A Government social mobility tsar has quit her role, citing the fact that she comes with “too much baggage” and was doing “more harm than good”.
Katharine Birbalsingh, who was appointed chair of the Social Mobility Commission in 2021, said that some of her “controversial” statements had put the commission in “jeopardy”, leaving her with little choice but to step down.
Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch said Alun Francis, the principal of Oldham College and deputy chair of the commission, would take on the role on an interim basis.
Ms Badenoch praised Ms Birbalsingh, thanking her for “successfully giving the organisation a strong sense of direction and purpose”.
Ms Birbalsingh, who set up the high-achieving Michaela Community School in Brent, announced her departure in an article for Schools Week.
She wrote: “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.”
“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.”
The head teacher said that she had decided that “on balance, I am doing the social mobility commission more harm than good”, as she praised her successor as “utterly brilliant”.
Ms Badenoch said of Mr Francis that she had “seen that Alun has all the necessary skills and experience to ensure accountability and strong leadership of the Commission and will continue to champion and improve social mobility across the UK”.
He said that he was “very pleased” to take on the role.
“The Commission has had a fantastic 12 months, from launching our first State of the Nation report to making great progress on our research priorities.
“The SMC continues to go from strength to strength, and I look forward to working with the Minister for Women and Equalities to continue to champion social mobility across Britain.”
Ms Birbalsingh, whose school has been dubbed the strictest in the country, often found her remarks making headlines over the course of her tenure.
That experience, she said, had made her behave like a “politician” and act more cautiously when speaking to the media.
“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.”
She made the same point in a letter to Ms Badenoch, in which the departing social mobility tsar told the minister: “People regularly say to me, ‘You can’t say that as Chair of the SMC!’. The role gags me and turns me into someone that I’m not.”
Ms Birbalsingh was criticised for comments last April implying that girls do not study A-level physics because they dislike “hard maths”.
In her inaugural speech last year, she said called for an understanding of social mobility to move beyond a “rags to riches”, “Dick Whittington” approach.