Tsar Katharine The Strict

I Am Not Right For The Job

Katharine Birbalsingh, headteacher of the polarising Michaela School in Wembley, was chair of the Social Mobility Commission. And then, last week, a year later, she wasn't. Her departure echos that of Estelle Morris, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, for just 16 months, back in 2002. Both baulked at the political mindset needed to function effectively; both resigned with, 'I'm not right for the job.' instead of the other way round; both cited the media as engineering a context they were unable to navigate successfully. That's probably where the similarities end.

Or do they...

Both taught inner city secondary pupils before taking a government post. Both were inspired through their teaching to address the challenges faced by our (economically) poorest learners. Both champion equality and have been recognised for it (CBE and Baroness respectively).

To Be Against

The media like difference. To 'be against' draws lines and makes sides. Conflict creates story, similarity doesn't. Look at Harry and William. 'Princes get along just fine' won't sell papers or get clicks.

In this story Birbalsingh is cast as 'Britain's Strictest Headteacher' and 'Tsar of Social Mobility'. The obsolete word 'Tsar' limping on as an increasingly inappropriate nod to Slavic autocracy, used now for high ranking civil servants tasked with fixing something - Drug Tsar, Behaviour Tsar, Health Tsar, Tsar Tsar. 'Strictest' comes with the ghost baggage of corporal punishment. 'Reliable' might be euphemistically better here, as when eye-rolling 'non negotiables' are reframed as 'agreed consistencies'.

Katharine Birbalsingh has a platform, and from that platform she can state what she is for and what she is against. The media have provided that platform, but at a price: her words skewed into attention grabbing soundbites - like I purposefully spoofed in this blog's title.

(Allegedly, I've not met her) she is against 'progressive teaching methods'. She is for the teacher being at the centre of learning. She is for teaching gratitude. She is for Knowledge as Power. She is against unsupervised access to the internet (for children). She is for silence in corridors, between lessons.

She is respected, admired, villified and criticised. She is a not-quite-iconoclast who says what others won't, does what others daren't and thinks what others can't. She is a leader. She is divisive. She is a rogue. She is a maverick. She is shrewd, clever and canny. I agree with some of what she says - at the moment - and disagree with the rest - for now. But I like her because of what she causes to happen:

Three Gifts

Birbalsingh offers us three wonderful thinking opportunities:

  1. To evaluate how the media operates (and how an outspoken educationalist makes things happen)
  2. To challenge our own values and pedagogy
  3. To crystalize our own beliefs about education

Testing this, I prompted ten of my associates: 'Katharine Birbalsingh - thoughts, opinions?'

The responses came thick and fast over the next 48 hours. A dear colleague and friend was even inspired to write a poem.

"Never heard of her." said one. "She quit didn't she? Does that make her stronger or weaker?" from another.

"Is it tough love? and where's the compassion?" questioned a third. "She should stick to children, not creating column inches" from an incisive fourth.

No-one was totally for, no-one totally against. All thought, evaluated, questioned. Maybe it's the people I hang around with, discerning folks who think first and then speak. Then J. replied. Turns out he's seen her talk at a conference. Unmediated. Apart from by J himself:

"She appeared incredibly passionate and open to engaging with the audience, wanting to carry on taking questions when her time was up. She presents a very simple solution to managing schools, be consistent and don’t do things that aren’t ‘real’ like performance management and predicting grades...On the note of her silent corridors, she said, “I don’t do it because I like silence, I do it because quiet corridors means something different to everyone and it doesn’t work.” "

Prepared For The Future

We all have beliefs about what's right for our pupils - constructed from experience, evidence, gut feel and values. We are all for some things and against others. But we risk getting trapped in debates. We risk entrenching our fors instead of evolving them in the light of againsts. Whatever you think of the views of Katharine Birbalsingh, maybe we should evaluate those views - and ours - with two simple criteria:

  1. How well do my fors prepare children for their futures?
  2. How willing am I to listen authentically to - and learn from - againsts?