Katharine Birbalsingh: More money won’t solve striking teachers’ problems

Now that she has resigned from the commission, Birbalsingh feels she can speak freely once again about what she believes is holding society back from achieving social mobility - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph
Now that she has resigned from the commission, Birbalsingh feels she can speak freely once again about what she believes is holding society back from achieving social mobility - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

“You can’t say that”. Those are the words that Katharine Birbalsingh kept hearing during her short-lived stint as social mobility tsar.

The controversial head of Michaela Community School in north west London was appointed as the Government’s chief advisor on social mobility just over a year ago. Ms Birbalsingh, whose “no excuses” policy earned her a reputation as “Britain’s strictest headteacher”, had big plans for the new role. Speaking to The Telegraph just after she was appointed, she was excited to bring her “tough love” approach to the nation, saying she wanted to start by tackling bad parenting.

However she soon found herself under fire from fellow teachers, who said they would not take the Social Mobility Commission’s work seriously under her leadership. Earlier this month she resigned as the Commission’s chair, saying she “came with too much baggage” and had come to the conclusion that her outspoken nature was doing the Commission “more harm than good”.

In her first interview since stepping down, speaking to me from the tidy office at Michaela, the free school she set up in Wembley in 2014,  she explains how she was unable to continue in a role where she felt forced to stifle her views. “What I always hear from the public is ‘you can’t say that as the chair of the Social Mobility Commission. It may be true, but you can’t say it’,” she recalls.

“There is an expectation that the public has of people in positions like that, where you should not say things that are controversial. I would probably argue that it shouldn’t be that way. But that is how they think.”

Wearing a bright magenta dress and a scarf around her neck, her headteacher aura is so powerful that it has the effect of making you wish you had polished your shoes before leaving the house that morning.

Birbalsingh in her inaugural speech as chair of the Social Mobility Commission - PA
Birbalsingh in her inaugural speech as chair of the Social Mobility Commission - PA

Does the fact that we are unable to confront “taboos” about social mobility mean we will never be able to make progress on the issue? “I just think there are perhaps not enough people who understand the nuances,” she says.

Birbalsingh is not afraid to speak her mind. During her brief stint as the Government’s chief advisor on social mobility, she made headlines by pointing out that there is too much focus on those from deprived backgrounds getting into top universities like Oxbridge and securing elite jobs as bankers and CEOs. Instead more attention should be paid to those taking small steps up, like those whose parents were unemployed who now have a job, the son of a postman becoming a branch manager or the daughter of a care worker becoming a primary school teacher.

“I talked about how there can be short mobilities and long mobilities, and that we ignore short mobilities,” she recalls. “We only admire the kids who get to Oxford, or the kid who grew up in the slums and becomes a billionaire, when actually there are all kinds of people enabling social mobility for themselves”. But she says her remarks were interpreted as her telling poor children to “stay in their lane” – which was not what she meant at all.

While in the role, Birbalsingh also argued that white teachers should teach ethnic minority children to sing the national anthem even if it makes them “uncomfortable”. Schoolchildren should learn the song or risk being taught they don’t “belong” in their own country, she explained as she criticised the “pernicious” identity politics shaping school culture and criticised the drive to “decolonise” the curriculum.

And she claimed that elite private schools are being hollowed out by “woke” culture, warning that they had lost their traditional sense of duty towards the less fortunate. Writing an essay for a new edition of a book entitled The State of Independence, she said that fee-charging schools had been seduced by child-centred learning, creativity and independence, and had handed authority to pupils.

Birbalsingh, who was made a CBE in 2020, first rose to prominence at the Tory party conference in 2010, where she delivered an impassioned speech about how schools have been “blinded by Leftist ideology”, leading to a lack of discipline and bad behaviour. She earned a standing ovation for her scathing attack on a “culture of excuses” and the dumbing down of standards in schools, which she said had driven her from being a Marxist to voting Tory for the first time that year.

But such was the furore sparked by her speech that shortly afterwards she parted ways with the south London academy where she was deputy head. With the backing of the then education secretary Michael Gove, she got to work setting up her own free school.

Founded on strict disciplinary principles and a traditional teaching ethos, Birbalsingh’s approach appeared to be vindicated when the first cohort of pupils’ GCSE results were four times the national average. The school has gone from strength to strength, with its latest results showing almost 75 per cent of GCSEs were awarded top grades of 7, 8 or 9 (equivalent to A* or A).

This is no mean feat for a school that is located in Brent, one of the poorest boroughs in London. Over a quarter (26.7 per cent) of its pupils come from deprived backgrounds and some 70 per cent speak English as a second language. The school also caters to an above average number of pupils with special educational needs.

Now that she has resigned from the commission, Birbalsingh feels she can speak freely once again about what she believes is holding society back from achieving social mobility.

“One of those taboos that people aren’t allowed to talk about is the family and fathers in the family,” she says. “People don’t like talking about the evidence that shows that children, on average, that grow up in two-parent families will do better than children who do not. But people feel like somehow you’re insulting the single parent families.”

She says there are, of course, exceptions and some single-parent families are doing a “brilliant job” of raising their children. The key, she explains, is consistency. This means that even if a child is brought up between two different households, both parents must have the same approach to discipline and the same high expectations for the children. She does not have hard evidence to support her theory, she admits, but insists that with 25 years of working in inner city schools she has seen first hand the damage that broken families can have on their child’s life chances.

“I just know anecdotally over the years that those children who fare better in single-parent families have the consistency between their split homes,” she says. “For other children who don’t have that consistency, there is unpredictability: dad isn’t around and then suddenly he shows up. When dad shows up with loads of gifts, he isn’t actually doing the hard stuff of expecting homework to be done and so on. The other parent is actually more of a disruptive force in their child’s lives, as opposed to being a helpful and supportive voice to the main primary care giver.”

She says children excel when both parents are “singing from the same hymn sheet”. This means presenting a united front to their offspring when it comes to rules and regimes, so there is no room for misinterpretation about what is expected of them.

Consistency is also crucial at schools, she argues, but this does not go down well with teachers who want to feel as though they have total autonomy in the classroom.

Birbalsingh with pupils from The Michaela Community School - David Rose for The Telegraph
Birbalsingh with pupils from The Michaela Community School - David Rose for The Telegraph

Another taboo that people don’t like to discuss is the role that cultural heritage and ethnicity plays in determining a child’s success in life. Despite evidence showing that white working class pupils often fare far worse in school than their peers from similar socio-economic backgrounds, this is not something people like to talk about. Indeed, when the education select committee announced in April 2020 plans to launch an inquiry into white working class pupils’ underachievement, the then chair, Robert Halfon MP, was forced to deny that focusing on this issue was “racist”.

Birbalsingh points out that people find it distasteful to talk about this as “people feel that you’re bashing a particular ethnicity”. But she says “my anecdotal evidence would tell us that these are families and communities that value hard work and take a sense of ownership over their own lives,” she says. “Those that don’t identify as victims and instead build resilience to be able to jump over obstacles. I’ve known children of all ethnicities who’ve been like that and they’ve done very well, no matter how poor they are.

“There’s often this misconception that families that are poor cannot be interested in education. That’s just not true. I have known many poor families of different ethnicities, who have taken great interest in education and have been hugely supportive of their children, that have embraced those small C conservative values, and have as such made a success of their children’s lives”.

She argues that the culture of a school is crucial for helping children achieve their potential – and warns that teachers must not allow young people to “indulge” in a victimhood narrative. Schools need to foster a culture that “embraces personal responsibility, encourages you to be resilient and teaches you how to demonstrate gratitude for whatever you’ve got, no matter how little it is”.

Birbalsingh adds: “It’s our job as adults to build them up so that they can be resilient to that temptation to allow victimhood to pull them down. And that’s about who’s around you. Are you lucky enough to have somebody who says ‘pick yourself up, come on, let’s go’?

“We tend to think of those people who say ‘pick yourself up’ as bad people; they’re mean, I’m the ‘strictest headmistress in Britain’. People aren’t saying that in a nice way – they’re criticising me because they think enabling children to take personal responsibility and holding them to account is mean. The taboo is that when you hold the line for children, you’re considered mean.”

She says today’s society has the same issue with parents as it does with schools – that they are considered “mean” for taking a strict approach, such as not allowing their child a phone, or not allowing them out past a certain time at night. “People say ‘well you’re just a bit mean, you’re a bit fuddy duddy, come on, just relax a bit, take a chill pill. Why are you such a stick-in-the-mud?’ And that, unfortunately, I think is our culture.”

Birbalsingh is not the first social mobility commissioner to quit the role prematurely. In 2017, Alan Milburn resigned as chair of the commission, claiming that ministers are failing to make the “necessary progress” to “bring about a fairer Britain”.

The former Labour Cabinet minister, who was joined in walking out by his three fellow commissioners, including the Conservative former cabinet minister Baroness Shephard, said there was “zero prospect” of the Government tackling social mobility. The mass resignations were seen at the time as a major setback for Theresa May, who entered No 10 promising to tackle the “burning injustices” that hold back poorer people. In his resignation letter, Milburn said the preoccupation with Brexit meant the Government “does not have the necessary bandwidth to ensure the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality”.

Birbalsingh was born in New Zealand and grew up in Canada before moving to England with her family (she has a younger sister) when she was 15. She is the daughter of Norma, a Jamaican nurse, and Frank, an Indo-Guyanese academic. She read French and philosophy at Oxford before going on to teach French at a series of inner city London schools, writing about her experiences in an anonymous blog which in 2011 was turned into a book entitled To Miss with Love.

This week, the UK’s largest union for teachers will begin seven days of walkouts in a dispute with the Government over pay. They are demanding a 12 per cent pay rise for their members, compared with the five per cent offered by the Government so far. The National Education Union (NEU), which has about 300,000 members in England and Wales, says more than 20,000 teachers have joined its ranks since it announced the industrial action.

But Birbalsingh has a surprising message for teachers who are striking: that more money from the Government will not solve their problems. In her view, school staff are walking out because they are unhappy – because pupils are badly behaved and they are overcome with bureaucracy.

“I feel for teachers because life can be very hard for them in the classroom due to poor behaviour, insane amounts of bureaucracy and because they can work very hard and feel a lack of purpose as they’re not necessarily seeing the impact of their work,” she says.

“It is the bureaucracy and the behaviour that we need to fix. But, as usual, we think the solution is more money, and that’s what we should be striking about. People strike when they’re unhappy. And I think there is a lot for teachers to be unhappy about. And what’s going to fix things for them is not more money; it’s better ideas.”

Birbalsingh: ‘There’s often this misconception that families that are poor cannot be interested in education – that’s just not true’ - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph
Birbalsingh: ‘There’s often this misconception that families that are poor cannot be interested in education – that’s just not true’ - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

Birbalsingh believes the strikes will only mean added hardship for pupils who are only just recovering now from the “devastating” impact of the pandemic on their education. “Last year, there was a lot [of help given to] young people taking their GCSEs and A-levels; certain topics were cut from the exams. There was a lot of support for those children because it was understood that they had really missed a whole year of their course,” she says.

Whereas young people taking GCSEs and A-levels last year had adjustments made to their exam papers, this summer will mark a return to normal. The exam regulator Ofqual has ruled that no adjustments would be made to this summer’s public examinations to accommodate the impact of the pandemic.

For pupils taking exams last year, the Department for Education published information on which topics will appear on most papers in an attempt to help students and mitigate the disruption to education over the past few years. However, for 2023, the Department for Education confirmed “the return to full subject content coverage for those GCSE subjects”.

Birbalsingh says that while pupils overall have been catching up, this year’s exam group are in the same position as pupils were last year.

“They’ve also missed a year, they suffered just as much as last year’s cohort did,” she says. “But nothing’s being cut. And everybody just feels it’s all going back to normal. And so I feel a bit sorry for the kids going through this year in year 11 and year 13 because everyone’s forgotten that Covid happened.”

She says her best advice for families is to encourage their children to do more work at home to guarantee their success later in life. This is the message she will continue to instil in families at her own school, as well as the thousands of parents who contact her on social media to ask her for advice – no matter how unpopular it appears to outsiders.

She recalls how she was recently asked on Twitter by a father about how he can help his child prepare for their upcoming exams.

“I said, well, three hours a night of work. Aim for four. People actually think it’s outrageous that a child should work three to four hours a night in the run up towards exams. [But] They leave school at 3.15pm and they don’t go to sleep until well after 10.15pm, so they’ve got more than seven hours available to them. And they can’t spend half of that doing work? I mean, what else am I going to say?”