That Birbalsingh Tory conference speech hit us hard but we're fighting back, says head at heart of media storm

3rd December 2010 at 00:00

When Katharine Birbalsingh took the stage at the Conservative party conference to talk about England's "broken" education system, her school was thrust into the full glare of the media.

But while Ms Birbalsingh has risen to prominence, becoming a pin-up for the Conservative cause, St Michael and All Angels Academy in south London has suffered from being cast as the villain in the media pantomime that followed.

The school has been accused of treating her "scandalously" and faced false claims that its governors fired her.

In fact, Ms Birbalsingh resigned as deputy head following her speech to the Tory faithful - an address she made after working at St Michael's for just four weeks. The school's head, Susan Graham, has also since left the school.

Speaking for the first time since the story broke, executive head Irene Bishop told The TES that the school had been hit hard by the coverage, but that it is determined to fight back.

"(Her comments) did have quite an impact," Dr Bishop said. "It deflated the children, who were becoming more confident, getting higher self-esteem. We were on our way up and the children were quite upset by what she said, and so were the staff.

"There were various different emotions - anger, disappointment, a feeling that there was a lack of trust."

The timing of Ms Birbalsingh's comments was particularly bad for the school, as parents were selecting their children's school.

"We have been working so hard to improve the intake as our rolls are falling. We were at the point when parents were choosing where to send their children when she made the comments," Dr Bishop said.

"Some people just believed what they read in their local newspaper, but other parents phoned up to see if what was being said was true. It will have an impact, but how much we won't know until next year."

The school has had behavioural problems, but had seen a jump in its GCSE results from 27 per cent A* to C grades, including English and maths, to 46 per cent in the summer, Dr Bishop added.

In June, Dr Bishop was brought in from St Saviour's and St Olave's Girls' School in south London, to help the failing academy on a part-time basis as a national leader of education.

She said the challenge facing her was less daunting than she expected. "The school has been much, much easier to turn around than I thought possible," she said.

"The students are fine; they just needed boundaries. The staff have been fantastic, they really want to go the extra mile. They were feeling demoralised, but their morale has improved.

"There is obviously still a lot of work to do but results are improving and continue to improve. Everyone is aiming to do well. The ambition is there for the children to do well, to succeed and achieve."

Mike Kent, page 36

Party speech

On the right side

Katharine Birbalsingh became an overnight sensation following her speech to the Conservative party conference in October.

The French teacher said that left-leaning liberalism was holding black boys back, and the fear of being accused of racism was preventing schools from enforcing discipline.

"If you keep telling teachers that they're racist for trying to discipline black boys, and if you keep telling heads that they're racist for trying to exclude black boys, in the end the schools stop reprimanding these children," she said. "Black children underachieve because of what the well-meaning liberal does to him."

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