nobody movie_Britain’s Strictest Headmistress on ITV

I first discovered the Michaela Community School over six years ago. I learned to teach in an era of group work, competency-based curricula, and discovery-based learning, and I was a true believer. Over time, I began to doubt these ideas, and Michaela’s teachers’ iconoclastic blogs, books, and tweets about knowledge, explicit instructions, retrieval exercises, and smarter approaches to workload played a big part in transforming me as a practitioner.

When I visited Michaela a few years later, I saw that my expectations were being fulfilled: truly brilliant teaching, a rigorous and uncompromising curriculum, students keen to impress and express themselves with eloquence and composure. I later paid my entire department to attend a Michaela CPD conference and we walked away full of ideas and inspiration.

So it’s safe to say I’m a fan, and yet I’ll confess that I went into this documentary expecting to hate it. I’ve found some of the public statements that have made ‘Britain’s strictest headmistress’ unnecessarily combative, inflammatory and often utterly pointless in recent times. Birbalsingh seems intent on contributing to a culture war that benefits no one but outrageous newspaper editors, and I feared some of that rhetoric might seep into the documentary.

On the other hand, if it wanted to hark back to those early Michaela years and present innovative and applicable ideas about education, I was willing to love it.

For better or for worse, it was neither one nor the other. Birbalsingh was usually blunt in her summary of the educational system, but she didn’t go too far Nonsense about decolonization, Stupidity about math being too hard for girls or government flag waving about what kind wonderful place is Rwanda. So not much to hate. But there was also nothing about teaching, curriculum or workload. So I found myself stranded between two poles of excitement and unfortunately quite disinterested.

My outrage never went beyond lukewarm

There have been times when I have felt the stirrings of righteous anger, but my indignation never exceeded lukewarm. Yes, I find some micromanagement around behavior distasteful. Yes, I find the constant throwback to the 1950s hilariously naïve. Yes, I find the relentless focus on individual responsibility for success and turning off the little things like money, racism and sexism ridiculous. And I don’t agree with such harsh dichotomy – between authority and chaos, between “racism everywhere” and individual agency, between “being polite” and “being really rude”, even between visiting Michaela and going to a school in Africa. They are stupid and harmful; but emotionally it is so far. I had heard all of this before.

Maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t find Michaela that controversial anymore. There are many schools with strong approaches to behavior. Many using explicit instructions and knowledge-rich curriculum. Maybe not as good as Michaela, but at least they’re rowing in the same direction.

Birbalsingh is clearly driven by a sense of mission. She wants to improve the lot of her students, but also “convince the world”. Eight years ago, this documentary would have thrilled me, challenged me and made me question my philosophies and pedagogies. Now it just feels a little dated.

The fact is that many schools look at Michaela and say “that’s the pole”. But it’s bloody hard to hit that bar, and what they need now isn’t platitudes and lazy double words, but the nuts and bolts of how to do what Michaela did. This is where the real interest lies and where real progress can be made.

The true test of Birbalsingh’s legacy will be the impact it has on others. Unlike other highly effective school leaders, she has come out specifically to do so. It’s her decision and I don’t blame her. But if this early period of intellectual soaring and creative generation has given way to hackneyed tropes, it will definitely fail in that endeavour.

This film neither upsets nor annoys. It doesn’t leave you with a bang, but with a whimper. Let’s hope this isn’t the fate of the school’s legacy.

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