Katharine Birbalsingh

Katharine Moana Birbalsingh CBE (born 1973[1]) is a British education reformer and headteacher.[2] She is the founder and headmistress of Michaela Community School, a free school (charter school) established in 2014 in Wembley Park, London.[3]

Katharine Birbalsingh

Birbalsingh addressing a Learning Without Frontiers conference, London, January 2011
Born1973 (age 4748)
Auckland, New Zealand
EducationMA, French and philosophy, New College, Oxford
EmployerMichaela Community School, Wembley Park
WebsiteTo Miss with Love

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,[4] and in 2019 she was awarded the Contrarian Prize.[5] She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2020 Birthday Honours.[6] [7]


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.[8][9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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),[12] where Birbalsingh was born.[13]

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.[12] 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.[9][14]


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.[9] 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.[15][16] In 2010 she was the assistant head of Dunraven School, Streatham, south London,[17] and that year she joined St Michael and All Angels Academy in Camberwell, also south London, as vice-principal.[18]

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.[19][9] 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.[20][21]

Birbalsingh was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2020 Birthday Honours for services to education.[22]

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.[15] Referring to a "culture of excuses, of low standards ... a sea of bureaucracy ... [and] the chaos of our classrooms",[20] 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."[23] As a result she became the target of racist and sexist abuse on social media.[20] After the speech Birbalsingh was asked not to attend the school at which she taught while the governors "discuss[ed] her position".[24] She subsequently resigned "after being asked to comply with conditions that she did not feel able to comply with", according to The Sunday Telegraph.[18] The school, St Michael and All Angels in Camberwell, London, was closed shortly thereafter and reopened with new staff and a new name.[25] 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.[26][27]


Birbalsingh's first publication was a novel, Singleholic (2009), published under the pseudonym "Katherine Bing".[9] 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.[28] 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.[29][30]


Birbalsingh describes her views as being small c conservative and argues such traditional values "which would once have been completely normal have completely disappeared." She maintains that misguided progressive politics in schools have held ethnic minority and working class children back from academic success and that the political left seek to address problems within education by pouring more money into schools rather than fixing deeper issues, stating "there is a lot of power in ideas, and if the ideas are wrong, then the education system will not deliver."[31]

Birbalsingh maintains that children of black and ethnic minority backgrounds are not sufficiently taught about British culture or Britishness in schools which has left them feeling "culturally excluded." She argues that such cultural exclusion happens due to teachers focusing more on the ethnicity of children over promoting British national identity, stating "Teachers would tell them all the time they weren't part of the country - they say what country are you really from? Let's do a cultural thing where we all bring in our flags. The people who are doing this think they're being nice. They think they're being respectful" but that children "didn't get taught about Shakespeare and Dickens - or that they were part of their country."[32]

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.[33] 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.[34]

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.[35][36] 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.[37]

Birbalsingh has advocated the singing of patriotic songs such as I Vow To Thee My Country or Jerusalem in school assemblies, saying that they make teenagers feel proud to be British.[38]

In response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the United Kingdom, Birbalsingh stated that education and instilling a sense of belonging is the way to make a real difference for black families.[32] She has argued that white Britons have avoided serious conversations about racism and this in turn has drawn people to BLM, but is strongly critical of the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement itself, arguing that it undermines teaching children to take personal responsibility, encourages violence and exacerbates racism by making debates harder and encouraging black teenagers to focus on identity politics or victimhood. She has also rejected BLM's claims that British schools do not teach about slavery and black history, stating that poor teaching and lack of discipline in classrooms has meant that lessons on these subjects are improperly communicated and not committed to memory, and that the BLM movement narrows slavery down to the transatlantic slave trade and not other examples of slavery from history.[39]

Selected works

  • (2020) (ed.) Michaela: The Power of Culture. John Catt Educational. ISBN 978-1912906215
  • (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

See also


  1. For year of birth, Birbalsingh, Katharine (25 March 2018). "@Miss_Snuffy" Twitter.
  2. "New Zealand-born woman dubbed 'Britain's strictest teacher' ignores IT and teaches French". New Zealand Herald. 30 May 2018.
  3. Adams, Richard (16 June 2017). "Britain's strictest school gets top marks from Ofsted". The Guardian.
  4. "Katharine Birbalsingh". The Seldon List 2017. Retrieved 18 October 2017.
  5. Jenkins, Patrick (28 June 2019). "Martin Gilbert branches out". Financial Times. Retrieved 29 June 2019.
  6. Raffray, Nathalie (10 October 2020). "Queen's Birthday Honours: Head of Michaela Community School in Wembley made CBE". Brent and Kilburn Times. Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  7. "Order of the British Empire". The London Gazette. 10 October 2020. Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  8. Dindayal, Vidur (2011). "Dr. Frank Birbalsingh". Guyanese Achievers USA & Canada: A Celebration. Trafford Publishing. pp. 43–46.
  9. Wilby, Peter (27 February 2012). "Katharine Birbalsingh – undaunted by free school setback", The Guardian.
  10. Dindayal 2011, p. 43.
  11. Dindayal 2011, pp. 43–44.
  12. Dindayal 2011, p. 44.
  13. Naidu, Janet (July 2009). "Frank Birbalsingh And His World of Literature", Guyana Journal.
  14. Griffiths, Sean (13 November 2016). "Is this the strictest teacher in Britain?". The Sunday Times Magazine. pp. 14–21.
  15. 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.
  16. "Diary of a despairing teacher", The Daily Telegraph, 10 October 2010.
  17. Dindayal 2011, p. 46.
  18. Barrett, David (16 October 2010). "Teacher loses job after exposing failures in our schools". The Sunday Telegraph.
  19. 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.
  20. Weale, Sally (5 September 2014). "Katharine Birbalsingh: I regret telling Tories education system was broken". The Guardian.
  21. For Gove, see Abrams, Fran (25 October 2012). "Cultural literacy: Michael Gove's school of hard facts". BBC News.
  22. "No. 63135". The London Gazette (Supplement). 10 October 2020. p. B9.
  23. Katharine Birbalsingh's speech, Conservative Party conference, October 2010, courtesy of YouTube, 00:00:34.
  24. Paton, Graeme (7 October 2010). "Tory Teacher 'Sent Home From School'". The Daily Telegraph.
  25. Vasagar, Jeevan (3 February 2011). "Out of control – the academy criticised at Conservative conference". The Guardian.
  26. Johnson, Alan (28 February 2019). "The Secret History of a School: Omnibus Episode 2". BBC Radio 4.
  27. Downs, Janet (19 February 2019). "Must listen on R4: The Secret History of a School, St Michael and All Angels, Camberwell". Local Schools Network. Retrieved 10 October 2020.
  28. To Miss With Love, Book of the Week, BBC Radio 4.
  29. Birbalsingh, Katharine, ed. (2016). Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way. John Catt Educational. ISBN 978-1909717961.
  30. Ashford, Katie (26 November 2016). "Teaching is workload-addicted. Teachers seem to believe hard work equates to love for one's pupils". TES.
  31. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhfKgCqN08Y
  32. Coughlan, Sean (9 June 2018). "Parents bottle it on phones, 'strictest' head teacher says". BBC News.
  33. 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.
  34. Sian Griffiths, Education Editor (22 December 2019). "Schools lock up pupils' phones for holidays | News". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 14 January 2020.
  35. 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.
  36. Lawrence-Jones, Charlie (15 November 2019). "Wembley head teacher 'told parents to not believe pupils who accuse teachers of racism'". My London.
  37. Gray, Jasmin. "Katharine Birbalsingh Says Teachers' Fear Of Being Called Racist Is Holding Back Black Kids". Huffingtonpost.co.uk. Retrieved 14 January 2020.
  38. 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.
  39. "'Victimhood does not help anybody'". Spiked.