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From the file

The Backstory | A series of in-depth conversations with people who have the power to shape events

Episode 11: Katharine Birbalsingh

Episode 11: Katharine Birbalsingh


In the final episode of this series Andrew Neil talks to the headteacher and chair of the Social Mobility Commission about education policy, her teaching philosophy and how her own background shapes it


Andrew Neil, narrating: Hello I’m Andrew Neil and this is The Backstory, a series of in-depth interviews with people who have the power to shape events and to influence our understanding of them.  

In this final episode of the series I’m joined by someone who’s embraced being described as “Britain’s strictest head teacher”.  

Katharine Birbalsingh runs the Michaela Free School in north west London with a no-nonsense culture and has outstanding Ofsted ratings in all areas. But her approach and some of her public comments have caused controversy.  

In 2021 the government made her chair of the Social Mobility Commission and we talk about her views on that issue in the interview. We also discuss the state of state education in Britain and the approach she takes with her pupils.  

This is The Backstory from Tortoise.  


Andrew Neil: Katharine Birbalsingh, you first came to the public’s attention in 2010 when you gave a speech at the Conservative Party Conference; you described Britain’s school system as “broken”, how would you describe it now?

Katharine Birbalsingh: It’s on its way up, but the thing is that there are still lots to do, two thirds of disadvantaged children don’t get a good pass at English and Maths GCSE and one third of all children don’t get a good pass at Maths and English GCSE; that’s a five, and I think they should.  So there is still lots to do and I am known for my traditionalism, I am not pro progressive teaching, I believe that the teacher should impart knowledge, stand at the front of the class, desks in rows, in the way that you were probably educated Andrew, and I believe in strict discipline, high standards for the children.  So the opposite to that, because some of your listeners might think but isn’t that what everyone has in school, in your day yes, but nowadays you might have desks in groups where the children are looking at each other and what happens is what’s called child-centred learning where the teacher might go around and help the children stay on task, but the teacher isn’t really leading the learning.  And then of course in terms of discipline I would say that people’s standards just aren’t high enough.

Andrew Neil: In what way has it got better?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Well, I would say the kind of Michael Gove revolution from 2010 onwards, a lot of schools like mine, Michaela, have sprung up and if not entire schools, but at least different teachers have taken on board this idea that we should have knowledge as central to our classrooms where we believe we are the experts in the room and we are leading the children forward.  That, before 2010, it wasn’t even up for discussion, progressive teaching methods were just the norm.

Andrew Neil: There’s quite a lot of evidence I think that the pandemic lockdown has had a devastating impact on a lot of pupils, especially those from poorer backgrounds, have you seen that for yourself?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, definitely, massive impact.  This is obviously just anecdotal, but if there are lots of children in the house or you don’t have a mum or dad there who’s able to keep you on task and if you’re not at a school that’s providing you with perhaps Zoom lessons or lots of work to get on with that’s accessible to you, and even when you’re provided with the work, well, if mum doesn’t speak English to be able to support you with it obviously, you’re going to fall behind.  If you’re not able to hire tutors that’s going to count against you.  So I do think in the GCSE results that come now, this year, we’re going to see a big divide between how the private school kids end up doing and disadvantaged ones.

Andrew Neil: You talked about some of the school reforms that happened under Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary, there had been some before that and there have been some, perhaps not as many since, but when you look at the figures, two things always seem to be depressingly constant: disadvantaged kids still achieve lower grades than their peers across all ethnic groups and attainment scores show significant disparities between boys and girls.  Are these the toughest nuts to crack?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Well, what I always say, people say, “Oh, it’s white, working-class kids in the north or it’s black kids in the inner city”, and they pick out a particular group and they say, “That’s where we need to focus our attention”.

Andrew Neil: But I didn’t do that.

Katharine Birbalsingh: No, you didn’t, but when we ask these kinds of questions, I suppose it could have prompted me to answer in that way, and I would say that what you need is excellent teaching and high standards of discipline.  When you have that the vulnerable groups don’t fall off the wagon.  When you don’t have that your vulnerable groups are the ones who suffer the most and then that’s when you have white working-class children or black inner-city kids or kids who have a single mum or kids who live on an estate doing badly in comparison to their peers.

Andrew Neil: Given these endemic issues, is education enough of a national priority for the Johnson government?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Well, it’s not just the Johnson government, it’s for any government.

Andrew Neil: But we have the Johnson government at the moment.

Katharine Birbalsingh: It’s true, but education isn’t a vote winner, so I would say that any government is interested in what the people are interested in, and unfortunately everyone’s always very interested in education when their child is in Year 6 and they’re trying to get them into a secondary school.  Then it’s the most important thing in the world, but once their child gets into secondary school, they lose interest.  And of course there is a certain section of society, if they choose private then they don’t really care so much about the state sector.  So I always feel like I’m screaming into the abyss and saying children are our future, don’t we get it, come on!  The future of our country depends on the children and it’s so important what we’re doing in schools and that we get it right, not just for disadvantaged kids, but for all of our kids so that somebody can one day find a cure for cancer so that some of my kids will become dentists, some of them will become revolutionaries.  You want children to be able to fulfil their potential and reach for the stars and too often I feel like nobody’s listening.

Andrew Neil: Could you name a distinctive Boris Johnson educational policy?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Recently I was very upset with their White Paper because they seemed to be taking a lot of freedoms away from the academies.

Andrew Neil: From free schools like yours, they seemed to be clawing back part of, it’s almost as if it was written by the civil servants who never wanted to lose these powers in the first place?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, and I worry about what you just said, exactly.  I just feel like that and I don’t really understand it because you wouldn’t expect Boris Johnson and his party to want to do that, so I’m just a bit confused, I don’t really understand because the whole point of free schools and academies is that there is an independence given to them so that they can think outside the box and they can do things differently.  And if standalone academies or free schools like mine aren’t able to do that and we end up being swallowed up by a bigger academy chain then well, I just think it takes the innovation out of education which is so necessary to keep us all on our toes.

Andrew Neil: So far what you’ve said is that the one distinctive Johnson education policy is one that reverses some of the recent reforms.

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, that’s true, that is true.

Andrew Neil: And yet we have a situation where 9000 schools in England, 9000, still don’t have access to broadband, the catch-up fund out of pandemic was so poorly funded that the government’s own catch-up tsar resigned, the Select Committee of the Commons in March, chaired by a Tory, said that catch up tutoring was not fit for purpose, that they were teaching to empty classrooms to meet their targets.  And we then discovered that more was spent on teaching Latin than boosting attendance of at-risk kids.  There would seem to be a lot to do.

Katharine Birbalsingh: There is a lot to do.  I wouldn’t necessarily blame the government for that though, what I would say is that people feel that what we need is catch up funding and then you give out the funding and it will be okay, but it depends on what you do with that funding.  Too often I hear stories for instance of children being pulled out of their lessons to be given this extra tutoring, but if they were in their lessons learning then they would be accessing that content.  The thing is that bad ideas can explain why some schools are not able to deliver what they should be able to deliver, and that has to do with excellent discipline and excellent teaching.  And how you convince people, I’m always trying to win people’s hearts and minds on this and saying come and see my school, Michaela, come and see what we do and let me persuade you – people call me the strictest headmistress in Britain, and that doesn’t mean I’m mean, it means I love the children and it means that they can reach for the absolute highest in an environment where they feel safe and secure to put their hands up and really celebrate their learning.  But not everybody in teaching is convinced of that and so they lower their standards, in particular for kids who perhaps come from poorer backgrounds and so on because they feel awkward about their own privilege and so they feel bad about asking children who they feel are not as privileged as them to do more – you must do your homework, I’m going to put you in detention for that.  And then they think yes, but what if he doesn’t have a place to do his homework at home, he doesn’t have his own desk, I can’t really demand that of him, it’s unfair.  And so it comes from a good place of compassion, but in the end that compassion means that that child may end up functionally illiterate or functionally innumerate.

Andrew Neil: In that speech to the Tory Conference 12 years ago you criticised the teaching unions for shielding bad teachers, now since then we’ve had 12 years of Tory government, is that still the case?

Katharine Birbalsingh: The difficulty for any union is that they are doing their job at protecting teachers and protecting teachers in particular if they’re under bad management, but they won’t distinguish between a good teacher and a bad teacher, so of course they’re going to protect the bad teachers too.  And what I’d say is that no particular union is responsible for this, but because of the kind of culture that exists in education it can be difficult to move a failing teacher on, and head teachers may shy away from doing that because of the culture, because they don’t want to be hated, because they don’t want to go up against the unions.  And that’s unfortunate because of course who loses out but the children.

Andrew Neil: Do we value teachers enough?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Not at all, we should all have huge admiration and respect for teachers.  Unfortunately sometimes some teachers, we don’t help ourselves, we can complain too much, we can be very demanding, in particular with regard to this pandemic for instance, it can make you wince a little when teachers are demanding X, Y and Z, and I’m seeing people working in Sainsbury’s, people working in the buses and so on and they weren’t making similar sorts of demands, so I can sometimes wince.  Having said that, I think people who are not teachers do not understand just how exhausting teaching is, how much it takes out of you, how much teachers love their children and give everything they can to them.  And what always breaks my heart is the way in which teachers, because of bad leadership at the top, can end up being swallowed up by this malaise and the kind of attitude problem that can come from children because the standards aren’t high enough, and so they’re in a battle all day to get children to learn and it’s awful for anybody.

Andrew Neil: Has the unionisation of the teachers, which has gone pretty far over the past four, five, six decades, has that in some ways undermined the status of teachers in the public eye? When I was a kid at school teachers had great social status, they were never paid very much, but they had huge status within society, they were people who were respected, even revered, almost sometimes in the kind of poorer communities I came from you would go to them to resolve something because you trusted their judgement. Have they been proletarianized?

Katharine Birbalsingh: It’s an interesting point. I think there’s lots of reasons, I think with behaviour so poor a lot of people then don’t want to go into teaching and a lot of people end up leaving teaching, and if a profession is having to beg people to come into it then people lose respect for it. As you say, in your day teachers weren’t paid very much so it’s not about the pay, the teachers leave because of workload and because of behaviour. I also have wondered, although it’s interesting you saying in your day that teachers were respected, I always wonder whether because historically it’s been more of a female profession that people can tend not to respect it, just because that’s the sort of thing that women do. I don’t know, I often don’t understand it because it’s so hard, it’s so challenging and to do it really, really well. It’s true about the unions though, if they’re always shouting about certain things when people in the private sector are not shouting about those things, people in the private sector can feel a bit resentful and angry about that, so perhaps that’s part of the reason.

Andrew Neil: Now in 2014 you opened the Michaela Free School in north west London, a poor part of the capital city, but you have an outstanding Ofsted rating and excellent grades at the school, the discipline is rigid, the culture is strong, a lot of us saw that in the ITV documentary that featured your school and you, and we can see what discipline has done. Have you though when you look at some of the rules, certainly from the outside, they seem a bit petty, have you gone too far in the other direction?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, it’s a good question. So the reason why you go that far, let me give you an example of the corridors which are silent.  Why do they have to be silent, why can’t the children just talk quietly?

Andrew Neil: Just to explain, this is that the kids don’t talk to each other as they move between classes at the end of periods.

Katharine Birbalsingh: No, and they walk in single file very quickly. And you might think why can’t they just chat to each other, but what ends up happening when you have a challenging intake – so if you’re a selective school that probably works just fine for you and I don’t have a problem with that, but when you’re in a school with a more challenging intake, say in the inner city, what ends up happening is kids start running and screaming and pushing and shoving, fights break out, children are bullied, children are scared, in some schools staff are scared to walk down the corridor. Now you might say yes, but all you need to do is get them to walk quietly. The problem with quietly as a word is that your quiet is different to my quiet, so if you’re going to hand out a demerit for talking too loudly, they say I was talking the same in the other corridor sir, and sir didn’t give me a demerit so why are you giving me a demerit sir. It’s very difficult to manage, whereas if everybody is silent it’s easy, and then in a minute and a half you do your transition, you’re in your lessons. And you know when you’re trying to catch a child up who is 11 years old and has a chronological reading age of a six-year-old, it’s great to have them in that lesson for a few more moments to be able to expose him to more reading and writing.

Andrew Neil: When I saw the documentary and about some of the rules you have and the strict way they’re enforced as well, and it took me back to my days at school, I went to a pretty strict school, it was a traditional grammar school, and discipline was strong and school uniform was rigidly imposed as well, and it made me wonder, but we didn’t have some of the really strict rules that you have, and then I thought – and I don’t know whether this is a factor that most of the kids who went to my school, not all, including myself, but most of them came from middle class backgrounds and quite disciplined homes, whereas a lot of your children probably coming from backgrounds where there’s a lack of discipline at home.

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, that’s it, so if you have a selective school, you probably don’t need to do these things, but if you don’t these kinds of rules are imperative if you’re going to get the best out of those children. And the thing is, they’re not oppressive, like in our corridor the kids aren’t miserable, they just move quickly to their lesson and then they’re learning loads and they’re happy. So you do what works and that’s what we do, if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t do it, our kids do really well thanks to our strict rules.

Andrew Neil: Is there a danger, because many people are impressed by what you’ve achieved there and when you think, it’s only eight years ago too, education takes a long while to get ready, but you’ve clearly made a change with a lot of these children already, is there a danger that it has become too focused on you as the individual, as you with the reputation of Britain’s strictest head teacher which was the ITV documentary?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, well that’s for the documentary, when we are at school I have a very strong senior team, very strong middle leadership team, and my teachers are brilliant. Yes, I run the school and yes, I’m in school every day, but if I weren’t there, I do feel it would run in the same way.

Andrew Neil: Do you have trouble finding teachers who share your ethos and approach?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, we do, but I always say you only need one person to walk through the door, as long as they’re the right person. And so what is great you see about the free school movement is that you can assemble like-minded people together in one building and then you can deliver that particular ethos, and that’s why I was disappointed by the White Paper recently. It is so important for schools, for the leaders at the top to feel like they own it and they can deliver it like a small start-up, and you put your all into it. We get 600 visitors every year coming in and seeing our classrooms, our kids know they’re special and we feel like we’re doing something amazing. One, we’re changing our kids’ lives, but we’re also having an impact on education, not just in this country, but around the world, and that’s a really exciting prospect which the free school movement has allowed us to do.

Andrew Neil: Are you disappointed that there aren’t more Michaela’s, there are free schools, few with your school’s reputation, are you disappointed that there haven’t been more imitators?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, although there are some, there is a school in the Midlands, they call themselves the Michaela of the Midlands. There are schools and there are lots of teachers that copy us all over the place and there are people who run into me in the street and they’ll say I never used to believe what you said, but now, two years’ later, I’ve realised and I really get what you’re saying. So I feel like we’re part of a revolution, like I said, since Gove’s time a whole bunch of teachers who have come to realise that tradition works in the classroom. And there of course there are small ‘c’, conservative values that we’ve got around feeling a sense of duty towards others, a sense of personal responsibility, not letting the team down we always talk about, and always doing what’s difficult, especially when it’s difficult you do the right thing. Those values are so important to a child succeeding which I think people can sometimes miss out on, they think it’s just about teaching, it’s not, it’s also about empowering children to believe in themselves and not feeling like victims, and not allowing themselves to wallow in that victimhood, but instead to pick themselves up and you keep on going and you jump over those obstacles. There are obstacles in front of my kids, yes, but do we sit down and say woe is me, I grew up in the inner city or my dad wasn’t around or I live on an estate; no, you take the cards you’ve been dealt and you go out and you deal them, that’s what you have to do because otherwise you’re going to be 85, you’re going to look back at your life and say I couldn’t make it in life because I was black or I couldn’t do anything with my life because I had a single mum.  No actually, whatever you’ve got, you go out there and you play those cards and you win, and that approach works, even in the inner city.

Andrew Neil: What happens to the kids that come to your school and don’t fit in?

Katharine Birbalsingh: There’s no such thing, it’s true, we’ve had a few exclusions, but just like any other school, no more than elsewhere, and I wouldn’t say it was because they didn’t fit in, just like any school there are some children who end up in that position, but children will mould to what you want them to be, and all teachers and parents need to understand this. We talk in the west as if it’s completely outside of our control, nobody speaks like this in the east. In the west we say that’s just the way that he is, he’s no good at Maths, he never really took to reading, but then we forget that we put a phone in his hands when he was a toddler so of course he never took to reading. We influence children as parents and as teachers so much and we don’t recognise that, whereas in the east they would always say we need to try harder, you need to do it again, you can learn it differently, they just don’t think in the same way as we do.

Andrew Neil: 50 per cent of your intake on average are on free school meals which is a metric of poverty in our country, 40 per cent have English as a second language which suggests a high immigration, sons and daughters of immigrants, first generation, quite a lot too, and yet you’ve had fantastic results. Some schools with that kind of intake have improved their overall grades through a practice called off-rolling, when the removal is primarily in the school’s interest rather than the pupil’s. Has that ever happened at Michaela?

Katharine Birbalsingh: No, we’re there to change the lives of these children, so children move away obviously, but our children are there and we work hard with them, and yes, there are naughty children, and yes, there are children who are in and out of detention forever until they leave. But that is the whole point of the system, in order to keep them in line, so that they will work hard and get great GCSEs, and so that they don’t disrupt the learning of others, that is also key, which I think people don’t realise, they indulge the children and then they think only about the child who is disrupting as opposed to all the other children in the class whose learning is being disrupted. And that’s what’s really sad, is when children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, are unable to change their stars because they’re in a classroom where there is chaos.

Andrew Neil: The government has made you Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, is social mobility improving, getting worse or stagnant?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Well, it depends on what you look at, so if you look at income for instance it would seem that it’s getting worse, if you look at occupational mobility however it seems to have stable for decades. Now of course at the commission we’ve only looked at things in the past so I can’t say with regard to Covid how things have changed, and I imagine that when we look at that in the future that we might find things are much worse. But right now it’s quite heartening to feel that occupational mobility has been the same for decades, but there is still work to do and with regard to schools, as I was saying, I think there are too many schools that aren’t delivering what they could deliver if they were doing the right things.

Andrew Neil: You talked recently about how social mobility should concentrate more on incremental improvements rather than the rags to riches stories, if I can put it that way, isn’t that though something of a council of despair?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Not at all, look, this idea that everyone should go to Oxford and Cambridge, they’re not going to. Only the very top kids are going to go there and it’s the top kids academically, there are other kids that are top with a variety of different talents who are never ever applauded by the idea of social mobility. Whenever you see a Hollywood film it’s about somebody who has gone from rags to riches which is great, we are all about getting our children to Russell Group universities and to Oxford and we want to celebrate that, but we mustn’t forget the other young people, as I said to you earlier, it is fine if children don’t go to university and go into apprenticeships and make something of their lives that way. There are all different routes to life and we ought to celebrate all of them.

Andrew Neil: There are indeed and as the last century came to an end we had a maid’s son, a grocer’s daughter, a circus entertainer’s son, all become our Prime Minister. In this century, the 21st century, every Prime Minister has come from a middle or upper middle-class family, three went to public school, two to the same one – Eton, the other went to Scotland’s Eton, Fettes, Mr Blair, the other two went to selective grammar schools, not one went to the sort of school the vast majority of British kids go to. That would suggest to me we need more than incremental change.

Katharine Birbalsingh: When you say more than incremental change, I mean I don’t want incremental change, I’d love to snap my fingers and make it all much better tomorrow, the question is what is actually reasonable and what can we achieve. I would probably put that down to the grammar schools, the disappearance of the grammar schools, and I’m not saying I’m pro grammar school when I say that. This is the problem with grammar schools, once upon a time it was the case that it brought working class children through and enabled them to become socially mobile, but the problem now is that to get into grammar school you really do need to be coached really, really well for many years to get through on the exams.

Andrew Neil: But that’s partly because there’s so few of them now, they’ve become private schools without the fees. There used to be 1100 grammar schools I think in England alone, there’s now 183. Most of the ones that were in the inner cities have been closed, the ones that remain are in the leafy suburbs by and large, it should hardly be surprising they’ve actually become pretty socially selective themselves.

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, although I would say it has to do more with the exams. We have a couple of grammar schools nearby us in Barnet and so we really don’t get the top slice of kids, and so I think we’ve proved that secondary moderns can be brilliant schools, but unfortunately, we’ve all got this understanding that grammar schools are great and secondary modern schools are terrible and that’s not true. But the thing is, it’s that over time people got to figure out what’s on that exam to get in, and then all of these tutoring agencies have sprung up and so it’s become a kind of business getting kids in there, and it means that the vast majority of children in grammar schools end up being middle class and disadvantaged kids don’t necessarily access those schools.

Andrew Neil: A lot of migrants’ kids in grammar schools these days too.

Katharine Birbalsingh: That’s true, so I’m not saying I’m against them, I’m not saying I’m pro them, I kind of sit on the fence.

Andrew Neil: I understand that and in a sense the argument about that is over in a way.

Katharine Birbalsingh: It is.

Andrew Neil: I understand that, but is not the sad truth as you look about social mobility in this country that there are still two ways to buy your education in the United Kingdom.  The first is you just pay the fees which are now enormous, £20,000, £30,000, up to £40,000 a year, most people don’t earn anything like £40,000 a year. Or you can afford to buy an expensive house in a catchment area which has a good state school. Neither is conducive to social mobility.

Katharine Birbalsingh: That’s absolutely true and I wish everyone would realise this.  Ultimately, we need to help change some of our schools, some of the schools are obviously doing just fine, some of the schools aren’t. The difficulty is that when you have a good catchment in your school you will perform well and then it looks like you’re a great school, and then another school that has a much more challenging intake isn’t performing as well and they say we don’t have the same intake, it’s not fair to compare us. And that is also true, which is why this new measure of Progress 8 exists for GCSEs which you then look to see where is the school on that Progress 8 measure.

Andrew Neil: Progress 8 being?

Katharine Birbalsingh: So you get a one to a nine on your GCSEs and when you look at the GCSEs and it’s all added up and then they say given how they performed on their SATs at the end of primary school in Year 6, then they look at the progress you’ve made from that to your GCSEs. If you didn’t do so well, then they don’t expect you to get nines, let’s say you got fives they think great, you did really badly at your SATs, so you’ve made great progress. So I think that is the best metric that has existed so far actually, and so on that in 2019 we were fifth in the country which demonstrated that our kids make great progress, even though we might not have the attainment of say one of the local grammar schools, because of course we wouldn’t have the same attainment because we haven’t got the same kinds of kids.

Andrew Neil: Does the commission look at the wider issues of social mobility? One of them it strikes me is you look at very good schools, suddenly the house prices around these good schools go up, there’s a premium on buying a house if it’s in the catchment area of a decent state school, and the middle classes move in because they’ve saved the fees, and grammar schools we’ve admitted are very, very hard to get into these days, but once they do that they then pull the ladder up, they block any planning reform, they block any more homes being made which may allow less well-off families to come into that catchment area.

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, that’s true and it’s interesting how you think, because you’re of course thinking this way of there is a good school, how do we get these kids in there.  I’m thinking how do we make all schools good because you can’t get them all into there.

Andrew Neil: I’m not sure which one of us is going to take longer to do it.

Katharine Birbalsingh: It is true, we need to change people’s minds. So the first point was about social mobility not just being for the few, rags to riches, but actually it’s about enabling people to fulfil their potential. The second point is to think about inequality and social mobility. People often confuse the two and they think they’re the same thing when they’re not. You can have an unequal society where there’s somebody who is really rich and somebody who is really poor, but you might have loads of social mobility where people are moving through those levels where you have huge inequality, and often I think people who want society to be more upwardly mobile think the way to do that is to make society less unequal, but actually they are concentrating on the wrong things. The questions we need to be asking ourselves is how do we increase opportunities for those who don’t have that opportunity, how do we make it so that the schools where their children might be going are better. Another thing we’re interested in with the Commission are families, so how can we better support families to do the right things at home long before they ever get to school, long before the state is even involved. When you have a toddler is it a good idea to give them a mobile phone or should you spend some time reading to him. Maybe you draw your finger under the words as you’re reading, how do you read it, do you read it with expression – ooh, look at me, and wow, and oh my goodness I’m so sad, and so on. What do you do when you’re talking to your toddler, do you play with them, what kinds of educational toys might you try and access? All of these things are ideas that I often feel that the middle classes keep secret, so they assume that everybody knows them.

Andrew Neil: If the middle class keep some of these things secret it’s had an impact on social mobility in a different way because social mobility implies not just that people from the less privileged or poorer backgrounds can work their way up and do better than their parents did or their grandparents. It can also mean that some fall back down, that they don’t do as well as the families that they were born into, but that seems to me to happen less and less because inherited wealth, a deposit from the bank of mum and dad, getting a leg up, who you know in this ever more cognitive society and so on, that’s become more and more important.

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, and I agree with you, however it does seem to me a little sinister to be wishing for some people to move down.

Andrew Neil: I’m sure you can think of some.

Katharine Birbalsingh: Maybe, I don’t know, the key thing is we want to enable people to have as much opportunity as possible, to have a meritocratic society where people are rewarded for their hard work and they’re able to overcome some of those advantages that other people will have. But of course those people do have advantages, which is why every immigrant knows that they themselves may not be able to do the grand things, but they dream for their children and their grandchildren, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Andrew Neil: Which is why they put such a premium on education for their children.

Katharine Birbalsingh: Exactly, exactly. And we, the state, need to make sure we are providing it as opposed to wishing that we could live off this Hollywood dream of rags to riches child who moves from nothing to everything in one leap, sometimes you need to make smaller leaps and over generations people can change their stars.

Andrew Neil: You don’t like the phrase white privilege. I understand that, privilege comes in many forms, but perhaps one of the biggest privileges is to be born into a contented two parent family regardless of the economic circumstances of that family.  Should government policy do more to encourage that or is it really nothing to do with the state?

Katharine Birbalsingh: It’s interesting when you talk about tax and so on, if people are being taxed more for being apart, then if they’re worse off financially that’s a problem, so governments should always bear that in mind and should definitely be encouraging people to be together. But also government needs to be encouraging families for doing the right things with their children. People divorce, that happens, people end up not together. I’ll tell you the main reason why, when they’re together, the reason why it’s better is because there’s consistency, mum and dad are saying the same thing. So if mum and dad are separate the best thing you can do for the child is to make sure you’re still talking to each other and singing from the same hymn sheet, even though you may be in different homes, and you’d be amazed at how well those children will then do, despite being in a family that’s separated.

Andrew Neil: You said that Boris Johnson isn’t a good role model for children.

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, I did.

Andrew Neil: Because of his somewhat haphazard private life.

Katharine Birbalsingh: And his hair.

Andrew Neil: And he’s not the best dresser, I think we have to admit that.

Katharine Birbalsingh: The thing is, you’ve got to understand for me, obviously I put pictures up of my role models, people like Serena Williams and Nelson Mandela. If I put a picture of Boris Johnson up and I’m telling them all they’ve got to have their hair looking ship sharp.

Andrew Neil: And tuck their shirts in.

Katharine Birbalsingh: Exactly, I can’t put him up there, so I’m not saying whether or not he’s a good Prime Minister, I’m just saying I can’t put him up on my assembly wall and say be like him.

Andrew Neil: Now you’re a role model for social mobility, you’re of Jamaican and Guyanese heritage, your mum Jamaican, your dad Guyanese, your mum a nurse, your dad an academic, you were born in New Zealand, raised in Canada, didn’t come to Britain till you were 15, you only went to state schools, though maybe we should just strike the word only and say you went to state schools, and you were the second pupil at the time from your school only ever to get to Oxford. And yet despite that journey and that record you felt inadequate at Oxford.

Katharine Birbalsingh: Yes, that’s because the public schools do a very good job educating their kids and so when we were translating old French and stuff, I would think I’ve no idea what I’m doing, whereas kids who had been studying Latin for years knew exactly what they were doing. So what we need to do is find ways of supporting state school children to not feel so inadequate. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with feeling a bit inadequate, it teaches you to go and sit in the depths of the Radcliffe Camera Library day after day and work, and work hard so that you can catch up with them.

Andrew Neil: But you’ve got great confidence, you’re very articulate, clearly smart, got to Oxford, and I think you had that kind of energy and drive of the immigrant as well, and yet even for someone like you it wasn’t always easy. 

Katharine Birbalsingh: Oh no, it was really hard. The thing about Oxford, it’s interesting, but that was in those days, I do think it’s very different now, it is very different. But when I left Oxford, I rode my bike to the train station and I locked it up, got on the train and went to London and never went back, and you’ll be happy to know that when I went back there ten years’ later the bike was not still outside the train station, and I suppose it’s one of the reasons why I’ve made it my business to help inner city kids feel empowered to be able to do whatever they want to do. And part of the reason why I felt inadequate was because of my education at secondary school, I hadn’t been empowered in the way that I feel we are doing for our children at Michaela, so that they can feel that they can compete with any Etonian out there and be good enough.

Andrew Neil: And when you look at the children at Michaela today can you see yourself in them?

Katharine Birbalsingh: Oh yes, they’re just lovely, and you know what’s so great is that our kids don’t feel as if it’s somehow nerdy to be clever, they don’t feel like they shouldn’t put their hands up in the class – 75 per cent of them will put their hands up, it’s a place where learning is revered like how it would have been at your old grammar school. And that takes a lot of work when you’re in an inner-city school in 2022, especially one that’s near a grammar school, two grammar schools; it takes a lot of work, but once you’ve got that kind of atmosphere culture matters and culture is contagious. And that’s one of the things that I think too many progressives don’t understand, and if you can get the culture right with those small “c”, conservative values, the children will take those on board and they will feel responsible for themselves and responsible for the class, and they will always be aiming for the top. I suppose I was aiming for the top at school, it’s just that I was in classrooms that were chaotic, I couldn’t hear the teacher, I couldn’t learn, and that is wrong, I think. We spend over 90 billion a year on education, it should be the case that we are top of the PISA tables; we’re not, but we’re better than we were. And that’s what I mean about things getting better, they are, we just need to keep going that little bit further.

Andrew Neil: Katharine Birbalsingh, thank you for being with us.

Katharine Birbalsingh: Thank you for having me, Andrew.


Andrew Neil, narrating: Tortoise members and subscribers to Tortoise Plus on Apple Podcasts can hear my reflections on that conversation in a bonus episode called Inside the Interview which comes out on Friday.  

This episode was mixed by Studio Klong with original music by Tom Kinsella.  

The executive producer of The Backstory is Lewis Vickers. Thanks for listening.

Next in this file

Inside the interview: Katharine Birbalsingh

Inside the interview: Katharine Birbalsingh

In the final bonus episode of the series, Andrew Neil reflects on his interview with headteacher and Social Mobility Commission chair, Katharine Birbalsingh

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