Opposite Wembley Park Station, in the heart of North West London, stands an unremarkable looking school. Housed in a seven-storey office block, overshadowed by Wembley Stadium’s imposing arch, you’d hardly give Michaela Community School a second glance.
This school is run by Katharine Birbalsingh, who is known as the strictest headmistress in the country. With her uncompromising – often controversial – approach to teaching and discipline, she has built up a reputation as someone who demands the absolute highest standards.
There have been reports of kids undergoing a boot camp to prepare them for life at Michaela, where they are taught to keep their shirts tucked in and pick up crumbs after they’ve been eating. Ms Birbalsingh, who also chairs the Department for Education’s social mobility commission, is the subject of a new documentary airing this weekend.
READ MORE : Private school that costs £7.5k a year blasted after Ofsted finds mice infestation
In the somewhat unsubtly titled ‘Britain’s Strictest Headmistress’, we hear how pupils are punished for not making eye contact, pulling funny faces or forgetting to bring a second pencil. One student, Corliss, who joins Year 8 halfway through the school year, simply describes his first meeting with teachers as “strict”. He adds: “I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.”
Ms Birbalsingh is unwavering when it comes to her methods. She is adamant teaching is “too lenient” in the UK, suggesting educators are at risk of losing control of their classrooms.
She has also proposed fostering the concept of allegiance to the nation, and children at her school regularly sing God Save the Queen, Jerusalem and I Vow to Thee My Country. Teachers at Michaela say this is just as important in Brent – the most diverse region in Britain – as it is anywhere else in the country.
Do you want to stay up to date with the latest news, views, features and opinion from across the city?
MyLondon’s brilliant newsletter The 12 is absolutely jam packed with all the latest to keep you keep you entertained, informed and uplifted.
You’ll get 12 stories straight to your inbox at around 12pm. It’s the perfect lunchtime read.
And what’s more – it’s FREE!
The MyLondon team tells London stories for Londoners. Our journalists cover all the news you need – from City Hall to your local streets, so you’ll never miss a moment.
Don’t skip a beat and sign up to The 12 newsletter here.
Ms Birbalsingh is a firm advocate of detention, suggesting this shows the school “loves its children”. Obedience is at the heart of her mantra. In the documentary, pupils are seen sitting up straight with their arms folded, in complete silence and giving their undivided attention to their teachers.
Broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, who visits the school as part of the programme, says one of the first things he recognises is the “silence” in the corridors, which gives pupils “time to think”. He praises the “old-fashioned” methods adopted by the school but also wonders what impact this will have on pupils when they leave for a modern world of work and study.
The nature of Ms Birbalsingh’s approach means she is never far from controversy. She has been criticised in the past for suggesting inner-city children could end up bringing knives into school without strict uniform policies in place.
On another occasion she came under fire for claiming girls are less inclined to study physics at A-Level because they don’t like “hard maths”. This documentary, airing at 10.15pm on ITV on Sunday (May 22) will allow viewers to make up their own minds.