British high risk school in disadvantaged area outperformes all

by Peter Aebersold

The results of last year's national GCSE exams in the UK, a national exam for 15- and 16-year-olds that determines their future academic careers, came as a sensational surprise: the Michaela Community School in the disadvantaged area Brent Borough of London, attended mainly by ethnic minorities, outscored most British schools.

Founded in 2014, the Michaela Community School, which held the national exams for the first time, helped students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, achieve some of the best results of any non-selective state secondary school in the country.

Even more remarkably, by relying on proven classroom teaching, orderly structures and traditional values such as authority, decency and discipline, Michaela School has created the "Brexit" from the UK's 50-year history of unsuccessful progressive school reform. The GCSE results were four times better than the national average. In addition, the school provided equal opportunity, a goal that these reforms never achieved.

More than half (54%) of all grades at Michaela School achieved a grade of 7 or higher (equivalent to the old A and A*), which was more than twice the national average of 22%. Nearly one in five (18%) scored the highest grade of 9, compared with 4.5% nationwide, and in mathematics one in four scored the highest grade of 9.

Experience with the state school system

The founder of the Michaela School, Katherine Birbalsingh, a successful graduate of Oxford University, had foregone a brilliant teaching career and began teaching in an underprivileged London school. She soon realised, however, that there was much that was wrong with state schools: „My experience, gained over a decade in five different schools, convinced me beyond doubt that the system has failed because it keeps poor children poor“.

She soon became known through her blog „To Miss With Love“, which she has been writing anonymously since 2007 about her experience as a teacher at an inner city secondary school

The greatest betrayal of our children is our silence

When she read the book „The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them“ by the renowned American school critic and representative of traditional teaching methods, E. D.Hirsch, she became aware of what the school was suffering from: „Education is to teach children knowledge, not to teach them skills.“ For Hirsch, the reason why most students end up at community college rather than university is not innate abilities or family background, but the lack of basic knowledge of cultural terms and concepts that are essential for academic advancement.

Disappointed with Labour's education policy, she delivered a speech at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference, where she criticised the British state education system and supported the party's education policy. This speech brought her national fame, but she lost her job as Deputy Head of a government-run school in South London.

In her book „To Miss With Love“, published in 2011, Birbalsingh writes: „I am worried about losing my job because I wrote this book. As a profession we are strongly discouraged from speaking out against the system. But I believe the greatest betrayal of our children is our silence. A friend of mine said: „To Miss With Love“ dares to say what we teachers always think but nobody says.“

Equal opportunitiy for the underprivileged

Birbalsingh established her own school, a free community school (free, state funded, independent of local authorities) for the underprivileged and economically disadvantaged in the London Borough of Brent. The Michaela Community School started in September 2014 with 120 pupils (840 pupils are planned for 2020). The students who came to Michaela School could not afford a private school. But they needed order and discipline in life, which they desperately lacked in their families and communities. The school is denigrated by many media as “the strictest school in Britain”. Compared with the laisser-faire standards that can be observed in British schools, it pleasantly differentiates itself.

With the new Michaela Sixth Form (last three years of secondary school) the school's tradition of academic excellence, high standards and exceptional results continues for the students. For September 2020, applicants are being sought who strive to study at Oxford, Cambridge and other top universities in the UK and around the world.

“I failed hundreds of children in my lifetime because I was part of a system that failed children. I’m determined never to fail another child and if I can do that, Michaela won’t just save them; it will save me. It can be done. We just have to think differently.”1

Responsibility, Consideration and teaching the ability to act

In the school rules it was recorded what behaviour and conduct was expected of the pupils. Birbalsingh learned that if a school is too permissive and allows too many exceptions, it runs the risk of creating helplessness, selfishness or dependence rather than responsibility, consideration and the ability to act. She believes that by lowering its standards for poorer students because of their poverty or difficult home life, a school does them a disservice and gives the impression that it does not believe in them enough.

OECD Director Andreas Schleicher, impressed by the visit to the successful Michaela School in November 2019, said: “Perhaps it is time to stop playing teacher-led teaching against pupil-centred learning and claiming that one is old-fashioned and oppressive, while the other is future-oriented and empowering. Both approaches clearly have their place.”

About Katharine Birbalsingh

Birbalsingh was born in New Zealand as the older of two daughters of teacher Frank Birbalsingh from Guyana and his wife Norma, a nurse from Jamaica, and grew up in Canada. Their grandfather, Ezrom S. Birbalsingh, was the director of the Canadian Missionary School in Better Hope, Demerara, Guyana. At the age of 15 she moved to the United Kingdom where her father was a visiting fellow at the University of Warwick.

She studied French and philosophy at the University of Oxford. After graduating she settled in the United Kingdom. She regularly writes for the «Daily Telegraph». Her book “To Miss With Love”, published in March 2011, which describes her experiences during a school year, immediately became a bestseller: it was voted Book of the Week and broadcasted as a series on Radio BBC 4. In 2017 she was mentioned on Anthony Seldon's list of the 20 most influential people in British education. In 2019 she received the Contrarian Prize: The headmistress who dared to challenge the education system won the Contrarian Prize.      

(Translation Current Concerns)


Sources: Report by Andreas Schleicher OECD
Birbalsingh, Katherine. To Miss With Love, Penguin Books 2011, ISBN 978-0-670-91899-7
Birbalsingh, Katherine et al. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The MichaelaWay. John Catt Educational Ltd, Woodbridge (Suffolk) 2016, ISBN 978-1909717961
Birbalsingh, Katharine et al. Michaela: The Battle For Western Education. TigerTeachers Take Two: The Michaela Way. John Catt Educational Ltd, Woodbridge(Suffolk) 2020, ISBN 978-1-912906-21-5

Our website uses cookies so that we can continually improve the page and provide you with an optimized visitor experience. If you continue reading this website, you agree to the use of cookies. Further information regarding cookies can be found in the data protection note.

If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.​​​​​​​