Katharine Birbalsingh: especially when it’s difficult

On Thursday 31 May, 2018, Katharine Birbalsingh, the principal of Michaela Community School and the woman dubbed “the strictest teacher in the UK” had a full diary in New Zealand. Click here to see the evidence: you will find several interviews that she gave through the day. After that lot she dined with New Zealand Initiative in Auckland, and gave them a half-hour dinner lecture.

I have been unable to establish her whole itinerary in New Zealand, or even how long she was actually there; but as a UK school principal in the middle of term I rather suspect she merely grabbed, over the Whitsun break, a small handful of days into which she crammed one of the longest return journeys on the planet, itineraries like that Thursday, and diametrically opposite time-displacement.

I’m making excuses for the possibility that she was feeling a little weary, only because she won’t. In her world there are no excuses.

You see where she’s looking? She’s reading a script. I’ve seen speeches where she was shooting from the hip, and heard interviews where she was super-fluent, super-articulate, super-coherent. I was stunned to find her reading this one, went hunting for reasons, and think I found them. She’s dead on her feet, knew she was likely to be so, and therefore wrote the script for her own protection and in order not to let down her audience. She suspected that she would be barely intelligible.

Highly laudable, but wrong. She could have sat in the aeroplane, preparing this – and any other speeches she needed, in her head with her eyes closed. The result would have been every bit as secure, and her delivery demeanour would have been critically more real and natural. She just needed to have been properly taught how.

For her very well-chosen opening story, lasting 1:25 minutes, she is shooting from the hip; and yes, knowing what we now know about how she had spent that day, we can see her weariness and yes we see her having to search for the word “fix”. And then she turns to her script.

She’s a very fine communicator, so the reading is subtly done and with bags of expression. She always speaks in an extrovert fashion, and that is either her natural persona or one that she has thoroughly developed, but here it occasionally breaks out into over-the-top histrionics which are almost manic. That could be caused by her tiredness or it could be a compensation mechanism for reading, or both.

Don’t misunderstand me: this is a fine speech, very well delivered. But, even allowing for her tiredness, it could have been better – not least because it is easier to speak without a script than with one. Much of the spade work was done before she even planned this visit.

  • she is using modules that are clearly well road-tested,
  • I would bet money that she already has well-worked bridges to link those modules,
  • she has a personal mantra that serves brilliantly as an unmistakeable Face for the speech…

…even when it’s difficult – especially when it’s difficult.

Here’s another bet. I bet that speech poured out of her, onto whatever writing medium she used, as fast as she could write it. There would have been no need to stop and think. If so it demonstrates that she could have delivered this without paper, and I believe she knows it. What she doesn’t know, or trust, is how secure that would have been on the day.

At 11:45, “but we still don’t have results. That’s the thing about a free school, at least our free school: you keep on going without the security of knowing that tomorrow will definitely come.”

She has results now. In August the results came through for the school’s first GSCE exams; and Michaela School was in the stratosphere, among the top performers in the country.

So that silenced the hysterical screams from her detractors, didn’t it?

No, they merely changed tack from, “It’ll never work” to “Her pupils are reduced to cowed, humourless, zombie robots”. But I have friends who have visited her school, in one of the most deprived areas in Britain, and found cheerful, lively children who engage intelligently in conversation and are fiercely loyal to her.

And some of them are now founder-pupils of the new sixth form and are studying for ‘A’ levels. We await those results with interest, but I view with trepidation what they do after that. The current state of many of our universities is so dire that these children will be far too good for them.

But they’ll solve that, even if it’s difficult – especially if it’s difficult.

Paul Selva – a study in calm

The 2019 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, in Denver, Colorado, took place in early July. Keynote speaker on the first morning was General Paul Selva.

To rise to the second most senior post in the biggest military that the world has ever seen, you need to be quite something. For all my pretensions of cynical seen-it-all, I admit that I approached this speech expecting something pretty special. I was not disappointed.

But the most special thing about it is how it presents itself as so ordinary. No wild histrionics, just an enormous message backed by calm matter-of-fact details. If you didn’t listen carefully you could imagine he was discussing the weekend’s shopping, yet the descriptions, details, data, are mind-boggling. It is that characteristic that makes me think that this would be an ideal copybook example to the senior business people who make up nearly all of my trainees. When you are dealing with resources and concepts on this scale, delivering an all-singing, all-dancing performance is of no particular use. Unless, that is, you happen naturally to be an all-singing, all-dancing type of person, in which case you probably wouldn’t be in his position.

It is all so deceptive: this is technically spot-on. He runs sentences together when he wants to sweep us along; he gives us pauses – sometimes quite long ones – when something needs to sink in; he couches data in terms that anyone can understand; and it all acts subliminally under his aura of calm. This is damn good. He gives added meaning to “owning” an audience.

Regular readers of this blog, knowing my obsession with paperless speaking, will wonder as I did what that small sheaf of papers is doing in his hand. He barely looks at it, and when he does he never needs to, reeling off his data and statistics from memory. He periodically peels one sheet off the top and puts it to the bottom, and seems to do it more often than there seem to be pieces of paper which is puzzling. Is it there simply to supply something for him to do with his hands?

And then, shortly before the end, (at 15:30 actually) he reads a quotation from Albert Einstein. That is an absolutely justifiable use of paper, because it shows us he is not paraphrasing.

I’m glad I watched that speech.