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Katharine Birbalsingh (Hazel Thompson for The Globe and Mail)
Katharine Birbalsingh (Hazel Thompson for The Globe and Mail)


Taking British schools back to the future Add to ...

The note is written in the shaky, giant letters favoured by children just learning to hold a pencil: “I am sorry for distracting the class too day,” the boy says. He goes on to apologize to his teacher for his disruptive behaviour; he knows the teacher wants more for him, because she has told him so, over and over. “I want to do good in life,” he adds. “I do not want to be a failier.”

The teacher has framed the note, and now, sitting in her south London living room, jabs a finger at it. “How old do you think that boy is?” Without waiting for an answer, she barks: “That boy is 15. He's about to leave school. How is that possible?” She shakes her head. “I loved that boy. I saved his note. But really – how can this be?”

You don't want to be disrupting Katharine Birbalsingh's class, or misspelling words at 15, or indeed trying to prevent her from reaching her goal. That goal, depending on where you stand, is either to fix Britain's broken schools or to rip apart a perfectly good system from within.

The Oxford University graduate is one of the more controversial figures in British education circles, and she's not even from here. She was raised thousand of kilometres away, in a rich country where she never locked her bike when she went to the store, and where, to her dismay, she was taught woodworking in high school. That is, in Canada.

What exactly has she done to annoy the teaching establishment and a good section of middle-class London parents? Simply, she is setting up a “free school” – a secondary school that is free to set its own curriculum. At the Michaela Community School in Tooting, a rough-and-ready part of south London, the emphasis will be on discipline, competition and rigorous, back-to-basics instruction.

“Free” schools are a pet project of the Conservative-led government, a cornerstone in its policy of wrenching responsibility from bureaucrats and handing it to individual citizens. They are loathed by people who worry that they will siphon resources and students from state schools.

And Ms. Birbalsingh's critics, like that boy in her class, know how to be disruptive. The night before we meet, at a meeting to recruit students for Michaela, a woman from the National Teachers' Union complained loudly about free schools (which are also free not to pay teachers the national rate). The meeting came to a hasty end.

“She was just so angry,” says Ms. Birbalsingh, 38. She is animated, combative and passionate about her view that poor leadership and discipline have led to declining standards in London schools. “Twenty per cent of our 16-year-olds leave school illiterate and innumerate. They cannot count the change in a shop, they can't look up words in a dictionary, they can't write their own CVs.” She leans forward, warming to her topic: “If you've spent 12 years in education and can't write out a few lines for your CV, we're doing something wrong.”

For the past two years, she has become used to people taking potshots at her; indeed, she's pretty much painted a bull's eye on her forehead. She gave a high-profile speech at the Conservative Party's annual conference in 2010 that was so contentious (the British school system was broken and failing its children, black children in particular) that it led to her leaving her job as deputy head teacher at a London school.

She has been out of work for 14 months, and is not particularly happy about it. In the meantime, she has published To Miss With Love, a memoir about teaching in a secondary school where the children fight with metal bars and don't know who Churchill was.

In Britain, where education and class are the most treacherous mines in the social battlefield, the Caribbean-born, Toronto-raised daughter of a former York University professor is viewed as throwing in her lot with the enemy. On the middle-class website Mumsnet, posters point out that she has cherry-picked the job of head teacher at her new school for herself. They say she paints an overly bleak picture of Britain's schools. They call her “that woman.”

Ms. Birbalsingh seems genuinely mystified by the fuss. All she wants is to provide an alternative to the parents in the tough, inner London neighbourhood where she lives and wants to teach: The good secondary schools nearby are hugely oversubscribed. “We're offering a choice. If you like what we're offering, which is an academic focus, an emphasis on English, maths, history, geography and languages, then choose us. If you want more media studies and citizenship, then we're not the school for you.”

That, of course, is the red-button issue, not just for parents in London but around the world: How best to teach children in a time of shrinking resources (parents in Ontario, faced with the chill of the Drummond report, will soon be chewing their nails over these issues).

Ms. Birbalsingh thinks it's time to turn back the clock to a more old-fashioned pedagogy  – the teaching of knowledge, the imposition of strict rules and clearly defined expectations. For 10 years as a teacher, she says, she was encouraged to play games with students and value their opinions over facts.

If the Michaela Community School opens in September – there is controversy over its chosen location, a building that currently has tenants – it will have an extended day, nearly two hours longer than that of a normal school, which will allow more time for math and English. Staff will enforce neatness in uniform, even outside the school. High-achieving children will be offered instruction in Latin and Mandarin. Competition will be encouraged, classes will be streamed and the top half of each grade will have its marks posted – all antithetical to current dogma.

This is, at least partly, a reaction to Ms. Birbalsingh's upbringing in Canada: She lived in Toronto from 2 until she was 15, and in the time she spent at Victoria Park Collegiate Institute, she remembers (not quite with a shudder) being taught woodworking and photography.

“My parents still have a piano bench that I made, which is nice. But I should have been learning Keats. Instead, I was wasting my time.” In her world view, skills are no substitute for knowledge.

Her family moved to England when he father was a visiting professor; when they moved back, she stayed to do her A-levels, the university entrance exams, and won a place at Oxford. She studied French and philosophy, and decided that the last thing she wanted to do was go into banking or law, like her fellow graduates.

She could have taught in Canada or some nice green village in the middle of England, but Ms. Birbalsingh, who has no kids of her own, found herself drawn to the cheeky, mischievous and sometimes very naughty children of inner London. She told them to do up their ties and sit up straight, and for years tried to make her lessons “fun,” according to educational guidelines.

Fun, she noticed, had crowded out learning. Vocational subjects were used as a dumping ground for kids from poor families, whom nobody expected much from. She would sit in on lessons at the country's top private schools and wonder why only the privileged children had much expected of them. The lack of skills among some kids who graduated from state schools was shocking.

“Did you know McDonalds has to put on numeracy classes for their employees because they can't count the change?” she asks. “There are other skills we need to be teaching them: turning up on time, meeting a deadline, sitting on a chair and having a conversation, not interrupting people.” Teaching civility and self-restraint alongside math and English, she believes, will go some way to providing those skills.

Her concerns are shared with a group of other teachers and parents, if only, at this point, a small one: 24 free schools opened in Britain last September, including one founded by writer Toby Young, and 55 more have government approval to open this year. They generally share Ms. Birbalsingh's back-to-basics ethos. 

Critics say these schools, operating outside the control of the local educational authority, weaken the whole system. They worry that this is a door opening to the privatization of education.

Ms. Birbalsingh is doing her best to ignore the voices raised in protest. “I could get upset and say, ‘This is so awful.' But I know I'm fighting for what's right. I just have to stay focused. Otherwise, who loses out? The kids.”

Elizabeth Renzetti is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau.

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