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Katharine Birbalsingh is no stranger to courting controversy – to great applause from the right-wing press.
With her vocal support for right-wing initiatives and her many contributions to controversial platforms like Spiked, the ideological leanings of the UK’s “strictest headmistress” are not hard to decipher.
In a 2021 interview with the libertarian magazine, Birbalsingh said: “I always used to say that the white working classes were the new black people.” And she approvingly quoted a claim that “to rise up in the civil service, people needed to be able to speak Latin by the watercooler.”
Other not-so-subtle hints at her stance include saying “the extreme left are the ones preventing disadvantaged children from succeeding” while claiming that “critical race theory” – the nemesis of the right-wing – is a “massive issue in the US but we are really fighting these things here. And we are winning.”
During her time as headteacher she has made comments that Shakespeare’s inclusion in the curriculum was under threat from cancel culture, argued that children are born with “original sin” and needed to be “habituated into choosing good over evil”, and said it was “natural” for girls to avoid taking physics.
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Playing to the Gallery
And amid the recent manufactured outrage over false reports of children in schools “identifying as cats” – a thinly-veiled transphobic dog-whistle that originated in the US – Birbalsingh claimed that this was not an isolated incident. There was no evidence provided that any children had actually identified as a cat.
Speaking at the recent hardline National Conservative conference – a conference which also saw Jacob Rees-Mogg admit that mandatory voter ID was a form of “gerrymandering” to benefit the Conservatives – the Brent headteacher made the point that “there are kids right now, in some schools, with tails pinned to their heads and bottoms.. They identify as cats, you see.”
Birbalsingh told the Tory right’s gathering that it was important that schools “embrace small-c conservative values”, before going on to claim “the woke agenda” is as prevalent in state as in private schools. She accused both sectors of “peddling extreme leftist views”. Birbalsingh has since claimed on Twitter that the NatCon conference was non-party political.
Responding to claims of links to the Conservative right, a spokesperson for Birbalsingh has now told Byline Times: “What links? A professor at Cambridge asked Ms Birbalsingh to speak at a conference that was not party political.
“Teachers regularly speak at political conferences, including party political ones. NatCon paid the school the standard fee for her time and she gave a speech. She does this for many organisations and creates a small revenue for the school. The governors are grateful to her for raising money for the school.”
Most recently, Birbalsingh hit the headlines by becoming embroiled in a Twitter tussle with Labour MP Jess Phillips. Birbalsingh sent a letter to Keir Starmer calling for her resignation following an exchange on the platform, with Birbalsingh accusing Phillips of “racist and bullying behaviour” and trying to “whip up a social media mob” against her for sharing an image of Tina Turner with her abusive former husband Ike amid tributes to the singer, who passed away in May.
Unfortunately, much of the meat of the letter was based on the claim that Jess Phillips had said “You ain’t no Asian”. Phillips had, in fact, said “Aslan” – the saviour character in the fictional series Narnia.
A spokesperson for Birbalsingh says she has since “clarified” in her complaints to the Labour Party that they should “ignore that small point” in the letter.
“The fundamental points remain…Ms Birbalsingh believes Jess Phillips broke the Ministerial code. She is Shadow Minister for Safeguarding and should not pick on individuals online to abuse and lie about them and question a school’s safeguarding policies. Michaela was rated Outstanding by Ofsted in 2017 and again, in May 2023. It currently has the highest progress 8 in the country,” Birbalsingh’s spokesperson said.
She also accused Jess Phillips of “whipping up a mob” over four tweets about the Michaela School and the headmistress: “Jess Phillips referred to Ms Birbalsingh as ‘that headteacher woman’ and refused to address Ms Birbalsingh by her name.” It is not clear how naming her would have reduced the attention the UK’s “strictest headmistress” would get online.
“When criticising other NatCon conference speakers, Jess Phillips engaged with their arguments. She has never engaged with a single thing Ms Birbalsingh has ever said. She simply attacked Ms Birbalsingh, unprovoked. Jess Phillips has never attacked any other headteacher in this way,” the spokesperson claimed.
However, Katharine Birbalsingh has herself faced accusations of turning a blind eye to racism – including seeming to urge parents not to believe their children if they accuse their teachers of racism.
In 2019, she tweeted: “If a child says [the] teacher is being racist, back the teacher. Whatever the child says, back the teacher. If you don’t, you are letting the child down & allowing them to play you for a fool.”
A spokesperson for Birbalsingh told Byline Times: “The advice was to not believe everything a child says, just because they say it. ‘Have you brushed your teeth?’ Yes. ‘Have you done your homework?’ Yes. Ms Birbalsingh is clear that if a parent feels there is a genuine issue, whether racial or otherwise, one should contact the headteacher. She explained this at the time, in interviews.”
A Department for Education spokesperson appeared to distance the department from the comments, telling this newspaper: “We expect schools to take immediate action against bullying, discrimination and harassment, and are investing £10 million in our behaviour hubs programme to support teachers to tackle serious behaviour issues which compromise the safety and wellbeing of pupils and school staff.”
Birbalsingh may find support from a Labour government would wane. Asked for their views on the headmistress, one Brent Labour politician responded only with a “vomiting” emoji.
In January, Birbalsingh resigned her position as chair of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC), awarded to her under the Truss administration, stating that her outspoken views meant she was ‘doing more harm than good’, and that her notoriety put the SMC “in jeopardy”.
Birbalsingh was previously a fellow of the Common Sense Society (CSS), a European libertarian think tank with multiple links via its governing faculty to similar right-wing organisations in the US and Europe, like the Heritage Foundation, Leadership Institute, and Daily Caller website.
The CSS plugs itself as a “celebration of the political, intellectual, and cultural inheritance which constitute our shared civilization”, based on the concepts, it says, of “liberty, prosperity, and beauty”. The UK director is Emma Webb, former deputy research director at Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, and host of the political show produced by the Tufton St-based New Culture Forum (NCF). The Common Sense Society, much like the NCF, claims that “woke elites” are trying to “tear down the United Kingdom’s rich heritage”, and Webb herself is a frequent commentator on GB News.
Like Birbalsingh, Webb and others involved with CSS spoke at the recent UK National Conservatism event, and the think tank has funded US NatCons, and appeared as a named sponsor to its conferences in Europe.
In 2021, Birbalsingh was named as faculty under the CSS ‘Britannia Fellowship’ programme, a ‘five-day long intensive seminar series that explores the foundational principles of European civilisation and a free society’.
Other staff included right-wing historian Niall Ferguson, and John O’Sullivan, president of the Hungarian Conservative think tank, the Danube Institute – a group with close ties to the authoritarian government of far-right leader Viktor Orbán.
But it is from the US that the free school movement draws most of its inspiration. We can reveal that Birbalsingh is now listed as a Trustee of the Equiano Project.
The new charity’s website features celebrations of last month’s US Supreme Court slapdown of affirmative action policies in education – policies intended to tackle racial inequality and bias in the schooling system. One of its backers recently appeared on the podcast of academic turned right-wing ideologue Matthew Goodwin.
In the US, charter schools have been accused of funnelling money away from the public school system. There, as in the UK too, they’re often associated with neoliberal reforms and ostensibly ‘levelling the playing field’ for children in underperforming inner city areas.
But a new report from the Network for Public Education in the US highlights ‘the creation of a new breed of charter schools that are imbued with the ideas of right-wing Christian nationalism’, used as weapons by the Right to undermine progressive public education policy.
There is no suggestion the same is happening at Michaela School. But Birbalsingh’s claims that teachers must always be backed when faced with allegations of bullying or racism from children, has raised alarm bells among equality groups and some educators.
The Cost of Free Schools
In the UK, free schools are run on a ‘not-for-profit basis’, and can be set up by charities, universities, community and faith groups, parents, teachers, and businesses. In fact, anyone can set one up “if they have the necessary capacity and capability,” according to the DfE.
They are independent of local authorities and can set their own pay rates (Birbalsingh herself is paid around £125,000 a year), as well as working conditions. They do not have to follow the national curriculum.
The Michaela School is relatively unique in not recognising any trade unions such as the National Education Union – despite union membership being very high in the sector.
A Brent NEU official has now claimed Birbalsingh is “anti-union”, with membership discouraged among staff. Several members have come forward to the union with workplace issues, Byline Times has been told, but claim they do not feel comfortable setting up a union branch in the school, according to the NEU figure.
Birbalsingh has claimed to have “fought the unions” on allegedly ignoring pupil behaviour “for years”, adding: “They were appalling.” The headmistress’ team did not respond to a request for comment on why the school does not recognise any unions.
Several free schools in the UK have been established by prominent figures on the right. Libertarian lockdown “sceptic” and commentator Toby Young co-founded the West London Free School back in 2011.
The school was formally opened by Boris Johnson. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was, for a time, also director of the East London Science school, which has right-wing libertarians among its founders.
The notable lack of local authority supervision leaves much of what happens in free schools in the hands of sometimes ideologically-driven figures. Will they be the next frontier in the right-wing’s efforts to whip up a culture war?
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