Why are children so unhappy? Why do they seem lost and lonely? What are grown-ups getting wrong?

How do we give children a sense of purpose and help them build lasting self-esteem? How do we help them flourish in a complex world?

Katharine Birbalsingh, Britain’s Strictest Headmistress, believes she has the answers. She knows what’s needed: discipline, detentions and an old-fashioned sense of duty. Children should work hard and be grateful.

In this authored documentary, Birbalsingh sets out her vision. She presents twelve rules for radical change, explaining why we’re failing children and what we must do to turn their lives around.

Many consider Birbalsingh’s views unspeakably brutal. Her school is condemned as unacceptably strict. Liberals are outraged by her uncompromising approach.

There is no attempt to sugar the pill in this documentary. The school is presented as the film crew found it. Nothing is staged. Nothing is supressed. Nothing is censored. Birbalsingh believes her school validates her child-raising philosophy. She holds up her school as a beacon of sanity in a world gone mad.

Watch this film and make up your own mind.

Who is Katharine Birbalsingh and why does she matter?

Birbalsingh is a one-woman firebrand, who forcefully proclaims we’re all getting it wrong.

The child of a Guyanese academic and a Jamaican nurse, Birbalsingh started her teaching career in a regular inner-city school.

Then on October 5th, 2010, her life changed. She created shock waves when she spoke at the Conservative Party Conference and told her audience:

“The (education) system is broken because it keeps poor children poor.”

The fallout from her speech left her without a job, shunned by other teachers, unsure whether she’d ever work in education again.

Despite receiving hate mail and racist abuse, Birbalsingh refused to keep quiet. She set up her own free school (like a US charter school), determined to prove her vision to the world.

Birbalsingh and the governors named the school Michaela, after a West Indian teacher from St Lucia, a colleague of Katharine’s who died of cancer in 2011.

Now, for the first time, Katharine Birbalsingh has allowed a documentary film crew inside Michaela Community School, and into her life. She talks openly about her personal struggles and her frustration with declining moral standards and low academic achievement.

So why should you be interested?

You should be interested because Birbalsingh’s revolutionary ideas are gaining traction.

In 2022 she was Chair of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission, and has published two books: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers and The Power of Culture. Over 600 visitors visit Michaela Community School every year. Birbalsingh is interviewed regularly and speaks at conferences around the world. Teachers, parents and politicians are sitting up and taking notice. Birbalsingh’s views are influencing policy.

Is she a visionary or a dangerous demagogue?

Producer's Note

My first visit to Michaela Community School was in 2016.

I didn’t expect to like it. I had huge doubts about an institution dubbed Britain’s Strictest School.

My first impressions confirmed my prejudices. The children line up in serried ranks, they walk in silence, the rules are not only strict, but strictly enforced. The teachers are in authority, learning is knowledge-based, there are detentions for minor infractions.

And yet the more time I spent in the school, the more my position shifted.

It turns out there’s something called “warm-strict”. Mary Poppins knew all about it. Michaela Community School is awash with it. Children accept the rules because they know the adults want the best for them. The teachers enforce the rules because they really care about the children. Hard work is under-pinned by respect, affection and humour.

Our documentary was filmed over several terms. We roamed freely around the school and got to know lots of teachers and children. We filmed what we saw and tried to capture what makes the school special – and controversial.

Reactions to the documentary have been mixed. Michaela teachers feel we haven’t shown enough “fun”. They worry the love they lavish on the children doesn’t shine through. Critics say the documentary is too positive – there aren’t enough opposing voices. Birbalsingh thinks it’s too much about her. She longs for more philosophy and educational theory.

Whatever you think, I hope you are impressed by the children. They were unfailingly interested, polite and welcoming. They arrived on time for interviews. They never got distracted when we filmed in their lessons. Having filmed in lots of schools, we found their behaviour astonishing.

Thank you for watching.

Nell Butler

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