School systems tend to be leery of trailbrazers, especially when it comes to instilling rigour and improved student behaviour.
One U.K. school head, Katharine Birbalsingh, stands out in this regard. Over the past three years, as headteacher at Michaela School in Brent, North London, she has earned a formidable reputation for her “no excuses” approach that has turned an inner city school serving largely ‘deprived children’ into a model of striving for excellence and ‘optimizing student behaviour.’ That reputation will only be enhanced by March 2017 U.K. Government report, Creating a Culture, authored by researchED founder Tom Bennett issuing a clarion call for school leadership to address the deplorable state of student behaviour in far too many state schools.
As the U.K.’s leading behaviour expert, Bennett (much Younger and unrelated to me ) puts great stock in school leadership to set the course and spearhead needed changes in tackling student behaviour and discipline, including setting high standards, being crystal clear about expectations, and having the courage to create effective “inclusion units” in higher level schools. Among his key recommendations are:
- revise the certification for all headteachers, so that it includes a requirement to demonstrate knowledge of how to create a good behaviour culture;
- introduce the use of a national standardised method that captures data on student behaviour which can then be used to compare schools;
- fund schools to create internal inclusion units for direct intervention with a goal of returning special needs students to mainstream classes;
- provide greater guidance for schools on how to manage and support the most challenging pupils.
Running through Bennett’s report is one consistent message: the importance of a strong culture of behaviour initiated by the headteacher and running through the school. It is also a message that needs to be heard on the other side of the Atlantic, in Canada and the United States.
All of this leads us back to Birbalsingh and her Michaela School. “Are school leaders born or made?” is a question difficult to answer. Yet, some educators with a courage of conviction like Birbalsingh do seem destined to lead.
Decried by some as Britain’s “strictest head teacher,” she is definitely breaking the mold and winning converts to the so-called “Michaela Way” of educating children. Born in 1973 in New Zealand, while her father York University professor Frank Birbalsingh was teaching there as a visiting professor, she was raised in Toronto, moved to Warwick, England at age 15, and went on to graduate from New College, Oxford in French and philosophy studies. Education was certainly a high priority in her Guyanese-Jamaican family, going back to her grandfather, Ezrom S. Birbalsingh, former head of the Canadian Mission School in Better Hope, Guyana.
Birbalsingh was imbued with that same passion for education. Upon graduating, she chose to teach and write (as ‘Miss Snuffy‘) about life in inner-city schools, producing a lively blog, To Miss With Love. After reading E.D. Hirsch‘s classic, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1999), she was absolutely convinced about what was wrong with today’s schools and that public education should be about teaching children to pursue knowledge, not ‘learning skills.’ In October 2010, as head of a south London school, she spoke out at a British Conservative Party Conference, lambasting the education system exhibiting a “culture of excuses, of low standards” marooned in “a sea of bureaucracy” and contributing to “the chaos in our classrooms.” Forced to step down in the wake of the controversy, she bounced back in 2014 as the founding head of Michaela, one of London’s newest’free schools’ with alternative programs.
The Michaela Way, pioneered by Birbalsingh at the state-funded school, exemplifies, in many ways, the kind of model envisioned in Bennett’s student behaviour report. The school’s head is, to be sure, larger than life, in that school community. Her book on the school, subtitled “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers,” is definitely radical by today’s mushy liberal education standards. “This book should be banned,” says New Schools Network Director Toby Young, because if the parent of any teenager gets hold of it, they would demand the same for their son or daughter.
In her book’s Introduction, “Free at Last,” Birbalsingh outlines her school’s mission this way: “‘Where’s the rigour?’ was what my friend and inspiration Michaela used to shout. Michaela loved to teach from the front. She liberated herself in her classroom by closing her door so that she could get on with what worked. She dis things differently, and so do we.”
The Michaela School rises to most of the challenges cited in Tom Bennett’s report by essentially clearing away most of the obstacles that “impede improvement.” The vision articulated by Birbalsingh and her carefully recruited staff of youngish teachers is not only clearly articulated but put into action in class, the lunchroom, and in the halls. Since the school head is skeptical about current teacher certification programs, most of the teaching staff have advanced subject specialist degrees (without official teaching papers) and are taught proper teaching and classroom management skills through a mentorship training program. High expectations pop out at you in school assemblies, on wall posters, and in classroom routines. The school, under Birbalsingh, exhibits consistency from top -to-bottom in a fashion that is inspiring to visiting educators and parents.
Michaela is different from the vast majority of public high schools in three significant ways: the laser focus on student discipline, the traditional style of teaching, and the explicit character education. “We teach kindness and gratitude,” Birbalsingh says,” because we think that children should be kind to each other and and to their teachers and be grateful for everything we do for them.” That’s her way of describing the consistent focus on educating for respect and responsibility instead of pandering, far too often, to student whims and desires.
Michaela School is only three years old, so it has yet to face the biggest test of all — it’s first full U’K. school inspection and, in two years time, its first GCSE examination results. With 30 per cent of students in the Michael school district of Bent on free school meals, all eyes will be on how Michaela fares on those national school and student assessments. If Tom Bennett’s report is any indication, it will pass the ‘student behaviour’ test with flying colours.
How important is school leadership in setting the tone and improving student behaviour in schools? Does Tom Bennett’s prescription for U.K. schools have significance as a possible guide for Canadian and American public high schools? What can be learned from the success of Michaela School in inner city London? Would the Canadian system benefit from having a model school like Michaela to help break the cycle of eroding student discipline?