Birbalsingh addressing a Learning Without Frontiers conference, London, January 2011
|Born||1973 (age 46–47)|
Auckland, New Zealand
|Education||MA, French and philosophy, New College, Oxford|
|Employer||Michaela Community School, Wembley Park|
|Website||To Miss with Love|
Katharine Moana Birbalsingh (born 1973) is a British education reformer and headteacher. She is the founder and headmistress of Michaela Community School, a free school (charter school) established in 2014 in Wembley Park, London.
Birbalsingh is the author of two books, Singleholic (2009) and To Miss with Love (2011), and editor of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way (2016) and Michaela: The Power of Culture (2020). She also hosts a blog, To Miss with Love, where she writes about the education system. In 2017 she was included by Anthony Seldon in his list of the 20 most influential figures in British education, and in 2019 she was awarded the Contrarian prize.
Birbalsingh was born in Auckland, New Zealand, the elder of two daughters of Frank Birbalsingh, a teacher of Indo-Guyanese origin, and his wife, Norma, a nurse from Jamaica. Birbalsingh's father and grandfather were both educators. Her paternal grandfather, Ezrom S. Birbalsingh, was head of the Canadian Mission School in Better Hope, Demerara, Guyana. Her father (born 1938 in Berbice, Guyana) obtained his MA in English in London in 1966, specializing in Commonwealth literature, and worked as a supply teacher in Birmingham and London.
Frank Birbalsingh moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1967, where he worked again as a supply teacher, joined the faculty at York University in Toronto in 1970, and obtained his PhD in Canadian literature in 1972. He held several other positions over the years, including a fellowship at the University of Delhi, India, and a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Auckland, New Zealand (1973–1974), where Birbalsingh was born.
Birbalsingh grew up mostly in Toronto, but moved to the UK at age 15 when her father was a visiting fellow at the Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick (1989–1990). In 1996 he was promoted to professor at York and in 2003 became professor emeritus. When the family returned to Canada, Birbalsingh decided to stay in the UK. She graduated from Oxford University after reading French and philosophy at New College.
Teaching and blogging
While at Oxford, Birbalsingh had visited inner-city schools as part of a scheme the university runs to encourage state-school pupils to apply, and after graduation she decided to teach in state schools herself. From 2007 she wrote an anonymous blog, To Miss With Love, in which—as Miss Snuffy—she described her experiences teaching at an inner-city secondary school. In 2010 she was the assistant head of Dunraven School, Streatham, south London, and that year she joined St Michael and All Angels Academy in Camberwell, also south London, as vice-principal.
Birbalsingh is a supporter of the traditional teaching methods described in E. D. Hirsch's The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them (1999). She writes that the book "opened [her] eyes" to what was wrong in schools, and argues that education should be about teaching children knowledge, not learning skills. Responding to the removal of Michael Gove as education secretary in 2014—Gove was also a supporter of Hirsch—she said it was a tragedy that his work would not be completed.
Conservative Party conference
Birbalsingh came to national prominence in October 2010 after criticising the British education system at that year's Conservative Party conference, and speaking in support of the party's education policies. Referring to a "culture of excuses, of low standards ... a sea of bureaucracy ... [and] the chaos of our classrooms", Birbalsingh told the conference: "My experience of teaching for over a decade in five different schools has convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that the system is broken, because it keeps poor children poor." As a result she became the target of racist and sexist abuse on social media. After the speech Birbalsingh was asked not to attend the school at which she taught while the governors "discuss[ed] her position". She subsequently resigned "after being asked to comply with conditions that she did not feel able to comply with", according to The Sunday Telegraph. The school, St Michael and All Angels in Camberwell, London, was closed shortly thereafter and reopened with new staff and a new name. Alan Johnson, a former Labour minister of education, read on BBC Radio in February 2019 his history of the school from its foundation in the 1880s to its closure in 2011.
Birbalsingh's first publication was a novel, Singleholic (2009), published under the pseudonym "Katherine Bing". Her second book, To Miss with Love (2011), was based on her blog. It was chosen as Book of the Week and serialised on BBC Radio 4. She is also the editor of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way (2016), which describes the education philosophy of Michaela Community School.
Birbalsingh has argued that teenagers should be stopped from having mobile phones in school as their brains are not developed enough for them to exercise proper self-control. She has likewise advocated for "digital drop-off" schemes, where children and parents were encouraged to bring in electronic devices to be locked in a school safe for the holidays.
Birbalsingh has said that children used the "race card" when in disputes with teachers, and warned parents to take their children's claims of “racism” with a pinch of salt when disciplined at school. She also claimed that young black students were being held back from success in school by teachers who "are scared of being called racist" if they discipline them.
- (2016) (ed.) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way. John Catt Educational. ISBN 978-1909717961
- (2011) To Miss with Love. Penguin. ISBN 978-0670918997
- (2009) Singleholic (writing as Katherine Bing). Hansib Publications. ISBN 978-1906190156
- For year of birth, Birbalsingh, Katharine (25 March 2018). "@Miss_Snuffy" Twitter.
- "New Zealand-born woman dubbed 'Britain's strictest teacher' ignores IT and teaches French". New Zealand Herald. 30 May 2018.
- Adams, Richard (16 June 2017). "Britain's strictest school gets top marks from Ofsted". The Guardian.
- "Katharine Birbalsingh". The Seldon List 2017. Retrieved 18 October 2017.
- Jenkins, Patrick (28 June 2019). "Martin Gilbert branches out". Financial Times. Retrieved 29 June 2019.
- Dindayal, Vidur (2011). "Dr. Frank Birbalsingh". Guyanese Achievers USA & Canada: A Celebration. Trafford Publishing. pp. 43–46.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Wilby, Peter (27 February 2012). "Katharine Birbalsingh – undaunted by free school setback", The Guardian.
- Dindayal 2011, p. 43.
- Dindayal 2011, pp. 43–44.
- Dindayal 2011, p. 44.
- Naidu, Janet (July 2009). "Frank Birbalsingh And His World of Literature", Guyana Journal.
- Griffiths, Sean (13 November 2016). "Is this the strictest teacher in Britain?". The Sunday Times Magazine. pp. 14–21.
- Odone, Cristina (31 January 2011). "Katharine Birbalsingh: The Fearless Woman Who Told the Truth About Teaching". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016.
- "Diary of a despairing teacher", The Daily Telegraph, 10 October 2010.
- Dindayal 2011, p. 46.
- Barrett, David (16 October 2010). "Teacher loses job after exposing failures in our schools". The Sunday Telegraph.
- Birbalsingh, Katharine (2015). "How Knowledge Leads to Self-Esteem", in Jonathan Simons and Natasha Porter. Knowledge and the Curriculum. London: Policy Exchange, pp. 36–42.
- Weale, Sally (5 September 2014). "Katharine Birbalsingh: I regret telling Tories education system was broken". The Guardian.
- For Gove, see Abrams, Fran (25 October 2012). "Cultural literacy: Michael Gove's school of hard facts". BBC News.
- Katharine Birbalsingh's speech, Conservative Party conference, October 2010, courtesy of YouTube, 00:00:34.
- Paton, Graeme (7 October 2010). "Tory Teacher 'Sent Home From School'". The Daily Telegraph.
- Vasagar, Jeevan (3 February 2011). "Out of control – the academy criticised at Conservative conference". The Guardian.
- https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0002r6k see also https://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2019/02/must-listen-on-r4-the-secret-history-of-a-school-st-michael-and-all-angels-camberwell-0 and https://www.theguardian.com/education/2011/feb/03/katharine-birbalsingh-school-chaos
- To Miss With Love, Book of the Week, BBC Radio 4.
- Birbalsingh, Katharine, ed. (2016). Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way. John Catt Educational. ISBN 978-1909717961.
- Ashford, Katie (26 November 2016). "Teaching is workload-addicted. Teachers seem to believe hard work equates to love for one's pupils". TES.
- Eleanor Busby Education Correspondent (9 January 2020). "Teenagers should be banned from using mobiles in school because their brains are not mature enough, leading headteacher says". The Independent. Retrieved 14 January 2020.
- Sian Griffiths, Education Editor (22 December 2019). "Schools lock up pupils' phones for holidays | News". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 14 January 2020.
- Camilla Turner, Education Editor (11 November 2019). "Head of Britain's 'strictest school' says children are using the 'race card' when in trouble". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 14 January 2020.
- "HuffPost is now part of Verizon Media". Huffingtonpost.co.uk. Retrieved 14 January 2020.
- Christopher Hope, Chief Political Correspondent (8 March 2019). "Singing 'I Vow To Thee My Country' makes inner city pupils feel proud to be British, says headteacher". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 14 January 2020.