‘Blairite’ Headteacher with damning Ofsted inspection publicly rebukes her Tory deputy
If His Grace did not know that Dr Irene Bishop, the Executive Headteacher of St Michael and All Angels Church of England Academy, were so committed to the principle of absolute political 'neutrality' in education, he might easily be persuaded of the view that she was persecuting Ms Katharine Birbalsingh for her political beliefs.
In an astonishing development, Dr Bishop has authorised a very public rebuke of her deputy, which casts not inconsiderable doubt about the future of their working relationship.
Indeed, it appears to have ‘broken down’.
The fate of Ms Birbalsingh may not be quite as clear as some sections of the media have made out. The Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Guardian have all indicated that Ms Birbalsingh is permitted to return to work on Monday and that the matter is therefore closed.
In an attempt to deflate the pantomime and mitigate the furore which has ensued as a result of their decision to ‘suspend’ Ms Birbalsingh from her professional duties and the pursuit of her vocation, the academy’s sponsors, Southwark Diocesan Board of Education, issued the following statement to the media:
Katharine Birbalsingh has been a Deputy Head at St Michael and All Angels Academy since September.His Grace has quite a few problems with this. Indeed, Dr Irene Bishop and the academy’s Chair of Governors, Canon Peter Clark, have quite possibly inadvertently just ensured that this pantomime plays into a second act with an encore.
Her speech at the Conservative Party Conference used pictures of children from our school and made reference to them by name. We are concerned by this and in particular by the way in which the pictures have been used.
Teachers will always have opinions about the ways in which schools should be run. Some teachers may agree with some of the points made by Ms Birbalsingh and some may disagree. Our concern is that the position of the Academy should not be misrepresented. Generalisations about teachers and schools can be seen as insulting to many teachers who have worked hard to make a difference to the lives of the young people in their care. We and all schools have high aspirations for our young people whatever their backgrounds.
Miss Birbalsingh was asked to work at home on Thursday and Friday and will return to work next week.
Ms Birbalsingh is a very experienced teacher: she has been an assistant principal for many years and was promoted to the position of deputy headteacher in September.
Media reports now indicate that she had secured permission from her headteacher to attend the conference and to address it. It is also widely reported that she had secured the necessary permissions from her students and their parents to refer to the children by name.
What is inconceivable to His Grace is that Ms Birbalsingh had not also secured the permission of her headteacher to use these photographs.
The statement of the Diocese does not indicate that she had secured that permission. Indeed, it rather suggests that she had not.
If it transpires that Ms Birbalsingh had indeed informed her headteacher and permission had been granted for these photographs to be used, then the omission of that salient fact from this press release is evidence of collusion and cover-up: the Diocese has deceived by omission.
It would be a resigning matter for either the Headteacher or the academy’s Chair of Governors or both.
Further, Ms Birbalsingh had been instructed to ‘stay at home’ for two days. The natural inference is that she had done something which merited this ‘suspension’. Since her speech at the Conservative Party conference has gone viral (due, in large part, to Dr Bishop’s crass handling of this situation), staff, students and parents will now all be persuaded of the view that Ms Birbalsingh is guilty of misconduct, indeed ‘gross misconduct’, since only gross misconduct merits being instructed to leave the school premises immediately and to ‘work from home’.
Such a suspension, however informal, is not necessarily 'neutral'.
His Grace refers to the judgement of Lord Justice Sedley in the 2007 case of Mezey v. South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust. Counsel in that case submitted to the Court of Appeal that suspension was a ‘neutral’ act. Lord Justice Sedley gave judgement on behalf of the Court and responding to Counsel’s submission, said: “I venture to disagree, at least in relation to the employment of a qualified professional in a function which is as much a vocation as a job. Suspension changes the status quo from work to no work, and it inevitably casts a shadow over the employee's competence. Of course this does not mean that it cannot be done, but it is not a neutral act.”
Ms Birbalsingh may be justifiably concerned about the shadow that was cast over her competence and character by her ‘suspension’.
It is clear from all the press reports that Ms Birbalsingh is fiercely defending her school and its reputation.
Yet there is no reciprocity of respect in this statement.
Indeed, it rather sounds as though Dr Irene Bishop and/or the Chair of Governors have decided to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Ms Birbalsingh, because the wording of this statement indicates that they consider either that she has brought the academy into disrepute or that she may be guilty of breaching child protection guidelines by the unauthorised use of children’s photographs, or both.
It is not Ms Birbalsingh’s alleged misconduct which has compromised her position, but this rather public humiliation of a senior member of staff. Indeed, it might even be defamatory.
But let’s come to the political persecution.
Dr Irene Bishop and Canon Peter Clark accuse Ms Birbalsingh of making ‘generalisations about teachers and schools’ which ‘can be seen as insulting to many teachers who have worked hard to make a difference to the lives of the young people in their care’. They assert: ‘We and all schools have high aspirations for our young people whatever their backgrounds.’
Ms Birbalsingh is at liberty to state her opinion. Whether or not she generalised in order to make her political point is irrelevant: indeed, it is difficult to make a political point in a three-minute speech without generalisation.
But the Diocese statement itself is a generalisation.
Ms Birbalsingh’s observations of state education might indeed be ‘insulting to may teachers’, but equally so might her comments be seen as inspirational.
And it is bizarre that they presume to speak (generally) on behalf of the ‘high aspirations’ of ‘all schools’, as though these were beyond question.
Let us examine the (very recent) Ofsted report for St Michael and All Angels CofE Academy.
Only five months ago, this school was graded ‘4’ in its overall effectiveness.
In Ofsted grading: 1 is outstanding, 2 is good, 3 is satisfactory, and 4 is inadequate.
Its capacity for sustained improvement was graded ‘3’.
Her Majesty's Chief Inspector was of the opinion that this school ‘requires significant improvement, because it is performing significantly less well than in all the circumstances it could reasonably be expected to perform. The school is therefore given a notice to improve’.
While teaching and learning were improving, it was judged that ‘the sixth form curriculum is preventing students from accessing a range of courses that meet their needs, interests and aspirations, and is therefore inadequate’.
The school is a failing school. It needs leaders like Ms Birbalsingh.
Its educational outcomes for individuals and groups of pupils was grade ‘4’.
This is hardly surprising when inspectors found evidence of ‘inadequate’ teaching.
Pupil achievement and enjoyment was graded ’3’, apparently due in large part to pupils’ overall behaviour being graded ‘4’.
The ‘effectiveness’ of the leadership and management of the school (prior to Ms Birbalsingh’s appointment and that of Dr Bishop) was graded ‘3’.
Is this what Dr Bishop means by 'high aspirations' in 'all schools'?
Clearly, her predecessor was found wanting.
One must remember that this ‘effectiveness’ is not a measure of raw results, value-added or other outcomes, but of the knowledge the leadership have of their own school and their strategy for school improvement.
This, say Ofsted, is only ‘satisfactory’.
As is the level of support and challenge provided by the Governing Body.
Most damning for the Governors and Sponsors of the school is that Ofsted graded them ‘4’ in ‘the effectiveness with which the school deploys resources to achieve value for money'.
While Dr Bishop rebukes Ms Birbalsingh for 'insulting teachers', it would appear that the Southwark Diocesan Board of Education deserves to be exposed for their managerial incompetence, the misuse of public money and rank hypocrisy.
Ms Birbalsingh exposed all of these failings (and more) as being endemic within the state secondary system, and she did so with incisive and damning precision. She did not name her new school: indeed, insofar as she had only worked there for three weeks, she could not in any credible sense be accused of having ‘misrepresented’ the position of this academy, as alleged.
However, Dr Irene Bishop and Canon Peter Clark appear to have misrepresented and defamed Ms Birbalsingh.
Someone’s position is becoming untenable.
And it is not Ms Birbalsingh’s.
His Grace refers his readers and comminicants (again) to the Facebook campaign: the battle for vindication has only just begun.