Katharine Birbalsingh: The anonymous blogger turned free school head on discipline, a memorable pupil and an old teacher's 'love dots'

 

Do you have fond memories of school?

Some. It's hard being a teenager. You have to make sense of the world and you don't have much experience. It's hard trying to figure out who you are and what you enjoy and to find friends. It's a hard journey for most people.

Was there a teacher who shaped you?

Mr Dutter, who was my English teacher. He used to give out what he called 'love dots'. And 'love dots' were not really love dots, they were bad dots. He called them 'love dots' when you did something bad, because he said he loved us and it was because he loved us that he had such high standards and that he was going to hold us to account. When I look back at it now as a teacher, I think 'absolutely right Mr Dutter', and everybody loved him. My experience of children now is that they love their strict teachers, the teachers who hold them to account.

Will discipline be central to the ethos of your new free school?

Pupils know there are certain teachers who can control the class and certain teachers who can't. Mr Dutter could control us. For management, it should be understood that it's our job to ensure all of our teachers can have that discipline. If there is a classroom that's chaotic, then I would consider that to be my fault. It's my job to ensure the teacher is able to use the systems in the school to support learning in the classroom.

If a child has a particularly bad home life, how much can a school do?

That's precisely when a school has the most effect, if the school is good. It's those children who benefit most from an excellent, structured school life because they're so desperate for structure. I've known children who stay at school long after the bell. They didn't have the stress they might find at home, having to look after siblings or the chaos because there are so many people there. For them, school represents a real paradise where they can seek refuge.

Do your colleagues from your blogging days say things have changed?

Teachers watch governments come and go and they get on with the art of teaching, is what I'd say.

Are there any students you particularly remember?

I was a French teacher and I used to take the children to Paris. I had a boy who would never have left his postcode, and I took him to Paris. I remember being on the Tube with him once, with other children from the school, and when the doors opened, he said to them, as if he was a kind of expert "Well of course if we were in Paris right now we would have to open the doors ourselves, but as we're in London the doors just open for us." I told this story recently to a friend in Paris.

A criticism sometimes levelled at free schools is a problem of oversupply in some areas and undersupply in others. Do you think this can be remedied?

I'm not sure how much of an issue this is. When you apply to set up a free school, you need to demonstrate that there's demand for it. Where I see a real problem is in rural areas where there are all these people coming from all over to go to one school. But in the bigger cities, there just aren't enough schools frankly.

Is it good to see a female education secretary?

I don't think it matters. What matters is what her policy will be like, so we'll have to wait and see.

Biography

Katharine Birbalsingh gained attention as the anonymous blogger To Miss With Love, writing about her experiences in inner-city secondary schools. She came to national prominence with a controversial speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 2010. Birbalsingh is the head teacher of Michaela Community School, a free school in northwest London, set to open this September

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