PETER HITCHENS: 'Progressives' would wreck Tiger Head's school

PETER HITCHENS: ‘Progressives’ who’d rather wreck the Tiger Head’s school than admit they’re wrong

A very few times in my life I have seen things so brave and unlikely that I have immediately feared that they would be destroyed and suppressed. 

The first was in November 1980 when I saw Polish shipyard workers, armed with nothing more than Christian faith and patriotism, challenging the entire homicidal might of the Soviet Empire, in the city of Gdansk.

I described it as like seeing a fire burning under water, impossible, thrilling, like a waking dream, and probably doomed.

I had exactly the same feeling when I visited the astonishing Michaela School in Wembley, North London. I was so frightened for this courageous, noble experiment that for a long time I preferred not to write about it. My endorsement of any cause is pretty certain to do it harm.

For the Strictest Headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, is trying, almost alone, to revive the idea that children from ordinary homes, where the parents have no money or power, should be taught real knowledge in disciplined classrooms by teachers who love them, and love learning

For the Strictest Headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, is trying, almost alone, to revive the idea that children from ordinary homes, where the parents have no money or power, should be taught real knowledge in disciplined classrooms by teachers who love them, and love learning








Well, it has gone too far now for me to do it any damage, and next weekend millions of people will have the chance to see it for themselves in an amazing film, Britain’s Strictest Headmistress, scheduled to be shown on ITV at 10.15pm next Sunday. 

The film’s maker, Nell Butler, is by her own description a ‘liberal Leftie’, who you might have expected to give this very socially conservative experiment a hard time. 

But this film is a just and generous depiction, not a demolition job. Because any fair person who sees this place realises that something fine is being attempted.

I have seen a longer version of the programme (which will also be available soon online) which more than once reduced me to tears.

For the Strictest Headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, is trying, almost alone, to revive the idea that children from ordinary homes, where the parents have no money or power, should be taught real knowledge in disciplined classrooms by teachers who love them, and love learning.

There is absolutely nothing soppy about this. It means being as tough with the children of others as you would be with your own.

Children from other nearby schools dismiss Michaela as ‘that prison’. But here there are no bullies lurking in unwatched corners. It seems hard. But it is based on real knowledge of what life is actually like in our worst schools

Children from other nearby schools dismiss Michaela as ‘that prison’. But here there are no bullies lurking in unwatched corners. It seems hard. But it is based on real knowledge of what life is actually like in our worst schools

We have all heard of Tiger Mothers, fiercely urging their children on. But in this case we have a Tiger Headmistress who does the same favour for children who, in many cases, live in rough, crime-plagued estates in a pretty bleak zone, exposed to all the many evils of our morally poor society: violent, woman-hating rap music, the slow suicide of drugs, knives, broken families, unbreakable gangs.

She says that such people deserve exactly the same driving intolerance of failure that the children of the rich reliably get. In fact, they need it even more. Indulging them, letting them off and making excuses for them actually harms them.

This means that the school must be a kind of Fort Apache in the midst of the badlands. The children must know they are safe there. And they are.

A discipline so forbidding that it has been compared to North Korea enforces silence in the corridors and silence at the beginning of every class.

Children from other nearby schools dismiss Michaela as ‘that prison’. But here there are no bullies lurking in unwatched corners. It seems hard. But it is based on real knowledge of what life is actually like in our worst schools.

In how many such places do we hear of how vulnerable children fear the chaos, sometimes so much that they simply stay away?

In this country, normally, good education can only be bought by the payment of gigantic fees, or, more sneakily, by buying a hugely expensive house in a pampered location and claiming to be a keen supporter of state schools. Michaela has none of these advantages.

Thanks to general hostility to the project, it has what is probably the worst school building anywhere in the UK, a hideous 1960s office block next to a clattering railway line, with almost no playground space. 

In a multi-racial area, with several religions, it has created a community completely without bigotry or racial division – Katharine Birbalsingh, daughter of an Indo-Guyanese academic and a Jamaican nurse, has no tolerance for any of that sort of filth, and successfully encourages all her pupils to think of themselves as British.

In many ways what we see here is a serious attempt to put the clock back to when adults were in charge, and there was a body of knowledge which all could learn. That is why waves of hate beat against its walls, from all the ‘progressives’ who cannot bear to see their theories proved wholly wrong and perhaps, above all, loathe the fact that they simply cannot accuse Michaela of being racist or privileged.

Deprived of their usual weapons against anything they dislike, they are going to have to face the fact that Katharine Birbalsingh has a better idea of how to educate the children of Britain than they have.

If I know them, and I do, they would rather destroy her school than admit it. Don’t let them.

Isn’t the Ukrainian army amazing? A few months ago it was just a few overweight, undertrained geezers with ancient weapons. Now it’s positively fizzing. How did that happen?

I ask those of you who pray to put in a few words this Sunday for Julian Assange, threatened with extradition to the USA for the noncrime of embarrassing Uncle Sam. Home Secretary Priti Patel must decide by Wednesday whether to let him be taken away to what will almost certainly be a very grim fate, or refuse. I do very much urge her to refuse.

Charles sees the perils ahead 

I am not surprised Prince Charles looked glum as he contemplated the Imperial State Crown last Tuesday. I expect that, like most people in his generation (which is also mine) he feels a strong sense of foreboding over what is to come.

His mother, in her eloquent and moving words about ‘the fullness of time’, has given us all permission to talk openly about the approaching end of her reign, made even more of a reality by her decision to stay away from the State Opening of Parliament.

I do not fully join in the universal praise for the Queen’s handling of her tricky role.

I think that she has made needless concessions to the multiculturalism which has helped to break up the country. I think she has unwisely got too close to political controversy, as in her endorsement of the Belfast Agreement to give in to the IRA.

But I am sure that her mere presence on the throne has helped keep the country from toppling off the rails many times. She has allowed us to think that there is some ultimate authority which keeps bad men from getting too much power.

But do the new generation of politicians, or the new generations which worship football players and rock stars, share this reverence or understand it? I doubt it. 

The whole terrible Diana episode showed that another completely different Britain had come into being since the Coronation. I cannot forget the way that the applause for Earl Spencer’s rather nasty speech in Westminster Abbey began outside the church and was then taken up by the Establishment within, which lacked the courage to stay silent. That sums them up.

Queen Elizabeth represented a sort of majesty which has largely vanished from our country. Charles cannot have that even if he wants to, which I doubt he does. We are approaching a moment of great danger. I just hope there will be someone around who knows how to cope with it.

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