When I first met Katharine Birbalsingh, her pupils had just achieved the highest-ever recorded progress at GCSE level in a state-funded school.
We were both in Sydney, speaking at a conference, and naturally, she was thrilled to share the news. The results were a vindication of the way she runs her remarkable state school – and a gratifying metaphoric two fingers to her many detractors.
For the firebrand known as “Britain’s strictest headteacher”, an invitation from the other side of the world to talk about Michaela Community School in north London was nothing unusual.
On every continent, governments, educationalists and politicians are eager to hear about the remarkable free school she founded in one of the toughest parts of the capital back in 2014.
Her passionate presentations about her no-nonsense approach to learning and deeply moving evidence of how it transforms young lives often move international audiences to tears.
No wonder she is inundated with tempting job offers from overseas, where her talent and expertise is highly sought-after.
Ironically, the place she seems least appreciated is right here in the UK – where the limp educational establishment simply cannot stand her success.
Day in, day out, a cabal of Left-leaning academics, woke warriors and religious zealots do everything in their power to bring her down and reduce Michaela to the standard state of dismal mediocrity that characterises so many of our state schools.
Her daily battle to hold onto her job and continue inspiring a generation of children, many from very deprived backgrounds, to achieve their full potential requires extraordinary courage and strength of character.
Now a judge has lifted an anonymity order in a court case about freedom of religion at her school – and she faces very real death threats.
To date Birbalsingh has resolutely refused to walk away from the “no frills” school she set up, and the educational mission into which she has poured her heart and soul.
Caring about the basics
Squatting among other shabby-looking buildings in a grimy urban area, Michaela has no theatre or sports pitch and very few facilities for extracurricular activities.
What Birbalsingh cares about is the basics: turning out children who can not only read and write, but truly love learning.
So far from being academically selective – until sixth form, when pupils need a minimum of seven top grade GCSEs – the school proudly takes all comers, focusing on developing good character.
The headmistress is as pleased when less academic pupils land apprenticeships and other vocational jobs as she is when the smartest secure places at one of the world’s best universities.
She tells the many visitors who flock to the school that Michaela alumni are highly sought-after by local employers, who know these young people are used to turning up on time; looking presentable and ready to do a hard day’s work.
Many arrive at Michaela with woeful attainment records and even worse behaviour. Via clear rules and routines, and a zero-tolerance attitude to indiscipline, disruption to lessons is minimised, allowing struggling pupils to thrive.
At the heart of Birbalsingh’s success in running a school with a highly diverse demographic is her insistence on secularity – an approach that has not gone down well with those who would rather the school were more like a mosque.
In a cultural melting pot, where half of all pupils are Muslim and the other half are of other faiths or none, the way she creates a cohesive community is by focusing on what they all have in common: this country. To that end, the only flag that ever flies at Michaela is the Union flag.
Not for Birbalsingh the rainbow flags that flutter from almost every other secondary school in the country during Pride week – or indeed any other kind of virtue signalling.
Unity over division
Describing Michaela as “one big family,” she argues that the school must be a place where children of all races and religions buy into something they all share and that is bigger than themselves.
Promoting unity means taking a firm stance against behaviour and practices that risk creating or fuelling division, including prayer rituals – which is why she has found herself in court.
The problem is that allowing Muslim pupils to disappear to their own space halfway through the day to bow down to Allah risks creating separate camps – the polar opposite of what Birbalsingh is trying to achieve.
On a point of principle therefore, Michaela has no prayer room. All parents of Muslim pupils are informed of this when they enrol their children.
To Birbalsingh, this is not an affront to religious freedom but a vital lesson in self-sacrifice for what she calls “the betterment of the whole.”
To those who might accuse her of being anti-Islam, she is at pains to point out her own mixed heritage – and Muslim grandmother.
She has had no more truck with Jehovah’s Witness families who have objected to Macbeth as a set GCSE text; or complaints from Christian families about revision sessions on Sundays; or the Hindu families who fret that their children’s school dinner plates might touch eggs.
Pupils need her
Naturally, all of this appals the Left-leaning educational establishment and teachers whose own laziness and lack of ambition is in such contrast to her energy and willingness to take risks.
In this country, the teaching profession appears to hate her – perhaps because she shows them up.
As a result, she faces vicious trolling on social media and relentless attempts to use the machinery of the state and the courts to push her out of her job.
This case might destroy her and everything she has built at Michaela. It has been hanging over her for the best part of a year, resulting in a “fatwa” that has left her genuinely fearing for her life.
Over the years, Birbalsingh has built a brilliant team of loyal teaching staff, many from Russell Group universities. All share her ideals and delight in steering children from chaotic backgrounds onto a positive path.
If she left the school she founded, they might be able to continue something of her legacy, but the school would be a shadow of its former self. For Michaela is Katharine Birbalsingh – and her pupils need her.
Here’s hoping this grotesque legal case does not prove the last straw, and prompt her to take up one of those tempting job offers somewhere she is more appreciated.