A headteacher who rose to public attention by addressing a Conservative conference about some “utterly chaotic” state schools is a frontrunner to become the government’s new social mobility commissioner.
Katharine Birbalsingh, the founder of the “super-strict” London-based Michaela community school, heads a shortlist of preferred candidates to head the Social Mobility Commission watchdog, which seeks to ensure that the UK becomes more meritocratic, government sources confirmed.
An appointment is expected to be announced by the equalities minister, Liz Truss, within weeks.
Birbalsingh’s appointment would raise eyebrows, following previous claims that the government was placing hand-picked allies into key public roles. Although she has no formal political affiliations, she rose to prominence at the Tory party conference in 2010 with a speech about Britain’s “broken” education system.
Speaking before the then education secretary, Michael Gove, 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”.
“If you keep telling teachers that they’re racist for trying to discipline black boys and if you keep telling heads that they’re racist for trying to exclude black boys, in the end the schools stop reprimanding these children,” she said.
Birbalsingh was then a deputy head at an academy in south London. Her father is of Indian origin and her mother Jamaican. She grew up in Canada until her family moved to the UK when she was 15.
In the ensuing political row after her conference speech, she lost her job. But in 2014, she founded the Michaela free school close to Wembley Stadium in north-west London.
Michaela has been described as the strictest school in Britain with an uncompromising “no excuses” behaviour policy in which pupils were given demerits or detention for forgetting to bring a pencil or pen, or for talking in corridors between lessons.
In 2016, Birbalsingh said: “I think all schools should be super-strict. It is about believing that children do best in an ordered and structured environment.” The school has been described as “outstanding” in all areas by Ofsted inspectors. In 2019, more than half of all grades were level 7 or above.
The Social Mobility Commission has been led by the interim co-chairs Sandra Wallace and Steven Cooper since July 2020. Dame Martina Milburn, the previous chair, resigned in May 2020 after two years to focus on her day job as the chief executive of the Prince’s Trust.
The preferred candidate will have to face a hearing in front of parliament’s women and equalities committee before being appointed.
Birbalsingh denied a claim in the Sunday Times that she is a Conservative, but confirmed reports she had applied to be the next commissioner. “I am not a Conservative. Why can’t the media understand that?! I am a conservative. Get it? Geesh. Applied. Have yet to hear back,” she wrote.
An Equality Hub spokesperson said: “We are currently in the process of recruiting for the new chair of the Social Mobility Commission. We will announce the successful candidate in due course.”