Why I’m leaving the social mobility commission

It's been a successful year and I leave the team in great shape - but my presence is only holding the commission back, writes Katharine Birbalsingh

It's been a successful year and I leave the team in great shape - but my presence is only holding the commission back, writes Katharine Birbalsingh

6 Jan 2023, 10:43

In November 2021, I was appointed chair of the social mobility commission, an advisory body of the Cabinet Office that conducts research and monitors the country’s progress in improving social mobility. Today, I am stepping down from that role.

It has been a successful and enjoyable year. We published our state of the nation report showcasing our new social mobility index. We set out an ambitious research programme focusing on themes such as education and families. Our most recent report highlights how missing data limits our understanding and holds us back. We launched our ‘Quarterly Commentary’ and a podcast series. And for my part, I am most proud of appointing our amazing director, John Craven, a man who has my utmost respect.

So why am I stepping down?

The simple answer is that I come with too much baggage. Over this past year, I have become increasingly aware that my propensity to voice opinions that are considered controversial puts the commission in jeopardy.

When I gave my inaugural speech in June last year, I spoke about how we often have too narrow a view of social mobility: we often imagine the feel-good rags-to-riches trope of Hollywood movies when there are so many other mobilities we could and should celebrate. Of course, that doesn’t mean that those who achieve the ambition of going to Oxbridge shouldn’t be admired too – only that not everyone has to go to Oxbridge to be admired.

We had hoped that this new narrative might be received with interest. Instead, the press insisted that I personally believe ‘working class people should stay in their lane’. Other interesting points were then lost amid the outrage. A tiny apology was published days later, but the damage had already been done. I am still to this day attacked for my apparently abhorrent views on social mobility.

Over time, it affected how the team and I would approach interviews. I would have to carefully craft my utterances to leave no room for misinterpreting me and misrepresenting the commission. At the end of a recent interview, I realised that my idea of a successful discussion was now one where I manage to avoid giving opinions that might bring attention to 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.

On balance, I am doing the social mobility commission more harm than good

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. The commission team have been nothing but supportive, but I worry that all of our excellent work will be ignored by virtue of my presence. When I tweeted how excited I was to see the commission’s analysis of what works in helping disadvantaged kids achieve at school, some responded that if our work were to find evidence to back what we do at Michaela, they would be suspicious. These weren’t even our detractors, but they could not imagine that I might have the integrity to publish unbiased research, whatever conclusions it came to. They insisted that our work could not be taken seriously.

Others suggested the commission should outsource its work on schools to avoid its analysis being tainted by me. But research is the team’s job, and while some of it can be outsourced, to outsource all of it would be a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money.

So my hands are tied. My being chair means no commission analysis of what works in schools will be valued or respected as it should, and education is crucial to social mobility. By contrast, with my deputy, Alun Francis as chair, people will listen to the same evidence and believe in its integrity. All that excellent work will be productive, useful and successful in ways that I could only hope to do.

On balance then, I am doing the social mobility commission more harm than good. Over the past couple of months, it has become clear to me that Alun Francis ought to be chair. My being in the post for a year has allowed the Oldham College principal to find his feet, but he is now in a stronger position than I am to take the commission to the next step. He is utterly brilliant – a social mobility superhero with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject and without doubt the best person for the job.

The commissioners are ready to take his lead, our director is firmly in post and the secretariat team is in the perfect position for Alun to take over the reins. Leaving before key research takes place on schools also allows that work to happen without my perceived influence.

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