Common Sense Champion: Katharine Birbalsingh

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Mark Lehain
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This week’s Common Sense Champion is Katharine Birbalsingh. Founder & Headteacher of Michaela Community School, Katharine is also a mighty advocate of plain speaking and down-to-earth common sense.

She first came to public attention in 2010, having given a rip-roaring speech at the Conservative Party Conference about failings in the state school system. Politicians and public alike lapped it up, and a star was born.

(As it happens, I was scheduled to speak immediately after her at this. Walking on to give my speech as the audience were still giving her a THIRD standing ovation was quite the humbling experience.)

However, while her speech went down well with many, it ruffled feathers elsewhere, and ultimately led to her leaving the school worked at as Deputy Head.

Many would have been put off by a setback like that – but not Birbalsingh. She decided she would open her own, brand new state school, and put her philosophy and ideas into action. The government’s then-new “free school” policy meant that this was possible – but it wasn’t easy.

Council after council in London stymied her attempt to find a site for her school. Like Moses and the Israelites in the desert, she wandered from borough to borough, seeking a supportive council that would assist with a site and grant planning permission. Eventually she ended up with a converted office block in Brent opposite Wembley Stadium. This otherwise average building is now an outstanding beacon of hope and inspiration for people all across the country who care about higher standards in our schools.

This is impressive enough – but Katharine has used the platform her experiences and school have given her to do so much more. 

With her staff, she has written and published books and articles that explain “The Michaela Way”, so that other teachers can adopt or adapt their processes in their own schools. They have also hosted literally thousands of visitors, from the UK and abroad. Virtually all go away staggered at what they see – me included.

This is because Michaela is to our schools what the iPhone was to mobile phones. The iPhone did what previous smartphones before it had too, and much of what Michaela does has been done before elsewhere as well. What made them so different is the way that everything was put together so that they worked impeccably. And this only happened because of the clarity of vision and demanding leadership of the person at the top. Birbalsingh is the Steve Jobs of English education!

Nowadays rarely a week goes by without Katharine popping up somewhere in the media. She’s a regular on breakfast TV, current affairs programmes, news pieces, radio broadcast – and her views are sought on a whole range of issues.

And it is on these issues that we feel Birbalsingh has truly earned her place in public life. Where others might understandably shy away from getting drawn into commentary on social issues, she has jumped in. Whether it’s gender inequality, crime, systemic racism, Black Lives Matter, or how we revisit our history – she can be relied on to have a view, and for that to be rooted in a practical common sense that people can relate to. It will be informed and nuanced – and probably run counter to more politically correct takes. It’s why she was awarded the Contrarian Prize in 2019 and undoubtedly played a part in her being awarded a CBE in 2020

So for her clarity of vision, bravery in speaking out, and impact on debate in so many areas, we think she is a fine example of a Common Sense Champion. She’s our guest at an upcoming webinar too – so we’re looking forward to get her take on the above and more!

Mark Lehain


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