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Katharine Birbalsingh: the government’s controversial social mobility tsar

Education reformer has hit the headlines throughout her career

Working-class people should aim lower than Oxbridge, the government’s new social mobility tsar will say today in her first speech in the role.

Katharine Birbalsingh will argue that people from poor backgrounds should take “smaller steps” rather than aiming for elite universities, making progress “up the ladder – from the bottom and from the middle rungs”.

‘Typically immigrant’

Birbalsingh was born in 1973 in New Zealand and grew up mostly in Toronto, with brief spells living in Nigeria and France. She told The Sunday Times that her upbringing was “typically immigrant”, with her parents “always working really hard, saving all their money, always doing the right thing, heads down”.

She was 15 when the family moved to England because her father, an Indian-Guyanese academic who was “warm but strict”, had begun lecturing at the University of Warwick.

She studied philosophy and modern languages at New College, Oxford. As an undergraduate she discovered her passion for education when she visited inner-city schools to encourage the children to apply to Oxbridge.

‘Tory teacher’

After graduating, Birbalsingh went into teaching in state schools in south London. In 2007 she set up an anonymous blog, To Miss with Love, where she wrote about her colleagues and children, soon getting up to 500 views a day.

Her posts attracted the attention of Steve Hilton, the Conservative Party’s director of strategy, who invited her to speak alongside Michael Gove, then the education secretary, at the party’s conference in 2010, where she spoke of a “culture of excuses” and “low standards” in classrooms.

In a particularly headline-grabbing section of her speech at a fringe event, she said: “If you keep telling teachers that they’re racist for trying to discipline black boys and if you keep telling heads that they’re racist for trying to exclude black boys, in the end the schools stop reprimanding these children,” the Daily Mail reported at the time.

After her speech hit the headlines she lost her teaching job. When she tried to open a free school in Brixton shortly afterwards, it was mobbed with placards saying “Tory teacher”. She was called a traitor and a Nazi, said The Times.

A friend and former colleague told The Guardian in 2011 that they were “increasingly perplexed by her shifts of public persona over the years, which seem to bear little relation to my knowledge and experience of her as she ‘really’ is, or was”.

In 2014, Birbalsingh established Michaela Community School, a free school in Wembley Park, northwest London. The establishment became notorious for its strict behaviour policy.

Speaking to The Times about her philosophy, she said that giving a child a detention “is an act of love” and said the rule for silence in corridors meant “you’re not following up on fights in the corridors or kids turning up late”.

Many of her pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have gone on to attend the country’s best universities, noted The Sun. Last year, the school said, 82% of sixth-formers went on to top universities including Cambridge, the London School of Economics, St Andrews and Imperial College.

‘Powerful and visionary’

In October 2021, the government picked Birbalsingh to chair the Social Mobility Commission. Boris Johnson has praised her as “powerful and visionary” but she admitted to The Times that she would not advise her pupils to “be like him”.

Her role includes setting the agenda of the commission and being an advocate for the social mobility agenda, which includes holding to account and challenging “key institutions in areas such as higher education”, said the government website.

In her speech at the Policy Exchange in London today, she is expected to say: “We want to move away from the notion that social mobility should just be about the ‘long’ upward mobility from the bottom to the top – the person who is born into a family in social housing and becomes a banker or CEO.”

Instead, she will call for “a broader view of social mobility, for a wider range of people, who want to improve their lives, sometimes in smaller steps” so “if a child of parents who were long-term unemployed, or who never worked, gets a good job in their local area, isn’t that a success worth celebrating?”

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