Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh has quit as Social Mobility Commission chair, saying her controversial opinions “puts the commission in jeopardy” and it is doing “more harm than good”.
The commission’s deputy and Oldham College principal Alun Francis has been appointed interim chair.
Birbalsingh – Britain’s so-called “strictest headteacher” at Michaela Community School in London – was appointed to lead the commission in November 2021.
The outspoken leader has always courted controversy. While social mobility tsar, she was widely criticised after telling a parliamentary committee hearing that low uptake of physics among girls was because they would rather not do “hard maths”.
But her comments about shifting the social mobility focus away from people going to Oxbridge were inaccurately reported by a national newspaper, leading to a correction.
Writing exclusively for FE Week, Birbalsingh said she “comes with too much baggage” and is doing the commission “more harm than good”.
She said: “Over this past year, I have become increasingly aware that my propensity to voice opinions that are considered controversial puts the commission in jeopardy.”
Birbalsingh cites her inaugural speech in last June, where she said the focus has been too much on those going to Oxbridge or becoming top lawyers.
She had hoped her new narrative about “how we too often have too narrow a view of social mobility” might be “received with interest”.
But instead she claims “the press insisted that I personally believe ‘working class people should stay in their lane’”.
The Telegraph’s headline ran as “working class people should aim ‘lower’ than Oxbridge” – but they later issued an apology saying it did not reflect Birbalsingh’s views.
But she said the “damage had already been done,” adding: “I am still to this day attacked for my apparently abhorrent views on social mobility.”
‘I don’t want to be a politician’
Birbalsingh said she will now “carefully craft my utterances to leave no room for misinterpreting me and misrepresenting the commission”.
“Instead of going out there to bat for the team and celebrate our achievements, I am becoming a politician. And I can’t bear the idea of ever being a politician. It just isn’t who I am or a skillset I wish to develop.
“As headmistress at Michaela, my governors can decide whether or not they wish to employ me despite my outspoken nature. So I feel free to comment on society.
“But as chair of the commission, people feel I need to be impartial and it irks many that for many years I have been anything but. So in some people’s minds, I am not right for the job.
“Sadly, I have come to agree.”
However in April last year, Birbalsingh was widely criticised after her comments on why girls do not take physics.
She told MPs: “I just think they don’t like it. There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think they would rather not do.”
Most recently, the commission pledged to investigate which teaching styles work best to boost outcomes for poorer pupils, with critics questioning whether this would just recommend the approaches employed by Michaela.
Michaela has been dubbed the strictest school in the country, with silent corridors and other controversial policies such as ditching SEND labels and giving detentions for failing to have a pen.
Birbalsingh said while the commission team have been supportive, “I worry that all of our excellent work will be ignored by virtue of my presence”.
She claimed critics “could not imagine that I might have the integrity to publish unbiased research, whatever conclusions it came to.”
“So my hands are tied. My being chair means no commission analysis of what works in schools will be valued or respected, and education is crucial to social mobility.
“Leaving before key research takes place on schools also allows that work to happen without my perceived influence.”
Call for ‘superhero’ deputy to take the lead
Birbalsingh now calls for her deputy Alun Francis, principal at Oldham College, to take over the role permanently.
“He is utterly brilliant – a social mobility superhero with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject and without doubt the best person for the job.
“I have learned an enormous amount doing this important work, and I am sad to go, but I look forward to supporting the work of this amazing team from the outside – where I won’t hold it back.”
Francis said: “I am very pleased to accept the role of interim chair of the Social Mobility Commission.
“The commission has had a fantastic twelve months, from launching our first State of the Nation report to making great progress on our research priorities.
“The SMC continues to go from strength to strength, and I look forward to working with the Minister for Women and Equalities to continue to champion social mobility across Britain.”
The government said arrangements for a new permanent chair will be “announced in due course”.