The professionals who rise to prominence in politics and the media are rarely actually what they are supposed to be, whether that’s “Britain’s best nanny” or “Britain’s happiest nun”. It is certainly questionable as to whether Katharine Birbalsingh, ubiquitously referred to as “Britain’s strictest headteacher” has done anything to live up to her sobriquet.
Let us first wonder whether that reference is even an intrinsically positive one. “Strictest”, after all, is not synonymous with “best” or even “good”. Roald Dahl’s monstrous Miss Trunchbull – from Matilda – was undoubtedly a strict educator, but the message of the book does not seem to be that she was a good influence on pupils.
Birbalsingh seems to be running a better – and less horrendously abusive – school than Trunchbull, thankfully. The school she runs was rated “outstanding” at its last Ofsted inspection, and 72% of students there go on to get at least a grade 5 (the grade formerly known as a “C”) in their GCSEs.
That is… good but nothing particularly special for Greater London, which has 934 “outstanding” schools versus just 44 rated “satisfactory” and 83 “inadequate”. Perhaps right wing media complaints about grade inflation shouldn’t be targeted so often at students, but rather their institutions.
“Strictness”, properly defined, suggests that there should be a set of rules with which everyone abides, for a common good. For this to be a virtue, those rules need to be fair and grounded in the actual needs of a community – in this case a school.
It is not clear whether Birbalsingh has considered any of this in her approach to strictness, which instead seems to centre on noise in corridors and uniform restrictions. Perhaps most infamously, she introduced and publicised a system that punished children for the “crimes” of their parents.
If parents were not up to date on their lunch money accounts, she declared, the child would have to eat in lunchtime exclusion – a scheme that clearly alienated children whose parents were either struggling to afford lunch money, or else whose circumstances had become sufficiently chaotic that they weren’t paying it. What community purpose this kind of “strictness” served beyond alienating such children even further from their peers was never adequately explained.
However, it is in Birbalsingh’s relentless media nonsense and beefing that her hypocrisy, and the shallowness of her claim as a strict head, really comes to the fore. In May, she appeared at the so-called “Nat Cs” National Conservatism conference, where she revealed she regularly played her staff clips from the film Gladiator, and claimed that children at some schools are allowed to wear ears and tails because they “identify as cats”.
Over the last week, Birbalsingh has engaged in an increasingly unedifying series of rows over the supposed conduct of Jess Phillips, after accusing her of both “racism” and “bullying”.
One might suppose that unedifying Twitter spats would be off-limits for the country’s “strictest headteacher”, but instead Birbalsingh escalated a particularly stupid one – that started over a poorly thought-through tweet she put out on the death of Tina Turner.
Birbalsingh had tweeted a photo of Turner with her infamously abusive ex-spouse Ike, and was (predictably) called out for doing so. Rather than straightforwardly admitting responsibility for her own mistake – which is what an actual strict role-model would do in this situation – Birbalsingh rattled out a series of excuses in which she was entirely blameless and the error was Twitter’s (it seems likely she accidentally saved a gif as a still image, which is still her mistake and not Twitter’s).
Phillips, a longstanding campaigner on domestic violence, had tweeted about Birbalsingh’s error. The headteacher decided to turn this into a lengthy four-page letter – remember, brevity is a virtue – to Labour leader Keir Starmer saying that Phillips’ conduct in this amounted to racism and bullying.
Commentator Alex Andreou noted several significant issues with the complaint, however. Chief among these was that Birbalsingh had omitted timestamps from tweets when alleging that Phillips’ tweet had incited abuse – and in at least one instance, the abusive tweet had come before Phillips had noted the subject at all.
Even regular, non-strict, headteachers generally discourage misleading or even lying – especially when making serious accusations. Similarly, most encourage checking your work and paying attention to details. Birbalsingh accused Phillips of thinking some BAME people are the “wrong sort of Asian” thanks to a five-year-old tweet that was, in reality, making reference to the Narnia character of Aslan, a lion.
All of this is routinely unedifying Twitter content – the site just functioning as its usual, divisive and dysfunctional self; business as usual. But it should not be business as usual for someone not just allowing themselves to be put on a pedestal, but positively thrusting herself on to it and stamping down any possible contenders.
Consistency is valued by genuinely strict teachers and leaders. What is good for one person must be good for another. It is impossible to imagine Birbalsingh would tolerate her own lapses in others. It is much easier to imagine that she would not just ensure such behaviour was sanctioned, but then find a way to mention it on the national stage.
Birbalsingh is not Britain’s “strictest” anything – she is a cosplayer, a cargo-cult authority figure aiming to appeal to a slice of the country’s public who believe everything was better in the 1950s. She is presenting their fantasy of what a headteacher should look like, and enjoying the profile that creates – having chosen to give up a government advisory role to continue in the posture.
A real head would surely have wanted to create real, national change in preference to speaking at the US-funded National Conservatives conference. One wonders how comfortable pupils who don’t share Birbalsingh’s politics feel at her school. But what’s worse is one wonders even harder whether she cares, one iota.