Interview with: Mike Kilbride, principal of Birkenhead Sixth Form College and CEO of BePART Educational Trust

Mike Kilbride brings a unique perspective to his role as principal of Birkenhead Sixth Form College. His background in psychology and understanding of human behaviour, motivation, and cognitive processes serves as a guiding light, shaping not only the academic curriculum but also the holistic development of each student.

Although born in Scotland, Mike grew up in Burnley and, as he describes it, is from a humble working-class background.

“I grew up in a council estate in Burnley and I went to the local Catholic comprehensive which was a dreadful school, and I mean it. In the five years I was at secondary school, I don’t think I learned anything,” he says.

“When it came to doing my O-levels at school, I didn’t really care and so it was a bit of a disaster. Luckily, I got enough to get into a local college to do my A-levels. On my first day, I met two inspiring teachers, Mike Daniels and Stuart Evans, and they were both sort of hippies but very academic. I tapped into the same ideas as them and from that day I worked like a dog and ended up achieving high grades.”

After going on to study psychology at university, Mike secured a job in marketing within the health and beauty division at Proctor & Gamble, working across brands such as Vidal Sassoon and Head & Shoulders.

He says: “I remember sitting in a meeting and we were looking at the latest figures by Nielsen (a global leader in audience measurement, data and analytics) and how they had improved. My colleagues were doing cartwheels because this was a really significant

You’ve got to be a good example in the sense that you’ve got to be someone who works hard and has credibility.

movement for a new product launch. I had worked hard on this, and the people I worked with were fantastic, but I realised I just didn’t care.”

This lightbulb moment spurred Mike to leave his marketing role and begin a career in teaching. After 18 years of teaching, he moved into management and leadership.

He explains: “There’s nothing quite like teaching in terms of taking a group of young people and sharing your views, seeing them change and the relationships develop over the two years. It is fantastic because you’re seeing people at a critical point in their own development, they’re going from essentially being kids to being independent young adults. It’s a real privilege to be part of that.”

Mike joined Birkenhead Sixth Form College in 2008 as deputy principal. The college was going through a turbulent time, having been put into special measures.

He reveals: “When I first came here, I remember speaking to the senior management team, and one question I asked them was ‘Why are the results so poor?’. The answer I got back was that students aren’t particularly motivated. They threw it right to the students and I thought that’s really convenient because then you can absolve yourself of any responsibility if you just blame them. That was found right across the college – it was like it was from the 1970s and it thought it was doing the best it could simply by existing.

“I set about a significant transformation based upon the principle that every single student can excel. Due to my background in psychology, I’m very evidencebased, and if you look at the distribution of ability, it’s very narrow, and the distributional performance has very little relationship to that distribution of ability. Performance comes down to hard work and performance comes down to making people do the right sort of work.”

Mike added: “Our ability to shape performance is almost unlimited and so that’s the founding premise that we have adopted – the attitude that every student is one that can excel and we treat them that way. As well as being positive, we are really demanding and have high standards from kids who might have come from schools which weren’t as demanding and might even come from social backgrounds that are not as rigorous and demanding, gritty or resilient. We say that that’s the past and this is the now, so if we tell you to do homework, there’s no negotiation. It’s not a suggestion.”

While the sixth form college has undergone a remarkable transformation, Mike highlights that it isn’t down to a change in the type of students who have enrolled.

“Back in 2008, the average GCSE profile of the students coming is not really any different than it is now. We haven’t got to where we are by selecting, we’ve got to where we are now by just changing the path of the people who would have come here,” he says.

“I’ve had conversations in the past with teachers when they have had issues with students. Your job as a teacher, first and foremost, is being an expert in the subject and that’s one of the things that we absolutely insist upon. If you don’t know your subject inside out, then you have no right to be in the classroom. The other important part of your job is to change people, if you can’t develop and change someone, why are you here?

“The beauty of the job is that 16-year-olds come in and there’ll be a variety of people, lovely and not so lovely, inquisitive and not so inquisitive. But you get to witness them change and grow and see them knowing very little about a subject, that you love, to at the end of the two years, having a certain degree of

mastery and an inquisitive love for it.”

Due to Mike’s profound grasp of psychology, he has gained a deep understanding of students’ potential.

He says: “I don’t think I’d be the person I am if I hadn’t studied psychology and if I hadn’t taught it. I don’t think I would have the insight into what the capacities of people are but also be able to argue and evidence it.”

Birkenhead Sixth Form College has been recognised on numerous occasions for its transformational approach to learning and in 2024 it was named ‘Most Inspirational Sixth Form & College’ at the Educate Awards.

The judging panel commended its innovative ‘Year 0’ programme, something Mike is particularly proud of.

“It is not a huge programme but it is for young people who have not got the appropriate academic qualifications to go on to study A-level programmes,” he explains. “It is not because they’re not smart enough, it is because things have just not gone right for them. We wanted to create a circumstance that allows things to go right for them.

“We had a similar programme a few years ago but we realised it wasn’t hard enough for them, and that’s an odd observation to make perhaps, but we found that a lot of organisations that do ‘access programmes’, are centred around students doing BTECs, because BTECs are easier to manage. We learned that the students are getting onto those programmes and at the end of the year, they’re not ready to move on to Level 3 programmes as they hadn’t advanced enough.

“We also recognised that attendance rates weren’t high and that some of these students were the ones that were causing us behavioural problems. We concluded that it was because they were not engaged and they were not working hard enough, so rather than try to make things easier for them, we said ‘Let’s make it harder!’.

“The core of the programme is resitting GCSEs but also doing other things such as an extensive citizenship programme, a pastoral programme where they have to do volunteer work and the Duke of Edinburgh. It is a whole package to try and help them develop and grow as human beings. The outcomes have been fantastic and the dropout rate is lower than it was for the easier course because we believed in them.”

Reflecting on his own leadership style, Mike shares three key elements that make up his approach.

He says: “You’ve got to be a good example in the sense that you’ve got to be someone who works hard and has credibility. From that, in terms of management, I believe it’s very important to give real clarity to people’s roles. I think a lot of people in management are not entirely sure what they should be doing, or whether someone else should be doing that.

“Stemming from that, and this is probably the most important bit, they’ve got to have genuine ownership. For me, I’ve got to let go and properly delegate and try not to micromanage people. If I put that person in a position of authority and given clarity in the job, then my job is to support them in doing it.

“If you give people genuine ownership, then you get more creativity and more freedom and you encourage them to take a few more risks.”

Mike also advocates for a culture of accountability where any blame is directed upward rather than downward.

He explains: “If I have put someone in a position to do a job and it fails, who’s fault is that? My view is it’s my fault, not theirs because I put them in that job, I gave them the remit and then I’m the person who should be touching base to see how it’s going, monitoring and supporting them. You’ve got to invest a lot of time in working with your team and really talk through what they’re doing.”

Mike’s vision for the flourishing sixth form is grounded in simplicity yet profound in its implications.

“I want us to stay true to who we are,” he states. “There are a lot of things that can come along and blow you off course and you’ve got to be strong in the face of those, whether it’s pressure from the government, the DfE or parents, you should always listen to representations but not be moved by force.

There’s nothing quite like teaching in terms of taking a group of young people and sharing your views.

“I want us to become a better version of ourselves. I talk about the positivity of students and wanting to unleash what’s in them, it is a matter of unleashing what’s in us but not becoming something different.”

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