'When they say it's my fault, it's just nonsense. And they know it'

11th March 2011 at 00:00
It only lasted seven minutes, but Katharine Birbalsingh's speech to the Conservative party conference unleashed a deluge of negative publicity about the school where she loved working. Now she is being blamed for its closure. But, as Meabh Ritchie reports, it may not be that simple

It is 10.30am on Friday morning, and although she is sitting in her flat in Brixton it is still "break time" for Katharine Birbalsingh. "If I had any choice, I would be back at my old school working," she says. "I love the whole urban interaction among pupils. That's what I love and it's what I do best."

Despite having 10 years' experience at five different schools under her belt, the former deputy headteacher has been unable to work in a school for the past six months. Ms Birbalsingh's career path changed forever in just seven minutes last October when she spoke at the Conservative party conference and she went from being one of hundreds of deputy heads working in inner-city London schools to a minor celebrity charged with giving succour to grassroots Conservatives who like to think the worst about comprehensive education. In the eyes of some of her colleagues, those seven minutes transformed her into a Tory party puppet.

Her superiors at St Michael and All Angels CofE Academy in south-east London were not impressed. Following the speech, she was asked to work from home for a few days. According to the school, she then resigned; Ms Birbalsingh is adamant that she was forced out.

The final twist in the tale came a few months later as the dust was settling. St Michael's received only 16 applications for its Year 7 entry and in January this year, staff were told it would have to close in June, staying open only for the current Years 9 and 10 until 2013.

In January, The TES ran a story in which the school's chair of governors, Canon Peter Clark from the Diocese of Southwark, said Ms Birbalsingh's attack on the education system had been fatal for the school. In a matter of months, the former deputy head went from being a courageous whistleblower sacrificing her own career to expose the state of the nation's schools, to the villain, with responsibility for the closure placed firmly at her feet.

Ms Birbalsingh wants to make it clear that she has nothing bad to say about the school. But she is suing the board for unfair dismissal and is upset about being blamed for the closure.

"When they say it's me (my fault), it's just nonsense, and they know it. That's what hurts me," she says. "They and I are both clear about what the situation was in September (before the Conservative party conference). All we talked about was the fact that we were very likely to close."

Ms Birbalsingh may have been the most high-profile, media-savvy teacher to have fallen foul of the leadership at St Michael's, but she is not the only one. In fact, four teachers launched separate grievances against the headteacher and board of governors in the space of three years. That period also saw 104 teachers leave the school.

For those familiar with the school's history, its problems did not suddenly emerge with Ms Birbalsingh's conference performance. "I've known the school for about 30 years and it's been very poor for about 25 of those," says Mike Kent, a TES columnist and headteacher of Comber Grove Primary School, south London, a feeder school to the academy. At first, the primary had a good relationship with what was then Archbishop Michael Ramsey Technology College and some of its pupils benefited from the secondary school's facilities, taking science and technology lessons there.

However, after a rapid succession of headteachers, the school changed for the worse. On one visit, Mr Kent's pupils were spat at by secondary pupils from upstairs windows. A year later, a meeting about a transition project was set up at the secondary school. As they awaited the arrival of the headteacher, a noisy din came from the classrooms - "we could barely hear ourselves speak for the cacophony in the rooms around us," says Mr Kent - and the group left without seeing the head.

After a spell in special measures from 1999 to 2000, the school was turned into an academy in 2007. That year saw 30 per cent of pupils achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE, compared with the national average of 60.8 per cent. Susan Graham, the executive principal who oversaw the transition to academy, later faced a series of accusations from her former staff in May 2010. A letter from four teaching unions outlining teachers' areas for grievance was sent to the chair of governors last summer. It stated that pupils were made to do exams too early, in Years 9 and 10, and subjects were assigned to pupils to improve results rather than being based on aptitude or interest.

The unions pointed to high staff turnover as an area for concern, and to the fact that a significant proportion of staff who left the school were of black and ethnic minority origin. One staff member, Sairah Shah, launched a claim of racial and sexual discrimination against the head and governors. She lost her case last month, but feels she was poorly treated by the school.

Ms Shah started at St Michael and All Angels in May 2008, but she says her relations with the head quickly soured after she raised an objection to a restructuring of the school's management. "From that point she started to treat me very differently - my opinion wasn't relevant," says the former assistant head, who has 12 years' teaching experience.

She talks about a "culture of fear" at the school, but far from being defiant or forceful in her claims, Ms Shah continually reiterates that this is only her perception.

"I have no chip on my shoulder about race, but the moment I challenged anything, it was like `how dare you'," she says.

In response to her comments, a spokesperson for the Southwark Diocesan Board of Education simply said: "Ms Shah's claims have been investigated by an employment tribunal and not upheld."

NUT regional officer Paddy Marshall supported members of staff at the time of the grievances. He acknowledges that the school had always had problems, in a large part due to the challenges faced by the pupil intake, "but with the opening of the academy, the approach was taken to sweep away all of their behaviour management strategies and to focus on the curriculum," he says. "There they were, in a new academy but with the same pupils. The structures that these pupils and staff were used to were removed, and this created a further degree of instability."

Following Ms Graham's departure in June 2010, however, the school seemed to improve. Colin Boxall was brought in as principal with Irene Bishop, long-standing headteacher of nearby St Saviour's and St Olave's School, as executive head. It may have been a long time coming, but GCSE results went from 27 per cent A* to C including maths in 2009, to 46 per cent last summer.

Teachers' morale and the school culture had also vastly improved. "I went to visit in November (2010) and I didn't see one kid misbehave," says Mr Kent. "Irene Bishop changed it by doing simple things very quickly."

But at a time when the school was finally on the up, and when parents were filling in school admissions forms, a spotlight was shone on St Michael and All Angels Academy as a result of the publicity surrounding Ms Birbalsingh, and the school's history was dragged into public view. Journalists went digging and found out that there were 21 incidents involving the police at the school in the previous academic year, five of which were allegations of actual bodily harm, two of common assault and one alleged rape. Little wonder that parents were not enamoured. Fingers were pointed at Ms Birbalsingh for committing the sin of airing the school's dirty linen in public.

Dr Bishop says that the party conference speech brought negative attention to a school which was on a fragile road to recovery. "It deflated the children, who were becoming more confident, getting higher self-esteem," she said in a December interview with The TES. "We were on our way up and the children were quite upset by what she said. So were the staff."

Few teachers believe that parents should be kept in the dark about the school where their child will be spending at least five years of their life, especially if there is a risk of physical assault. But staff at St Michael's felt that the spotlight focused on the school's past, when they were busy trying to turn the school around, says Mr Marshall at the NUT.

Dr Bishop declined to comment for this article, but according to Mr Marshall, morale at the school is low. "They feel that their hard work is being thrown back in their faces," he says. "Many of those teachers have worked exceptionally hard through all the trials and tribulations and again with the interim principal to make the improvements that have been evidenced."

The bone of contention between all the parties involved is whether it was Ms Birbalsingh's comments that deterred potential parents and pupils, or whether the school's reputation was already beyond salvation. Even before the school's failings were given national exposure, only one parent turned up to a Saturday open morning and just over a dozen expressed an interest at a previous open evening.

"Closure was on the cards for a long time," says Ms Shah, who blames the governing body for failing to deal with staff concerns.

Ms Birbalsingh believes that the school brought the media attention on itself by sending her home and making it seem as though it had something to hide. For her Conservative party presentation, she ensured her surname and the name of her school were not on show. Photos of pupils were used (with parental permission, she is keen to point out), but no names were attached. "I had gone to a lot of trouble to protect my school," she says. "I did the speech, was the Tory darling for a day, and then there were no more articles. Nobody was interested in the school. But then they sent me home, and by doing that it was no longer a story about my speech, but a human interest story."

It may have been naive to think that her comments would not be newsworthy. But Ms Birbalsingh would not be the first to be swept up in a press frenzy that started as a minor stir but quickly developed a life of its own.

It is also a story that generated a huge amount of debate in the educational community. One thread on the TES online forum, entitled "Hooray for Ms Birbalsingh - I say!" (www.tes.co.ukbirbalsingh), amassed 417 replies. It was one of many discussions, on and off-line, about whether the deputy head was courageous or naive, and about her views on the state system.

There is no doubting Ms Birbalsingh's passion for education. But her frequent television appearances and publishing deal, newspaper interviews and presence on twitter as @miss_snuffy, mean she has been painted by her detractors as a career-climbing backstabber who has wangled a column on a national newspaper website and a book deal out of her former school's failure.

Since she has been out of school, Ms Birbalsingh has formulated some controversial ideas about why other teachers have not joined her crusade, and is not afraid to share them. The relationship between teacher and employer is based on the "psychology of abuse", she says, her words gathering pace as she goes on to compare the state system to a paedophile and the teacher to a child victim.

"Teachers are abused and then they are made to feel bad. And they can't tell on the system, because it's their fault and they are made to feel guilty," she says. "To back me would be to hurt the system, and teachers don't want to do that because they are desperate for middle class parents to keep sending their children to state schools."

But part of the reason for the backlash against Ms Birbalsingh is not because of what she said or even because her former school is to be closed, but because she aligned herself with one political party. Few teachers would not criticise apparent failings in the current system among themselves, or engage in debate with Ms Birbalsingh. But the image of Michael Gove smiling and nodding at her every word, as well as her subsequent blog posts calling for a return to traditional education, have alienated teachers who feel at odds with the Conservative party.

Dr Bishop, who sent Ms Birbalsingh home after her speech, allowed Tony Blair to deliver his announcement about the date of the general election from her school hall in 2001. In this case, loyalties seem to divide neatly along blue and red battle lines.

It is now six months - almost two terms - since that fateful speech. Looking back, does Ms Birbalsingh wish she had kept quiet? After a pause, she nods. "I regret it for me personally because it has ruined my life," she says. "I had a 15 minute bike ride to school, I worked with kids that I loved and I lived for it. I don't have my own family, or kids. I was there all the time - I worked 70 hour weeks, easily. It has taken away the one thing I had in my life that I loved."

But outside her personal life, she has no regrets about speaking out. Ms Birbalsingh maintains that she was not responsible for her school's closure - only for not anticipating the consequences of her speech. "I underestimated, I suppose, how much people would be interested in what I was saying," she says.

In the wake of St Michael and All Angels Academy's impending closure, and in the midst of what Mr Gove has called a revolution in education, Ms Birbalsingh has been handed the megaphone and feels "compelled" to speak. "For my entire career, I was always lying: every time there was a Year 6 evening, I was pretending everything was wonderful," she says, adding: "You can't fix a problem until you admit there is a problem."

Sairah Shah is now a history teacher and student entitlement manager at Richmond upon Thames FE College in Middlesex. Her dreams of headship have been shelved after she failed even to get shortlisted for interview at secondary schools. Losing the grievance case has been a blow, "but I just thought that whether we win or lose, it's worth making them accountable," she says. She says she turned down a pound;40,000 offer from the school to drop her claim.

The doomed St Michael and All Angels CofE Academy will remain partly open for the current Years 9 and 10 to complete their exams, but Years 7 to 8 will be absorbed into the surrounding schools from June this year.

"The saddest thing about all of this is that the students (at St Michael's) were absolutely desperate to learn," says Ms Shah. She acknowledges that behaviour was a serious problem "and it was mad and chaotic in terms of the atmosphere. But if we had been given time and left to get on with our jobs ." she tails off, the futility of her "if only" hanging in the air.

Special measures, academy status, a string of accusations and that Conservative conference speech: timeline of a troubled school

- 1999 Archbishop Michael Ramsey Technology College placed in special measures for one year.

- 2007 The school becomes St Michael and All Angels CofE Academy, headed by Susan Graham and sponsored by the Southwark Diocesan Board of Education.

- Feb 2009 Assistant head Sairah Shah lodges a grievance against Mrs Graham and the board of governors.

- May 2009 Ms Shah is made redundant.

- July 2009 Ms Shah's appeal hearing.

- May 2010 A letter from staff, signed by four teaching unions, raises serious concerns about management, behaviour, curriculum and high staff turnover - 106 members of staff have left in three years.

- June 2010 Mrs Graham stands down and Irene Bishop takes over as executive principal.

- Sep 2010 Katharine Birbalsingh starts as deputy headteacher. Sixth form is closed due to falling rolls.

- Oct 2010 Ms Birbalsingh gives speech at Conservative party conference and leaves the school. Police were called to investigate 21 incidents on school grounds during the previous academic year.

- Jan 2011 School's closure is announced after it receives only 16 applications for enrolment.

- Feb 2011 Ms Birbalsingh's book, To Miss with Love, is published.

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