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It is the doyen of disciplinarians at the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. And no wonder. The Michaela Community School, often hailed as the “strictest school in Britain,” has good school results. Its “strictest headmistress” has also long had ties to the Conservative Party.
At the forefront of this alliance are Katharine Birbalsingh, the school’s founder and principal, and Suella Braverman, now Home Secretary, whose intertwined histories are worth exploring.
The roots of the Birbalsingh-Braverman partnership can be traced back just prior to the inception of the Michaela Community School Trust, in 2011. While most press accounts from the time indicate that the school was Birbalsingh’s idea, the involvement of Braverman from the school’s inception is very clear from Companies House records.
According to Birbalsingh, she first met the future Home Secretary on the Tube, on the way back from the former’s now-infamous Tory conference speech in 2010, where she attacked state schools as part of a “broken system” that “keeps poor children poor”. The Michaela School was a pioneer of the coalition’s “free school” policy – wrenching publicly-funded comprehensives away from local authority management and into a motley crew of educational entrepreneurs and the occasional ideologue.
Birbalsingh reportedly asked then-lawyer and local Suella Braverman to become involved in the initial version of the Michaela School. Speaking of the meeting, she said: “She joined the board and she was really committed. She would visit sites with me, go to primary schools and deliver leaflets. None of this was paid. She was just a lawyer at the time, so she wasn’t doing it to be recognised”.
Braverman was one of the founding governors of the school. But the institutions’ ties to Braverman, and to the Conservatives, run deeper.
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Backed by Braverman
The Michaela Community Schools Trust, which runs the Brent school and sixth form, was originally established without Birbalsingh listed as a director – but she soon officially came on board. Instead, the Trust originally listed among its directors Suella Braverman (then Sue-Ellen Fernandes), Sir Anthony Seldon, Dr Cleveland Anthony Sewell, and Indraneil Mahapatra, with Braverman, Mahapatra, and Sewell listed as shareholders.
Braverman’s mother, Uma Fernandes, was also listed as a director of the company between 2013-2014. The registered office address of the Michaela Community Schools Trust was, curiously, the same as Braverman’s listed address when the Trust was founded.
Braverman’s office did not respond to requests for comment on this, but a spokesperson for Birbalsingh said Braverman’s mother “gave out some flyers to help spread the word about the new school, so that parents knew they could apply.”
“At the time, Suella Fernandes [now Braverman] was a barrister and she was part of the steering group that set up the school. An address was needed for the company to be registered. She offered hers to use for that bureaucratic purpose,” the spokesperson added.
The Free Schools scheme was initially championed by Michael Gove, the coalition government’s Education Secretary, in a succession of reforms dramatically expanding Labour’s academy scheme, as part of then-PM David Cameron’s Big Society initiative.
In her excoriating speech at the 2010 Conservative Conference, Birbalsingh appeared alongside a nodding Gove, and delivered a scathing attack on state schools, complaining that children were being “lost in a sea of bureaucracy handed down from the well-meaning politicians from up above”. The address was seen by critics as a way to bolster the policy and undermine the school system.
Braverman has taken up the mantle as a leading supporter of free schools, writing in favour of Boris Johnson’s administration reviving them for ConservativeHome in 2019, and authoring the ‘Fight for Free Schools’ paper published by The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) the same year. Michaela and Birbalsingh are both mentioned in the acknowledgements.
Birbalsingh not only offered her support for Gove’s reforms but also defended him when he was fired from his position, accusing the Tories of “killing the goose that laid the golden eggs” of school reform.
The Michaela School received substantial funding from Gove’s department from its inception. As the Companies House documents reveal, the school received a standard academy capital grant from DfE, totalling £4.5 million at the time.
But despite the abundance of secondary schools in Brent, the Department for Education (DfE) also gifted the school its building. The DfE’s purchased a Wembley Park property for £8 million, which was subsequently transferred to Birbalsingh and Braverman’s institution without charge.
A Department for Education spokesperson said such asset transfers are normal. “The system for approving new free schools is underpinned by a rigorous application and evaluation process…The department retains a legal charge over the property. The funding was allocated fairly and in accordance with the department’s policies,” the spokesperson told Byline Times.
A spokesperson for Katharine Birbalsingh claimed many free schools were “far better off” than MCS, and “were given a brand new building costing 30+ million pounds.”
“Michaela’s school building has no fields or trees and no car park for the staff. The old car park, next to the trains, is used as a yard for the children. It is not a building to envy,” Birbalsingh’s spokesperson said.
The DfE says rigorous affordability and value for money checks are carried out on all free school applications. Officials say a detailed assessment of capital expenditure is carried out by senior property, technical and financial experts prior to both site purchase and the signing of construction contracts.
Of the directors listed at Michaela School, Braverman isn’t the only name of note linked to the Conservatives. One early director, Neil Mahapatra, is an investment manager and recent Tory donor, having given over £14,000 to the party in 2022. He also unsuccessfully stood as a candidate for MP of Sedgefield in 2010.
Sir Anthony Seldon, listed as a guarantor of the school’s Trust along with Braverman and Mahapatra, is an educator, political biographer, and honorary historical adviser to No.10. His father, Arthur Seldon, co-founded the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). Sir Anthony was formerly headmaster at the private Wellington College, in Berkshire, and vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham – the UK’s first private university – for 5 years.
It was reportedly Seldon who, following Birbalsingh’s speech at the 2010 Conservative Party conference, offered to help her open a free school, and she featured on his 2017 list of the 20 most influential figures in British Education.
The University of Buckingham has deep ties to the IEA and other free-market think tanks operating in and around Tufton St, and has been endorsed by IEA life-vice president Nigel Vinson.
Vinson wrote in 2020 that “The progressive campus has stifled the conservative, classical liberal or sceptical voice”, and that Buckingham had “created and defended an environment where alternative perspectives can be discussed”. The institution has received praise in the Telegraph for showing Conservatives how they can “fight the culture war”, following a scandal involving another one of Michaela’s former directors, Anthony Sewell.
Sewell, another director at the School’s Trust, is a consultant and founder of the educational charity Generating Genius. In 2020, he was appointed to chair the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.
The resulting Sewell review, which claimed that institutional racism “does not exist” within the UK, was heavily criticised upon its release, with campaigners warning that it risked pushing the fight against racism “back 20 years or more”.
When the University of Nottingham withdrew an honorary degree from Sewell over the scandal, Buckingham Uni offered him one just a week later.
Birbalsingh received a CBE in Boris Johnson’s 2020 honours, while Sewell was made a life peer in the 2022 Special Honours, nominated by the Conservatives. Both Suella Braverman and Katharine Birbalsingh have defended him over the backlash to the report, with Birbalsingh accusing ‘woke cultural racism’ of leading to attacks on black Conservatives when they “betray their leftist paymasters”.
When the school was first launched, Christopher Lockwood was also named as a director. Lockwood is a journalist who at the time of appointment was listed as a director of Michaela School. He was also Deputy Head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit at No.10, a position he held from 2013-2015.
Between 2019-2021, conservative commentator Calvin Robinson was also listed as a governor of the school, and held the position of Senior Fellow responsible for Education Policy at the Conservative-linked Policy Exchange think tank in 2020, but is no longer in role as of 2023.
Anyone deemed “capable” can set up a free school – and many right-wing figures have done so, including the prominent lockdown “sceptic” Toby Young. We are likely to see more battles over resources, with local-authority managed schools struggling for funding while free schools at times appear flush with cash.
More than 30 new free schools are in the pipeline for London as of this year. Many colleges and sixth forms in England are poised to fight proposals in their areas, warning that “unnecessary” competition will provide a “significant risk” to their viability.
The Michaela Community School’s commendable academic results risk being overshadowed by the ongoing questions surrounding its founders.
We might expect to see a few more controversial figures setting up their own free schools. That means that questions about who is behind these schools, largely free from local authority oversight, will continue to bubble away.
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