Five years ago, I put my friend Nell Butler in touch with Katharine Birbalsingh, Britain’s most outspoken headmistress. I was hoping Nell, who runs a TV production company, would persuade Katharine to let ITV make a documentary about Michaela, the free school she opened in 2014 and which she’s led ever since. I was director of the New Schools Network at the time, a free schools charity, and was convinced there could be no better advertisement for the controversial educational policy.
At the time, Michaela had yet to be inspected by Ofsted and didn’t have any exam results, but knowing Katharine as I do, and having visited the school a few times, I had no doubt it would succeed. Not only is she an inspirational leader, but she’s a passionate adherent of the ‘no excuses’ approach to education, which I believe is the key to raising standards in the state sector, particularly in disadvantaged areas. The idea is to replicate a grammar school-style of education in a comprehensive environment: so houses, uniforms, plenty of competition, strict discipline and a knowledge-based curriculum, but suitable for children of all abilities.
My hope was that she’d let a documentary crew follow the first cohort of Michaela’s students in their final GCSE year, culminating with them finding out their results, which I knew would be brilliant. But Katharine was worried that a documentary-maker who disapproved of her ‘old-fashioned’ attitudes would bend over backwards to make Michaela look bad. The reputation of her school, which she had poured her heart and soul into, might be destroyed before it had a chance to prove itself. She also pointed out that the stakes could not be higher. Michaela was the test bed for people on our side of the education debate, and a skilful hatchet job would do huge damage not just to the school, but to the cause we all believed in.
Katharine gave Nell a firm ‘No’, and several years went by during which Michaela surpassed itself.