Who is ‘Britain’s strictest headteacher’ Katharine Birbalsingh?

Katharine Birbalsingh, who has been commonly described as Britain’s strictest headteacher, is no stranger to controversy.

Ms Birbalsingh, headteacher of Michaela Community School in Brent in north-west London, is at the centre of a legal challenge after she decided to ban prayer rituals at the secondary school.

The high-profile school leader has attracted a lot of media attention over the years for her outspoken views on education and “woke” culture.

She first grabbed the headlines at the 2010 Conservative Party conference with a damning speech on the state of England’s schools where she said standards had been “so dumbed down that even the teachers know it” and the education system was broken “as it keeps poor children poor”.

A few weeks after her speech to delegates at the Tory conference, Ms Birbalsingh left her post as deputy headteacher of St Michael and All Angels Church of England Academy in south London.

In 2014, she founded Michaela Community School – a free school which has been dubbed the strictest in the country.

Year 7 pupils at Michaela are required to attend a behaviour “boot camp” which teaches them how to walk to lessons quickly in single file, how to sit properly on a chair, and how to concentrate in class.

Students at the school get detentions if they talk in the corridor or if they forget their pencil case or ruler.

The high-achieving school, which has been rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, has been praised by a number of Tory ministers in the past for its academic success, and in 2020 Ms Birbalsingh was made a CBE.

In October 2021, Ms Birbalsingh was appointed as chairwoman of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission (SMC).

Liz Truss, who was equalities minister at the time, celebrated the headteacher for “expecting high standards and not indulging the soft bigotry of low expectations”.

But Ms Birbalsingh, who describes herself on social media as having “small c conservative values”, faced criticism for comments she made as the Government’s social mobility tsar.

In April 2022, she found herself in hot water over comments to a Government committee which implied girls do not choose to study A-level physics because they dislike “hard maths”.

In her inaugural speech as the SMC chairwoman, Ms Birbalsingh, an Oxford University graduate, said understanding of social mobility needed to move beyond a “rags to riches”, “Dick Whittington” approach where there is a “focus on big-leap-upward mobility from the bottom to the top in one generation”.

She quit her role as the Government’s social mobility tsar in January 2023, citing the fact that she came with “too much baggage” and was doing “more harm than good”.

She added that some of her “controversial” statements had put the commission in “jeopardy”.

Just four months later, Ms Birbalsingh made headlines again when she told the National Conservatism conference that parents should be willing to take their children out of schools if they are “too woke”.

Ms Birbalsingh is not afraid to speak her mind – especially on social media – and the recent events surrounding her school are no exception.

In January, in a post on X, formerly Twitter, Ms Birbalsingh defended the school’s policy on prayers as she said it came amid a backdrop of violence, intimidation and racial harassment of teachers.

In the same week that the case against the school was heard in the High Court, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan hailed Ms Birbalsingh’s leadership of Michaela School as “incredible” on social media.