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Britain’s strictest headmistress

Katharine Birbalsingh in action

It’s housed in “one of those dismal, Sixties-built office blocks” overlooking a rat-infested railway embankment, says Ian Gallagher in The Mail on Sunday. But Michaela Community School in Wembley is considered “one of the best schools in the world”. Opened in 2014, it draws pupils from “deprived estates” and achieves grades “up there with the best in the land”: around half its GCSEs are Grade 7 (an A in old money), and last year 82% of its A-level students secured places at Russell Group universities.

At the heart of Michaela’s success is discipline. Talking in the corridors is forbidden. Pupils are given detention for the tiniest infractions: forgetting to bring in a second pencil; making a “silly face” at a friend. In class, they are expected to “sit ramrod straight with arms folded, their eyes straying from the teacher only when he or she has stopped talking”. As Jeremy Paxman said while visiting the school for Britain’s Strictest Headmistress, a new documentary: “The most surprising thing about this is the silence. If you can’t hear yourself think, you can’t think.”

Many liberals hate this Victorian approach to education. But the children embrace it. In exam years, most pupils voluntarily hand in their phones for half-term to avoid distractions. Michaela’s founder and headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, says too many schools create a “vicious circle of low expectations”: teachers give poor pupils a pass for not doing their homework, which only leads them to fall behind, making it harder for them to secure good grades and escape poverty. Her teachers never indulge their pupils, “whatever difficulties they might be enduring at home”. And it works.

Britain’s Strictest Headmistress is on ITV tomorrow at 10.15pm.