MPs give Birbalsingh social mobility role green light

Committee says outspoken head will 'need to demonstrate her ability to listen' to those 'with whom she will not always agree'

Committee says outspoken head will 'need to demonstrate her ability to listen' to those 'with whom she will not always agree'

MPs have signed off on the appointment of Katharine Birbalsingh as chair of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC), but warned she will need to listen to those “with whom she will not always agree”.

The Parliamentary women and equalities committee concluded Birbalsingh, known as the head of the country’s “strictest school”, was a “bold and interesting” choice for SMC chair, and recommended her appointment for an initial three-year term.

She will need to demonstrate her ability to listen to, and work collegiately with, colleagues and stakeholders with whom she will not always agree

The controversial founder and head of Michaela Community School was grilled by the committee last month after being named as the government’s preferred candidate for the role.

The committee has now published its report, which states Birbalsingh has “several major strengths”.

These included a “track record of enhancing the life chances of disadvantaged young people”, and a “forceful character with the ability to challenge institutions and received wisdom”.

She also has “forthright views on education”, which she has “robustly defended against opposition from within the sector”.

However, while the committee said it “admired and valued” her robustness, it warned that as chair, she would “need to demonstrate her ability to listen to, and work collegiately with, colleagues and stakeholders with whom she will not always agree”.

‘Narrow field of experience’ questioned

In their report, MPs also noted her “relatively narrow field of experience in secondary education”, with her vision for social mobility beyond the sphere of education was “much less clear”.

This was “mitigated, in part” by the appointment of Alun Francis as the commission’s deputy chair.

But MPs said she would need “further support from a wide range of fellow commissioners with diverse backgrounds, knowledge and experience across all relevant areas of social policy and sectors of the economy”.

MPs find Birbalsingh a ‘suitable candidate’

However, “on consideration”, the committee found Birbalsingh was a “suitable candidate” for the role.

The committee has also published the supporting statement submitted by Birbalsingh in her application for the post.

In it, she said she had made “bad ideas my enemy and I have taken many punches from my detractors in order to pursue wider goals for the country”.

Birbalsingh said she sought out challenge from others “because in order to disrupt the status quo, different approaches are required”.

Birbalsingh stays at Michaela to ‘guarantee’ school’s role in ‘revolutionising education’

She also said she was “sometimes asked” why she had stayed at Michaela as head “when other opportunities have been sent my way”.

“Heads like me normally move to CEO with speed. It is also the case that good schools tend to expand quickly,” she said.

“I have both delayed the expansion of Michaela and refused to leave my post as headmistress in order to establish and guarantee Michaela’s role in the bigger fight for the country in revolutionising education.”

On why she applied for the role, she said: “When on my deathbed, I want to be able to look back and say I did all that I could to enable social mobility for the poorest in our country. Being the chair of the social mobility commission would, in part, give me the chance to say that I lived a life worth living.”

Criticism over ‘original sin’ tweet

It comes after Birbalsingh was criticised for a social media post in which she suggested that all children were born with “original sin”.

Responding to a tweet which stated we are “all born bad”, the school leader responded: “Exactly. Original sin. Children need to be taught right from wrong and then habituated into choosing good over evil.”

Departing commissioner Saeed Atcha told The Times her comments were “unhelpful”, and said the role of the SMC chair was not “whipping up division”.

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  1. Janet Downs

    Ms Birbalsingh doesn’t have a track record of listening to those who disagree with her. They are dismissed in derogatory terms. Michaela is held up as an example for others to follow but the 2019* GCSE cohort was skewed towards the top end. 40% of the cohort were previously high-achievers while just 13% were previously low-achievers. This makes it more likely for the school to have a higher P8 score than schools with more previously low-achievers. At the same time, GCSE options are limited to the same five EBacc subjects + RS. Only 10 of the 114 students took GCSE art.
    *Latest data available from Get Information About Schools.