UK’s ‘strictest’ headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh made social mobility chief

Opponent of woke culture who founded outstanding London free school takes government appointment

The headteacher of a school dubbed the strictest in Britain who has attacked “woke culture” has been appointed as the government’s new Social Mobility Commissioner.

Katharine Birbalsingh rose to prominence at the Tory party conference in 2010 with a speech about Britain’s “broken” education system.

Birbalsingh was applauded for claiming that underachievement by black pupils was due partly to “the chaos of our classrooms, and, in part, to the accusation of racism [against teachers]”.

Following a political row after the speech, she lost her job. But in 2014, she founded the Michaela free school close to Wembley stadium in north-west London, which has a “no excuses” behaviour policy. Pupils were given demerits or detention for forgetting to bring a pencil or pen, or for talking in corridors between lessons. The school has been described as “outstanding” in all areas by Ofsted inspectors. In 2019, more than half of all GCSE grades were level 7 or above.

Boris Johnson’s senior advisers, the husband-and-wife team Dougie Smith and Munira Mirza, who are leading the Downing Street culture wars, have been reported to be fans of Birbalsingh, who describes herself as holding “small ‘c’ conservative values”.

When the government-commissioned Sewell report on race and ethnic disparities was widely criticised as divisive, inaccurate and having played down racism, Birbalsingh tweeted: “It is always acceptable in our woke culture of 2021 to mercilessly attack black conservatives. They have ‘betrayed’ their leftist masters by daring to think for themselves, when they should be grateful. THAT is institutionalised/cultural racism. And it is everywhere.”

The Social Mobility Commission has been led by the interim co-chairs Sandra Wallace and Steven Cooper since July 2020, after the resignation of the previous chair, Dame Martina Milburn.

Birbalsingh said she was looking forward to taking up the role when “improving social mobility is more vital than ever”. She added: “On the one hand, I want to inspire real action that will encourage people to seize the opportunities available to them and, on the other, I want to ensure that the government and other public bodies are delivering on their commitments to providing such opportunities, so that we really can ‘level up’ every region of the UK.”

Liz Truss, the minister for women and equalities, said she wanted Birbalsingh to focus on “education, enterprise and employment”.

Truss, who has herself criticised “woke orthdoxy”, said: “Our equality work will address the worries that keep people up at night – like having a good job and getting their child a good education – not tokenistic issues divorced from their everyday concerns.”

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Haroon Siddique

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