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As someone who attended one educational establishment where the teachers wore gowns and were addressed as “Sir”, and another where staff were known to whip out a ruler to measure skirt lengths, the first visit to my children’s school came as something of a shock. As the headteacher showed us around the playground, two kids pelted past. “All right, Mark,” they shouted cheerily. Mark? Mark?! My old headmistress would be turning in her grave.
Yet the children revere Mark, and all of the other staff members with whom they are on first-name terms, and the school (in one of London’s poorest boroughs) is rated outstanding. This is all to say that there are different ways of getting the best out of pupils, and another of those was on show in Britain’s Strictest Headmistress (ITV).
The programme was a profile of Katharine Birbalsingh and her work at the Michaela Community School in north-west London. Birbalsingh has become, in the words of one government adviser, a “pincushion” for the Left after she gave a blistering speech at the 2010 Conservative Party conference criticising Labour’s education policies.
Critics have likened her school to North Korea. You could describe her methods as tough love. Some of the rules made sense, such as no talking in the corridors – it leaves no room for bullying, making the children feel safe. Others seemed more draconian, such as the girl who received a detention because she came to school with only one pencil, rather than two.
Yet the pupils who were interviewed approved of the discipline and boundaries, and all came across as polite, assured young people. On the evidence presented here, from exam results to the sense of pride instilled in the pupils, the school is a success.
But something was off. It looked and felt like a glossy promotional film – for the Michaela ethos in general, and Birbalsingh in particular – rather than an even-handed documentary. A line in the credits noted that it was made “in association with Sharon Brittan” – bankrolled, in other words.
No further information was supplied, but the programme would have seemed a good deal more honest if it had declared an interest: Ms Brittan is one of the school's governors.