Birbalsingh is Out of the Box

An Inspirational Woman for International Women’s Day.


Do we really need to celebrate International Women’s Day in a period when women are more frequently heading up major organisations and institutions successfully? Yes. Indeed we do need to remind people of the capacity of all beings, particularly when their gender has been limiting them consistently over the centuries and boxing them into specific occupations and nurtured behaviour. Stereotypes still exist today, of passive voices and powerless personalities. Stepping out of that box can cause society to deem you as an “iron lady” or uncompassionate.


I went to visit Michaela Community School at Wembley Park, a school attracting national attention, with even the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson choosing to label it “most extraordinary.” Here there is a culture of control, courtesy, and courage developed by a strong and a compassionate woman. Katharine Birbalsingh, the headmistress, and an author operates on tough love and discipline to mould pupils into  citizens who will make a positive change to society.


Bringing back old-fashioned values in a modern world means that it is not the children but the head who sometimes gets the stick for this. Katharine admits her school is not for everyone. Built on traditional rules and didacticism, it’s far removed from today’s teaching methods. I personally wanted to find out why she is so resilient to the criticism and hear more about her vision.


Sitting in her office as we chatted over our morning tea and biscuits, I see her other side, not the authoritarian and draconian headmistress but a friendly and chatty person. She actually smiles and laughs a lot. “I wanted to be a builder, I liked houses, so I thought of becoming a builder, an estate agent or a lawyer,” she says.


Her choice of a building career would have seemed extraordinary and contrary to older stereotypes of the roles of women in her days as a school pupil. However, when she was a student at Oxford University, she was placed on a scheme set up to encourage young black people to apply for places at Oxford. She visited schools nationally, especially targeting inner city youth to encourage them to apply [for university generally or to Oxford?].


She then told me a story about an occasion fifteen years later when she was giving a talk at a teacher training conference. At the end of the talk a young woman came to speak with her afterwards, saying that she went to Oxford having been inspired by hearing her words. Katharine’s pathway changed, working in education now became her focus as she saw how she could have an impact on young people and change their lives for the better.


Her vision continues today with the work her staff are doing for the pupils from Michaela. “Really high standards can only be achieved with excellent discipline” she says. Teachers from all over the country seek the Michaela model; the school has teachers visiting from Manchester, Edinburgh and other cities wanting to see its methods.


“Setting high standards for everyone is the key, no matter what you want to do –  if you want to become a chef, teacher or a doctor.”

Katharine encourages people to get skills and build themselves up with no excuses. “Whatever obstacles you face in your life, you have to try to deliver in spite of them and always hold yourself to high standards.”


The discipline instilled at school is a reflection of her personal life; spending a dedicated time for homework, chatting and doing various things with her son every evening is part of her routine, and she emphasizes the importance of parents spending quality time with their children. Her family- orientated ethic of time together is noted in the school’s activities, such as the engaging school lunch period the pupils experience daily.


What stands out to me is the mindset of such women leaders. They are bold enough to be unconcerned as to whether they are liked or not and they work strategically to make their vision a reality. One other example that springs to mind is the recent appointment of Ms Cressida Dick as the first female Metropolitan Police Commissioner. We see the inherent power women have despite the many setbacks they may have faced. Such women are shining examples to inspire us to act originally, following our own beliefs and consciences. So whether it is Birbalsingh or another inspiring individual,  we have good reason to celebrate those women who, locally, nationally and globally, choose to live ‘out of the box’.


Interview by Amanda Epe, alias Amanda Ray. She blogs at


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