Social mobility

Katharine Birbalsingh to become government’s new social mobility tsar

Country's 'strictest head' previously said 'woke are racist' and warned against teaching "white privilege"

Country's 'strictest head' previously said 'woke are racist' and warned against teaching "white privilege"

Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher of the country’s “strictest school”, has been named as the government’s preferred candidate to chair the Social Mobility Commission.

The government said the appointment would help its “levelling up” commitment. Birbalsingh will lead a “renewed focus … on areas such as regional disparities, employment, education and enterprise”.

She will remain as head of the Michaela free school, in north London, dubbed the strictest school in the country with silent corridors and other controversial policies such as ditching SEND labels and giving detentions for failing to have a pen.

Equalities minister Liz Truss, who appointed Birbalsingh, said “by expecting high standards and not indulging the soft bigotry of low expectations she is producing amazing results at Michaela school and giving children the best chance in life.

“She will bring that same attitude to the Commission and be a loud champion of equality of opportunity.”

Schools Week first revealed Birbalsingh was a leading contender for the role in July.

Priority to ‘develop sound evidence base to push change’

Birbalsingh, who received a CBE for her services to education last year, said: “As we recover from the pandemic, this is the moment to develop a culture in our society which provides an equal chance for all.

“From education, to early years in the home and onto the world of work, improving social mobility is more vital than ever, and I look forward to taking up this important role.”

Her “immediate priorities” include “developing a sound evidence base from which change can flow”.

“On the one hand, I want to inspire real action that will encourage people to seize the opportunities available to them, and on the other, I want to ensure that the government and other public bodies are delivering on their commitments to providing such opportunities, so that we really can ‘level up’ every region of the UK,” she added.

Birbalsingh will face a hearing in front of the women and equalities committee before being appointed in the coming weeks.

The assessment panel includes Dame Rachel de Souza, a former academy trust chief turned children’s commissioner.

Once her selection is ratified, a public appointments campaign will be run later in the autumn to find new commissioners. Chief Executive of Oldham College, Alun Francis, is to be named deputy chair.

Birbalsingh previously said ‘the woke racists’

Birbalsingh rose to prominence after she told of the country’s “broken” education system at the Conservative party conference in 2010, receiving a standing ovation.

Her appointment is likely to be seized on by critics as another example of the government’s culture wars attack on “woke”.

Earlier this year she said “the woke are racist”. She’s also accused “woke cultural racism” for “mercilessly attacking” black Conservatives who “betray their leftist masters by daring to think for themselves”.

The comments followed the controversial Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities which was dubbed a whitewash by campaigners after it found the “claim the country is still institutionally racist is not borne out by the evidence”.

Birbalsingh also warned schools in June against teaching about “white privilege all the time [as it] actually undermines black children because it tells them that the establishment is against them”.

Back in 2016, the education reformer told The Sunday Times:  “I think all schools should be super-strict. It is about believing that children do best in an ordered and structured environment.”

‘Work will address real, not tokenistic, issues’

The social mobility commission has been led by interim co-chairs Sandra Wallace and Steven Cooper since July 2020.

The government said Michaela’s positive impact on ethnic minority children and the track record it has on social mobility were behind her appointment.

Truss added she was “focused on closing the education gap, employment gap and enterprise gap across Britain”.

“Our equality work will address the worries that keep people up at night – like having a good job and getting their child a good education – not tokenistic issues divorced from their everyday concerns.”

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  1. Bill Moore

    I hope she will be able to clarify what ‘levelling up’ actually is and explain how schools are supposed to address the widening gap between rich and poor before she even starts looking at/for evidence. Also that she draws evidence from a wide base and not simply a narrow and ideological one. Clearly she is someone who can make a difference, but this needs an ability to create a vision that people can buy into and share.

    • Patrick

      What “widening gap” between rich and poor ?
      And how are “rich” and “poor” being defined ?

      And if, after definitions can be accepted, there remains such a problem, how is that a matter for schools ?

      Surely the bigger problem – and one that many schools experience daily – is the difference between different cultural outlooks ?

      What are the best ways to help the children of a family where books are few – not because they lack money, but because the parents favour screen time ?

      How is homework to be produced, when the parents have little or no aspiration for their children ?
      Again, money- issues may be irrelevant.

      Surely “culture” is a significant factor – as evidenced by the relative success of Indian children and those from Africa (rather than the Caribbean), with parents who are aspirational, but not necessarily “rich” ?

  2. Janet Downs

    The tide may be turning re super-strict schools. The Times, which usually features only such schools (eg Ebbsfleet Academy aka ‘Colditz’ when under the headship of the now-departed head), did a large feature on 9 October about a state secondary school (XP) in Doncaster with no uniform and no traditional lessons which has been doing very well. At the same time The Times published posters allegedly used at Holland Park school to humiliate struggling pupils. The downside of competition regularly put forward by the gov’t and its supporters as an essential policy in ‘raising standards’.

  3. Peter Endersby

    I think if she cannot clearly spell out what her role is and how she plans to achieve, “Levelling Up” or clearly define what this is then she should spend everyday after work in detention and miss all her lunchtimes, whilst writing out a 100 times, ” I am a control freak who believes children should be seen but not heard.”