When the facts change, I change my mind


I am writing this post because some people have asked for clarification of some of the quotes in the recent Guardian article by Richard Adams on Michaela.

First the context: the journalist sat in on half a day’s tour and talk with 17 visitors from the Middle East. Some spoke good English, others did not. I had to explain my thinking in many different ways throughout the day. Because their guide from the British Council had chosen to show them Michaela, (rather than take them to a school that was more representative of a normal school) I had to explain how different we were to other schools in general, either in Britain or elsewhere. I had to explain how we were trying to ‘escape from old ideas’. This does not mean that we are the only ones doing this, or that we have nothing to learn. We change our minds about things everyday because when the facts change, we change our minds.

To my surprise, they asked why we didn’t have collaboration, group work, ICT lessons etc. I had wrongly assumed that in Abu Dhabi, traditional lessons would be the norm: not so. I had to explain in very basic terms (English being an issue) what I meant when it comes to the normal discussions conducted on edu-twitter daily.

Can I remember precisely what was said over several hours? No. Did Richard Adams deliberately look for the most salacious things said to quote out of context so as to get a rise from his readers? I just don’t know.

All I can do now is say what I believe to be so.

IF people are interested in what our school believes, then they will listen. If they are not interested in our real beliefs, then they will continue to obsess about our school and the beliefs they would prefer we held. Having said that, some teachers have embraced some of our ideas and are in regular touch with us to say how much they feel some of our ideas have helped them to develop their practice.

The idea that I would suggest that we are the ONLY school on the planet doing anything is just absurd. Mind you, I’m not entirely sure Richard Adams is saying this, but certainly some people are interpreting his article in this way. If Richard Adams believes this, I wish he had asked me for clarification. I did think how funny it was that he should point out that other schools do some of things we do and then in the same breath talk about our line in the carpet down the corridors. Yes Richard, I know that they do. That line idea comes from KSA (King Solomon Academy). So does our family lunch idea come from KSA and our Appreciations come for Dixons Trinity in Bradford. Our corridors are silent because we got the idea from Mossbourne and right now we are implementing another one of their ideas where groups of pupils should never be larger than 4 at break time. This is an example of us changing our minds about something, given the good practice we saw at another school. Some of the ideas we are going to use for our Sixth Form come from St Thomas the Apostle in Peckham and so many of our back house ideas come from various schools, whose Heads have either been kind enough to invite me into their schools to learn from them or whose Heads are my friends. As schools have graciously allowed us to steal from them, we have opened our doors for people to learn from us.

Do I think that in most schools in the UK it is possible for every teacher to ask every child to pick up other children’s rubbish without fear of the reaction? No I do not. Certainly there will be some schools where this is possible. I do not believe they are in the majority. Though whether you agree with me on that point or not is not really the issue. The more interesting issue is whether it is necessary to teach ‘picking-up after others’ skills to children, or whether they will do it naturally. Is it necessary to create an environment where to do otherwise would be unthinkable? I believe it is necessary. I understand that not everyone will agree with this. And guess what? That’s ok.

The other issue about which people wanted further explanation was the comment on pupils knowing as much as their teachers. Of course I don’t think teachers think this! What I do think is that there is a pernicious culture in our schools which suggests this is the case: that pupils and teachers are equals. So that when teachers need backing over behaviour, they do not get it, because they are not considered to be ‘an authority’ and when they teach, they are under pressure to entertain and be facilitators, instead of just being teachers.

Some teachers say this environment does not exist in their school. Great. I do believe it is prevalent in our schools and you might disagree with me. And guess what? That’s ok.

You could say that it is just the experiences of all of my staff, without exception, in past schools and in the schools of their teacher friends. Maybe all of these schools are exceptional and are not representative of the norm.

But I don’t think so. I think we have a real behaviour problem in our schools that has resulted in one third of new teachers leaving the profession in the first few years. It is partly responsible for the situation where 20% of our children leave school functionally innumerate and functionally illiterate.

But I could be wrong. I am wrong about much every day. And the day these facts change, I will change my mind. Until that day comes, we at Michaela will continue to seek to escape from the burden of old ideas. Some of our new ideas will come from other schools, some of them will come from our staff, but I believe all of them are worth listening to and giving a chance to, instead of rejecting new ideas simply because they fly in the face of what we have always believed.

Sometimes what we have always believed to be true is wrong. I once believed in all of the progressive ideas that Michaela now rejects. Life taught me I was wrong.

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do Sir?

Happy New Year!



Santa is destroying our schools


I went with a friend and her son to see Santa at the Westfield centre and it made me feel ill. Maybe it was the fact that Santa’s grotto was decorated in Kung Fu Panda. Or maybe it was the zillions of stores in Westfield, rammed with people buying God knows what. Or maybe it was all the elves talking about how we were going to the North Pole, and while waiting in a room, watching the little children being directed into one of three doors, presumably each with a different Santa behind them. Or maybe it was my own description of Santa as omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. Santa knows all… I said. He knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice. He can even fly to every child’s house in the world in one night.

I’m not particularly religious, or indeed religious at all. But even I felt uncomfortable describing Santa as I might describe God. Doesn’t God mind, is what I kept thinking? Someone is playing at being Him! Isn’t what I’m saying blasphemous? I half expected a bolt of lightning to strike me down dead in the moment.

But the lightning never came.

Instead, we went on a trip to the North Pole (3D film while sitting in a sleigh in glorious technicolour and Kung Fu Panda leading the way). And then we met Santa who rubbed the 4-year-old boy’s palm saying that if his palm were to light up, then behold, it would mean that he had been good all year. Funnily enough, his palm lit up when Santa cleverly shined a light on it through his white glove. ‘Oh jolly good my boy! You’ve been beautifully behaved all year and I’m so looking forward to visiting you on Christmas Eve!’

Presents requested and photos taken, we left the grotto. The boy turned to us, confused, and said, ‘But Santa is wrong!’ He looked heartbroken. I asked what he meant. ‘Santa said I’d been good all year, but it isn’t true! Sometimes I’m naughty!’

I was lost for words.

He’s right, I thought! This 4 year old knows better than all the rest of us put together! We tried to distract him with promises of ‘putting in a good word for him with Santa’, but you could see him thinking, this doesn’t make any sense, you told me Santa knew everything and he so clearly doesn’t know anything at all.

And neither do we know very much.

It isn’t the story of Santa that is so destructive. Like everyone else, I smile at the idea of small children believing in the fat man dressed in red. I can even live with him being likened to God. But there is one thing I can’t see past.

From a young age, children learn that no matter how naughty they are, they’ll never get a lump of coal. Not only that, but we’ll all pretend that they’ve been ‘good all year’, no matter how naughty they’ve been. And while this boy voiced the recognition of the discrepancy, most others will not. They stay quiet, year after year, as we lie to them, learning that they can be as naughty as they like, and that we’ll all pretend that they’ve been well-behaved.

Why do we do this? Because we don’t want to ruin Christmas. I can imagine the headlines now… Katharine Birbalsingh KILLS SANTA!

And the truth is that I love Santa as much as the next person. But should I?

If we told children that all children, whether they have been naughty or nice, will be visited by Santa, then there wouldn’t be a problem. It is the dishonesty that says only nice children will be visited that clinches the destruction of the child’s ability to judge his own behaviour as either naughty or nice. After years of us never holding them to account for their own behaviour, is it any wonder that in school they expect more of the same?

All NQTs are told: Mean what you say, say what you mean. Don’t tell a kid that XYZ is bad behaviour and later go back on your word.

And yet, Santa’s existence requires exactly this.

I have always said that schools are fighting various societal trends that let children down.

This is exhibit number one.



To all the teachers out there…

istock_teacher_supply_crisis_3I remember what it was like… feeling under siege, trying to do things differently in my own little classroom, rolling my eyes on inset days where power point, sugar paper and ‘fun’ ruled…

That isn’t necessarily everyone’s experience of course. But it happens enough, even now, for teachers to write to me, to approach me, tears in their eyes, so happy that Michaela is as loud as she is, giving them hope that an alternative is possible.

Here is one message I got today that brought tears to my own eyes.

Hi Katharine, firstly, well done for Saturday – it looked like a great event. And I loved the ‘We Are The Adults..’ message.. Yes, this is the natural order and we need to firmly reestablish this as a key social force.
That’s not why I wanted to contact you though. I wanted to thank you for the book (which is amazing, yes, I knew it would be), but not just for the messages of this book: I want to thank you for something that happened in my school, with one of my colleagues today. She has had a hard time recently, for a range of personal and professional reasons. She’s heard about Michaela and she ordered the book. It arrived yesterday. She bounced into school this morning, having “stayed up really late” last night to read it.
She’s happy again, Katharine. She’s smiling and inspired and feeling that she can regain some control.

To all the teachers out there fighting the good fight – I take my hat off to you. You do the most challenging, most rewarding, most frustrating, most exhilarating job in the world. The tougher your classroom, the more resilient and omnipotent you are. You are what our society depends on – to sacrifice your peace of mind – to give so much of your lives – so that the future of our country might stand a chance.

Nuff respect my friends – You are extraordinary.

You are not Superman.

Superman's_classic_pose.pngThe Headteacher of a high-performing school was once telling me about expectations he had of his staff and he mentioned how he wasn’t there for the staff, but of course he was there for the kids, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.

I paused at the time in my head, thinking, whuuuaaat? But nodded politely, wondering… is it just me?

Turns out it is just me. I’m the weirdo. Because no one really agrees with me on this one. Everyone should always be there for the kids – apparently.

Except that when you’re a Head, you shouldn’t be, at least not in the first instance. You should be there for your staff. If your overarching motivation is the kids, then that’s fine. In fact, it would probably be a little weird it that wasn’t the case.

But you can’t be there for hundreds or in some schools, thousands of kids. You aren’t Superman. Or maybe you are, but I know I’m not. I depend on my staff to bond with the kids, to look after them, to make them smile, to be called ‘Mum’ by mistake instead of ‘Miss’, to help them with their homework, to give them thousands of motivational talks, to connect with them in lessons and to never relent, even when it would be so much easier to do so. And for my staff to do that with joy, as the Head, I need to put my staff first.

The answer is never, well you can look after everyone – everyone is the same. It can’t be. You are not Superman. The point of leadership is to prioritise, to make hard decisions, to figure out the most efficient and most effective ways of fulfilling your vision for the school, which presumably has something to do with the kids.

Focus on your staff and your kids will fly. I guarantee it.

Saying you put staff first doesn’t mean you don’t like the kids or you don’t care about them. It means you know that the best way of doing what is right by the kids is by looking after your staff.

It is the job of the teachers to be there for the kids. It is the job of the Head to provide an environment where the teachers can do their jobs. And that means as a Head, it is wrong to focus on the kids, unless of course you are Superman, which means you can focus on everything.




Rowing Together

title-and-quotesI love working at Michaela. I love it because I work with the best people on the planet and we all work as a team. Today was one of those days. Everyone was in their own spaces, living their own lives, doing their own thing… But there we were, connecting in cyberspace. Why? Because we appeared in The Sunday Times today.


That’s how it all started of course: in cyberspace. I wrote a blog. It was called To Miss with Love. I then got myself in hot trouble and the blog disappeared…

Then started the very long journey of setting up Michaela. So many of Michaela’s staff have found us through social media.

I read our tweets and I laugh, giggle, smile… always. Once some blogger out there spoke about how he thought there must be a microchip in everyone’s shoulder because we say such similar things.

Yes, we do. That’s why, after all, we all gravitated towards Michaela and why we are all so proud to work there. We look around at our colleagues and think, boy am I lucky to be working with you.

It is such a great feeling when you’re walking to work on a Monday morning, with a skip in your step. And given where we are in Wembley, wading through the mountains of rubbish, passing the drunkards asleep on the benches outside the school gates, the short walk from the station isn’t the most glamorous of walks. But none of that matters.

No green in our playground. It is just a car park with asphalt and we don’t have a car park because otherwise the children wouldn’t have anywhere to play. But none of that matters.

Sure our building is right next to the train tracks where the trains make so much noise, only 360 children shouting poetry could possibly ever drown them out. But none of that matters.

And when staff are boiling on the train side of the building in the middle of the summer, in their hot classrooms, desperately switching on their fans which only serve to move around the very hot air because they cannot open their windows thanks to the noisy trains, yet never complain…

You know that none of this matters to them because they just love being at Michaela.

And I love it too, thanks to them, our incredible staff, who row so perfectly together, day in, day out, loving our kids, every step of the way.

Our book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, written by us all, once again, a real lesson in teamwork, comes out on Saturday 26 November. In the meantime, you can read about it in The Sunday Times or listen to this ED Files podcast with me, talking about the school.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers

Finally… our book has gone to print. Phew. Except that now a whole new battle begins.

I am bracing myself for impact.


So sometimes, when in my deepest thoughts, I think, is it fair to do this to the rest of the Michaela staff? The book was my idea after all. But more than 20 of us have written it.

I know what it is like to be hated. But my staff, or at least some of them, didn’t sign up for any of that nonsense. They are teachers, doing an extraordinary job. And when their boss asked them to write a chapter of this book, they said ok.


So where does that leave me morally speaking? Is it right to drag a bunch of young teachers… yes, some are actually 20 years younger than me, if that is possible, which apparently it is… into a world they don’t necessarily know?

The hope is always that our detractors will leave us alone, that they’ll stop with the threats, the personal insults, the hate mail/tweets.

That’s the hope.

But I’m taking a risk with the peace of mind of some of my staff. When they joined Michaela, did they know what they were getting into?


I hope so.

Tin hats on everyone. May God forgive me.

Scientific inspiration

CvD-7qMWEAAIU4p.jpg-large.jpegHere is my Head of Science holding up a new quote for my office. Richard Branson joins Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Thomas Sowell and Mahatma Gandhi. He has large shoes to fill.

The wonderful Olivia, Head of Science, picked up the poster to pose. Why? Because I asked her to. Where did it come from? Another scientist DSGhataura (at another school) mentioned the quote the other night because Doug Lemov wrote about Michaela valuing staff and reducing staff workload  here.

DS is also a scientist. Told him to come see what we do at Michaela. Science is really different. The other day, when Michael Gove visited, I took him into Olivia’s lesson. The kids answered her questions, one after the other, covering so much… with 80% of hands in the air… on science I may never know…

Michael Gove was incredulous. So was I. It was unbelievable.

Today, we interviewed a science teacher. She did her tour, taught her lesson, met the kids. I sat with her in my office and I asked her why she wanted to teach at Michaela. “Because the staff are so happy,” she said. “Really? How do you know?” I asked. She mentioned a few she had met, the things they had said, how thrilled they are to be working at Michaela.

I smiled.

“And the fact that all the staff help each other!” she suddenly shouted. “They’re all there for each other… One was doing a countdown and then another jumped in and continued, like it was nothing…”

Again, I smiled. “Yes, we try to row like a team,” I said, “all rowing together.”

Why did Olivia pick up my silly poster and pose for my photo?

Because I asked her.

Not a day goes by when I don’t thank my lucky stars for my extraordinary staff, who row in synch day after day, smiling all the way.