that actually that was the wrong decision – as we are coming to realise in many ways in Britain,” she said.

“So that’s how we’re doing things differently – very traditional, teacher stands at the front of the class. We believe that the teacher should be leading the learning.”

Listen to the full interview with Katharine Birbalsingh above.

The Long Lunch with Wendyl Nissen, 12pm - 3pm on RadioLIVE and streaming live to the rova app on Android and iPhone.