Head of ‘strictest school in country’ made Social Mobility Commission chief

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A headteacher of a school, said to be the strictest in the country, has been made the chairwoman of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission.

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

Ms Birbalsingh succeeds Dame Martina Milburn, who resigned on May 5 2020, telling Boris Johnson the role needed expanding to effectively tackle the issue.

The founder and head of Michaela Community School in north London said she would use the position to develop a society that “provides an equal chance for all”.

Controversy and firing

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. However in 2014, she founded the Michaela community school close to Wembley stadium in north-west London, which has a “no excuses” behaviour policy.

The free school which has been described as Britain’s strictest school, was established with Suella Braverman, now Member of Parliament (MP) for Fareham.

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.

New students are also encouraged to keep their shirts tucked in and to pick up crumbs from the floor after eating as part of a boot camp, which teaches pupils how to “behave in the Michaela way”.

Ms Birbalsingh will remain the head of the school while on the commission.

She has been praised by Liz Truss, the minister for women and equalities, for maintaining “high standards".

“I want Katharine to focus on education, enterprise and employment so we can level-up opportunity across Britain and give everyone the chance to succeed.

“By expecting high standards and not indulging the soft bigotry of low expectations she produced amazing results at Michaela school and gave those children the best chance in life.

“She will bring that same attitude to the commission and be a loud champion of equality of opportunity.”

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.

Ms Birbalsingh said: “As we recover from the pandemic, this is the moment to develop a culture in our society which provides an equal chance for all.

“From education, to early years in the home and onto the world of work, improving social mobility is more vital than ever, and I look forward to taking up this important role.

“My immediate priorities will include developing a sound evidence base from which change can flow.”