UK’s ‘strictest headmistress’ fears schools will stop teaching Shakespeare

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<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The headteacher of a school described as the strictest in Britain has warned that William Shakespeare will disappear from classrooms as schools in England come under pressure to decolonise and diversify the curriculum.

Katharine Birbalsingh, the controversial headteacher at Michaela community school in north London, said Shakespeare had already been “lost” in many places in the US and cautioned: “We are following America in this way.”

In an interview with the Guardian, Birbalsingh said schools were under a lot of pressure to change what they are teaching, but stressed the importance of keeping “dead white men” on the curriculum.

Reading lists for GCSE and A-level English literature and drama have recently been broadened to include more black and minority ethnic writers, and campaigners have called for black history to be fully embedded in the curriculum.

Asked about decolonising the curriculum, Birbalsingh said: “I think that dead white men have something to offer us. Shakespeare has been influencing literature for over 400 years. It’s right to teach Shakespeare. The ideas in Shakespeare are universal.”

She went on: “I’m worried about the trend in America that is now influencing what’s happening over here, where eventually we will do away with cultural icons like Shakespeare.”

Currently, pupils in England are still required to study Shakespeare. Students sitting AQA GCSE English literature exams this summer will have studied one of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing and Julius Caesar.

“The point is the time will come where I don’t think that will happen any more,” said Birbalsingh. “I think that in America he has been lost in many places. And we are following America in this way.”

Asked what would replace Shakespeare, she said: “Any number of different black and female authors. Maybe they’ll have me in there. The point is I’m a black female author. I would never suggest reading my books instead of Shakespeare or Dickens or any number of other dead white men. My colour and my gender should not be so important.”

Birbalsingh stressed she was not saying she did not want to have any black authors on the curriculum but added: “I disagree with this idea that you can only identify and appreciate an author who is of your skin colour. You should be able to appreciate anyone really, and what matters is how good they are.”

She said that pupils taking A-level English at Michaela study Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island. “I think it’s excellent. So I’m not saying only teach dead white men. I’m just saying don’t campaign to get rid of them.”

Birbalsingh has allowed cameras into her free school for the first time for a documentary on ITV entitled Britain’s Strictest Headmistress, which aired on Sunday.

She founded the Michaela community school eight years ago and it has since become the most talked-about education experiment in England.

But far from being a warts-and-all portrait of a school and its controversial headteacher, it is an authored documentary in which she sets out her vision, not just for education but for raising children and making a better society.

Her manifesto is based on 12 golden rules, which include: don’t give children unsupervised access to the internet, teach them gratitude, keep your standards high, hold the line, and don’t let them listen to grime or drill music because “that’ll ruin their lives”, she said.

“White middle-class people don’t realise that, because their children can dip in and dip out and it’s not an issue. Whereas your black kid in the inner city – it could literally destroy your life.”

Birbalsingh told the Guardian: “This isn’t me saying, oh my goodness, parents are doing a terrible job. This is me saying, these things are going to help us all be better at raising children as a society.”

She first came to prominence at the 2010 Tory party conference where she made a speech about Britain’s “broken” education system, which caused uproar among fellow teachers and cost her her job.

Her school has become famous for its strict “no excuses” behaviour policy and its success – it was judged “outstanding” by Ofsted and in 2019 more than half of all GCSE grades were level 7 or above. Her many fans include Toby Young, Michael Gove and Peter Hitchens.

She was appointed as the government’s new Social Mobility Commissioner and has attacked “woke culture”, engaging in regular Twitter spats on any number of issues including white privilege, racism, Ofsted and original sin. Last month she was criticised after she suggested girls don’t choose physics A-level because they dislike “hard maths”, comments she said were taken out of context.

“People misquote me,” she said. “People say all sorts of nonsense. I spent 20 minutes talking about the cultural issues for why girls might not choose STEM subjects.” Besides, she said: “I don’t think we should fulfil quotas. If I don’t respect my girls well enough at 16 for us to say, ‘No, you must do physics, because we need to have 50% girls doing physics’, I just think that’s wrong.”

Earlier this week Birbalsingh fought off her critics over a quotation painted on an internal wall of the school, which an eagle-eyed observer spotted had been misattributed to Winston Churchill. She can see why people picked up on the mistake. “But demand a public apology? What? For something on the wall in my school? It’s absurd.

“Of course point out a mistake. Laugh at it if you want. I don’t understand what the big deal is. Yeah, we have a misattributed quote. We’ll change it. Like, who cares?”

On white privilege, she acknowledges it exists, but says there are lots of other kinds of privilege, like “pretty privilege”, “tall privilege” and “good family privilege”, and in any case, she says, it’s damaging to black children to keep on about racism and white privilege in school.

“That’s all they ever hear on the outside. We have to counter that somehow. I cannot tell you how debilitating it is to hear as a black child that the world is against you, that everyone’s a racist and that you’ll never make it. This is not helpful to any of us.”

Birbalsingh agreed to the documentary because she wants millions of people to see what happens at Michaela and for parents and teachers to be able to learn from her experience. “I’m not courting fame at all,” she says.

“It’s more that I feel as a society we’re making bad decisions for ourselves, for our children. And many people cannot speak out about it because they’ll lose their jobs or they’ll lose their friends.

“The thing is, I’ve already lost my friends when I gave a speech to a Conservative party conference, so I’m able to speak, and I feel I have a duty to do so.”

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