Ignore Ofsted and do what is best for your pupils, Government social mobility tsar tells teachers

·4-min read
Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh with pupils at her school in Wembley - David Rose
Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh with pupils at her school in Wembley - David Rose

Ignore Ofsted and do what is best for pupils, the Government's social mobility tsar has told headteachers.

Katharine Birbalsingh, 49, said the inspecting body is “not a force for good” and urged teachers to “put the blinkers on” and “do what is right” for their children.

In a speech at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) conference in Birmingham on Saturday, she said bureaucracy should be banned because “people spend too much time writing stuff down and not enough time doing it”.

Before becoming chair of the Social Mobility Commission in October last year, the Oxford-educated reformer was known as ‘Britain’s strictest headteacher’ for her rules at Michaela Community School, where she is founder and headteacher.

Rules at the mixed secondary school in Wembley include detentions for those who don’t bring a ruler to class and for speaking in corridors.

In 2021, 82 per cent of its A-level cohort were offered places at Russell Group universities.

Worrying about Ofsted

During her 30-minute-long speech, Ms Birbalsingh, who was made a CBE in 2020, claimed she had once convinced an Ofsted inspector visiting her school that assiduously writing everything down is a waste of time.

While conceding that Ofsted's chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, had done a “good job” so far and that the inspectorate is probably the “best it has ever been,” she added: “Too many of us understandably as leaders are constantly worried about what Ofsted is asking for.

“You must try and just put the blinkers on and ignore it and just do what is right for your children and do what is right for your school…When the inspectors come you explain and you show.

“If you have evidence for what you are doing and why you fight for that.”

In a Tweet in August 2021, she had called for Ofsted to be abolished claiming the damage it does to headteachers and other senior staff is “catastrophic”.

In her speech, she said teachers should not be afraid to be disliked and should avoid “sentimentality” as having a backbone “is a mark of a good leader”.

'Believe in the children'

She said: “Don’t be hurt if parents are upset with you or mean social media people – whoever it is that’s upset with you. You’ve got to believe in the children.”

On smartphones, which Ms Birbalsingh claims hamper pupils' ability to learn, she recommended poorer children should not own them because it prevents them from being “socially mobile”.

As part of a "digital detox" initiative, pupils at Michaela are encouraged to give up their smartphones and video game console cables where they are housed in a safe for months at a time, she said.

Roughly half of Year 11 students have voluntarily given their phones to staff to help them revise and many Year 7 and Year 8 pupils don’t own them at all.

In more challenging schools she would "highly recommend" a total silence policy because they can be "horrible places where children get bullied".

She added that pupils from poorer backgrounds who had not been explicitly taught material would see their middle-class peers answering questions and become demotivated.

Speaking with toddlers

"What (the child) doesn't think at that moment is 'Well, I must be from a different socio-economic background, so that's why I couldn't answer.' What he thinks is, 'Gosh, I'm dumb.' And then he starts poking Dave and poking John and keeps misbehaving," she said.

Speaking on her role as chair of the Social Mobility Commission, she said not enough parents speak with their toddlers, an activity which improves their speech development.

A 2014 study from Stanford University found that talking with infants and toddlers helped them grasp the rules and rhythms of language at an early age and provided them with a foundation to build up an understanding of how the world worked.

Ms Birbalsingh has frequently criticised government bureaucracy, which she argues infringes on the autonomy and ability of schools.

Shortly after her appointment with the Social Mobility Commission, she said the body had frequently “wasted their time” writing reports that get “stuck on a website” that no one reads.