Birbalsingh: 'I would be the worst politician, I can't toe the party line'

29th October 2010 at 01:00
The chalkface's overnight superstar on her controversial Martin Luther King-inspired speech and white teachers' dilemma

She has become the country's most famous teacher almost overnight, with her face gracing the pages of every national broadsheet newspaper in the last three weeks.

But Katharine Birbalsingh, the teacher who earned a standing ovation at this month's Conservative party conference after she railed against the "broken education system", described it as her "Martin Luther King" moment.

After a smattering of media interest, Ms Birbalsingh returned to her job as deputy head and French teacher at St Michael and All Angels Academy in south London to find she was being sent home, due to her comments.

Ms Birbalsingh left her role and a martyr to the Conservative cause was created, sparking a media frenzy that has ended with the Oxford graduate landing a role at The Daily Telegraph as one of its regular bloggers.

The daughter of an Indian Guyanese father and a Jamaican mother, she said she was merely standing up for speaking out on behalf of her pupils and fellow teachers across the country, and had no regrets following her speech in Birmingham.

"I now have teachers coming up to me in the street thanking me for what I said," she tells The TES. "When I took assembly at school I used to tell my kids to be like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

"I realised that if I didn't stand up and said what I believed, I would never be like those people. How could I stand up in front of another assembly?"

Among the most controversial comments Ms Birbalsingh said during her speech to the Conservative party was on the issue of black pupils in school and the misguided charge of racism that is often levelled at teachers.

Black children underachieve because of what the "well-meaning liberal" does to them, she told the massed Tory ranks in Birmingham.

"Teachers are not racist, generally speaking," she says. "You may get the odd one, of course, but generally they are far more adept at understanding race than the general public as they face it every day.

"The media is very hard on teachers, and it doesn't help teachers who have pupils from the black community. White teachers are under real pressure - when they try to discipline black kids they say it's because they are black and the teachers begin to worry and question themselves.

"Whereas with me, if a black kid says: 'Is it coz I is black?' I can say: 'Yes, it is. Now sit your black ass down.' They can laugh because I am black, but it is a lot harder for white teachers."

The system, from education through to welfare, is in need of reform, she says, and she believes that it is the Conservatives who are the best party to implement it.

"When a person gives a poor person some money, they are thankful," she says. "But when it is the state giving the money it becomes more complicated. People are not grateful for the money from the state and it simply becomes an expectation. When that happens, and a child grows up in that situation, you create a poverty of ambition.

"It is to do with the welfare state - I am not saying there shouldn't be a welfare state, but it needs reform. What Labour did 20 to 30 years ago was great and necessary, but there needs to be a shift to the right now, for people to take responsibility and to pull themselves up by their bootstraps."

Despite this, she still says she is a "lefty" and although she voted Conservative in the last election, she does not think of herself as a Tory.

"I used to think the Tories were evil, but they are not, they are very nice, kind people who have been very supportive," she says. "I don't think of myself as a Tory but I do think that Michael Gove is the best man for the job to make the necessary reforms to the education system."

And despite her current moment in the spotlight, she is no doubt that a career in politics is not on the cards - but a role in a free school could be, or even working abroad.

"I could never be a politician, I think I would be the worst one possible as I would be useless at toeing the party line," she says. "I love teaching, I love kids and I love my job. I would ideally like to work in an inner London school, whether it is free or whatever.

"I could move abroad but I would prefer to stay here. I realise it would take an extraordinary head to hire someone like me, but I have always been this person - I have always been me."


'She's black and bodacious as hell'

Katharine Birbalsingh was previously best known to teachers for writing the blog "To Miss With Love", which told of her experiences at a number of inner-city schools. The blog is to be published as a book next April. Here are a few extracts:

"While I might choose to work in a school that is in special measures, in an effort to make it better, and I might, as a head, specifically seek out a school in special measures and take on the challenge of turning it around, I would never send my own child to such a school." (June 8, 2008)

"Sometimes getting out of bed is hard. Right now, I'm so exhausted, I can barely see straight. You can be sure that I won't be getting up tomorrow morning in a hurry. Sometimes getting out of bed is hard because one is exhausted of the fight." (June 20, 2008)

"Turns out (my guardian angel) is a member of the Conservative party. She's black, brilliant, and bodacious as hell.

'Join us,' she says, seductively.

I flinch. 'The Conservative party?' I frown. 'Nah ... that's too big a step for me.'" (June 21, 2008).

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