Katharine Birbalsingh: Britain’s ‘strictest head teacher’ takes aim at Jess Phillips

Former social mobility tsar accuses Labour MP of racism in Twitter spat

Katharine Birbalsingh with Michael Gove
Katharine Birbalsingh alongside Education Secretary Michael Gove at the Tory conference in 2010
(Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Britain’s most high-profile head teacher has accused Labour MP Jess Phillips of “racist and bullying behaviour”.

Katharine Birbalsingh, founder of the Michaela Community free school in London and once-dubbed Britain’s “strictest head teacher”, posted a “sensational” four-page open letter to Labour leader Keir Starmer following a Twitter row over Tina Turner, said the Daily Mail.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson has defended her colleague, saying she was not racist. “Phillips did not refer to Ms Birbalsingh’s ethnicity in any of her posts,” added the BBC, noting that the head teacher had also “attracted controversy during her time as the chair of the Social Mobility Commission between November 2021 and January 2023”.

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Who is Katherine Birbalsingh?

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.

She was invited to speak at the Conservative Party Conference in 2010, where she talked about a “culture of excuses” and “low standards” in classrooms. In a particularly headline-grabbing section of her speech at a fringe event, she was reported to say: “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.”

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.

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

Speaking to The Times about her philosophy, she said that giving a child detention “is an act of love”. Many of her pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have gone on to attend the country’s best universities, noted The Sun. In 2022, the school said 91% of all A-level exams were graded A* to B, with students heading to universities including Oxford, LSE, Imperial and UCL.

‘Powerful and visionary’

In October 2021, the government picked Birbalsingh to chair the Social Mobility Commission. Boris Johnson praised her as “powerful and visionary” but she admitted to The Times that she would not advise her pupils to “be like him”. The role included advocating for the social mobility agenda and holding to account key educational institutions.

Birbalsingh courted controversy in the role, once claiming 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”.

Tina Turner Twitter row

The latest row, between Phillips and Birbalsingh, dates back to May, when Birbalsingh posted a gif of Tina Turner, which included images of the iconic star alongside her abusive husband Ike, with the caption “good times”.

Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, then tweeted: “Hold the line! Stay with me! Domestic abuse is never ok and we will defeat those who prop up the status quo.”

On Saturday, Birbalsingh wrote an open-letter to Starmer claiming Phillips had “inspired a vicious mob attack against me on Twitter” and “called into question my school’s safeguarding policies in a deliberative attempt to challenge my competence as a headteacher”.

“Her behaviour is a clear example of ‘unconscious bias’,” said Birbalsingh in the statement. “I mean that she hates me, despite not knowing me, because she subscribes to the idea that Black and Asian individuals in public life owe a duty to voice opinions that match with a left-wing view of the world, or they are worthy of her contempt.”

The head teacher added that she reported Phillips to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Asked on Sky’s Sophie Ridge On Sunday if she thought Phillips was racist, her colleague Phillipson said: “No, I don’t. But I think it’s important that, if people have concerns, if they’re unhappy about the conduct of a member of parliament, that can be investigated as part of that process.”

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