Battle Hymn

All teachers want to inspire their pupils. Every teacher I have ever met has come into the profession because they love children and want to improve their lives.

In England, however, poorer pupils’ life chances have long been blighted by educational underachievement. Over the last sixty years, and still to this day, 22% of school leavers in England leave school functionally innumerate. Just 16% of our poorest children achieve access to University. In many schools in disadvantaged areas, fights happen every day, in and out of lessons, and bullying is widespread. Where behaviour is disruptive, teachers can’t teach, and children can’t learn.

We believe schools can change pupils’ lives. Michaela, our secondary school in a deprived area of London, exists to inspire our pupils to love learning our subjects for the rest of their lives. Michaela is named after an inspirational teacher from St Lucia who taught in inner-city London. Michaela, the teacher, believed in tough love: combining strict discipline with loving care. She taught complex subject content directly, with lots of practice for her children. Katharine Birbalsingh named the school after Michaela, driven by the belief that teachers can help children can overcome huge disadvantages.


On arriving at secondary school aged 11, many of our pupils are very far behind. Their numeracy is very weak: many cannot add up, subtract or multiply, let alone divide. Many of our 11-year olds have a reading age of 8 years old, having fallen three or more years behind. Many find reading and writing a struggle: they cannot read a book for a long period of time; they cannot write a sentence accurately. Many say they could not control their tempers, and that they were rude and angry on arriving at secondary school.

At Michaela, pupils learn fast. In their first year, our weakest pupils make two years of reading progress. Within two years, all our pupils attain excellent academic achievement across subjects, in Maths, English, Science, History and French. Their parents say they have become much more polite, much more kind, much more responsible and much more motivated. Their primary school teachers cannot believe how much they have changed in so short a time. Guests visit regularly. When leaving, they are often puzzled: ‘Why are the students so focused in lessons?’ they ask: ‘How come the children are so polite around school?’ Visit Michaela, as we warmly encourage all parents and any teacher to do any time, and you will see friendly, happy children learning loads and loving life.


“Sir, where are you from?” “Nigeria”. “Madam, where are you from?” “Pakistan.” “Sir, where are you from?” “Nepal.” ‘Sir?’ “The Caribbean.” Our Headmistress Katharine Birbalsingh asked this question to four of the parents in the front row, who had come to a packed Year 6 open evening at Michaela. “Well,” said Katharine, “as a school, Michaela is more like a school in Nigeria, or Pakistan, or Nepal, than other schools in England. We believe in discipline. We believe in obedience. We believe in tradition. We believe in hierarchy. We believe that if pupils improve their habits and their self-discipline, they will have more fulfilling lives.” The parents in Brent, mainly coming from families from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean, plenty second- and third-generation, nod firmly in agreement.

Fundamentally, Michaela’s values are more Asian, African or non-Western than Western. Asian cultures are less obsessed with individualistic rights and more focused on community responsibility. Chinese parents like Amy Chua believe in ‘a totally different idea of how to do what’s best for their children’: discipline, diligence, drill, dedication and determination. In her book, ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’, she has great dreams for and great belief in her children. Asian parents do not see their children as fragile, but as strong. At Michaela, so do we. Chinese philosophy explores the power of ritual, the power of patterned habits in everyday interactions. In his book, The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, Harvard professor Michael Putt challenges western assumptions about what it takes to live fulfilling lives. He writes:

‘One narrative has taken over all others: that we have “broken from the repressive past of a traditional world”. This narrative has been so pervasive that, over time, we have come to accept it as utterly true and natural. Chinese philosophy can break us from the confines of our narrative.’

Unlike for some the West, tradition isn’t seen as repression by many in Asia. Neither is it at Michaela. Even the poorest Chinese pupils in England outperform everyone else, even the richest of every other group, at Maths. We think there is great wisdom to be learned from Chinese, Asian and African thinking for schools. The values of responsibility and self-discipline run through our family community in everything we do at Michaela, in every interaction.

Our book is about how our teachers help our pupils succeed. The title, ‘Battle Hymn of The Tiger Teachers’, is combative. Michaela is contentious. We overturn English schools’ often-entrenched preconceptions against discipline, authority, obedience, didactic teaching, drills, memorisation and more. We use the military metaphor of ‘bootcamp’ for our new Year 7 pupils’ induction, and we see discipline and drill as life-changing. Our book aims to share ideas that improve disadvantaged pupils’ lives. There are chapters on no marking, no labels, no nonsense and no burnout. At Michaela, there are no graded observations, no performance-related pay bonuses, no appraisal targets, no bureaucratic paperwork, no lesson plans, no flashy starters, no jazzy plenaries, no learning objectives, no futile data entry, no groupwork in lessons. As Steve Jobs said, innovation is saying no to a thousand things.

We have been called zealots (and worse!). So were Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce. On being called a fanatic, Wilberforce replied: ‘If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.’ If to be determined to teach poor children to achieve great academic results, develop strong lifelong habits and live fulfilling lives means we are zealots, then we, too, are some of the most incurable zealots ever permitted to be at large.

Our book raises challenging questions for teachers and school leaders about how they see education.

How do we help pupils remember rather than forget what they’ve learned?

How can relentless testing be more of a friend than a foe for learning?

How can memorisation go beyond regurgitation to form a firm foundation for learning?

When do drills thrill children, rather than kill their motivation?

When are discipline and authority liberating rather than repressive?

How can we eliminate bullying in our schools?

How do we get pupils to be considerate, kind and caring to each other?

How can we make lunchtime a calm, happy time every day?

How can we help new Year 7 pupils get the bearings in secondary school quickly?

How can we ensure the weakest readers do the most reading rather than the least?

How can we get the advantages of competition between pupils, without its drawbacks?

How can we ensure new teachers are just as respected as veteran teachers?

When is meticulous detail more a help than a hindrance for teachers?

How can we prevent teachers from overworking and burning out?

How can we make sure all teachers love teaching in our schools, and want to stay in teaching?

What do we do about parents that push back against the school’s rules?


These questions cut to the core of how we educate, to our deepest paradigms of how we see the world. In this series of blogposts, running up to the publication of our book, I plan to explore:








Family Lunch



Teacher training


Parental Pushback

Teachers who believe, like we do, in long-term outcomes such as overcoming entrenched educational inequality, who care, like we do, about our children’s long-term happiness, who want to liberate poorer children from the shackles of deprivation, as we do, may see new vistas opening up before them. Could the Asian, non-Western values and ideas of Michaela perhaps contribute to bringing about the lifelong achievement and fulfillment of our children? After two years, our starting belief – that schools and teachers can make a tremendous impact – is stronger than ever.


About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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5 Responses to Battle Hymn

  1. Wilfred Berkhof says:

    Joe, I’ve been following Michaela for a while now and am really impressed. However there is always one question lingering in the back of my mind. What do you do with pupils who continu to not follow the rules?

  2. Rufus says:

    Reblogged this on No Easy Answers and commented:
    Excellent from Joe Kirby

  3. John McKellar says:

    Only in England! You come across as apologetically defensive and rather dismissive of others’ visionary dedication to how learning succeeds. Good luck, however.

  4. ad says:

    Fundamentally, Michaela’s values are more Asian, African or non-Western than Western.

    I must say that if I were trying to drum up support for my philosophy of teaching, I would not start by telling people it was opposed to everything this country has ever stood for. It is a good way to sell Michaela to Asian, African or non-Western parents, not a good way to sell it to the wider country.

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