What Katherine Birbalsingh has in common with George Bush

Allan Beavis's picture
Katherine Birbalsingh has posted a bizarre Telegraph blog in response to Fiona Millar’s piece on Academy chains in Monday’s Guardian

Firstly, the comparison between a US President giving reasons to launch a war of terror and a journalist writing about the very real possibility of for-profit making companies running schools is so far-fetched and fabricated that it would be merely ridiculous if it were penned by someone who is not in the process of campaigning to set up a school. Unfortunately, this is a woman who has sharp elbowed her way into the forefront of the Free Schools debate and is promoting herself as the sort of headteacher you would willingly entrust with your child’s education.

Secondly, This is a woman unable to see the big picture or too unfocused and lazy to actually mouse click her way into the E-Act site to see that the company itself is indeed thinking about the possibility of making profits. A woman who, despite shrilly taking to her blog to convince the nation that she is an influential voice in school reform, seems ignorant of the recent ASI report recommending for-profit making companies to run schools. And finally a woman so misguided, so in thrall to and so unquestioning of government policy, that she is rendered incapable of informing herself about the failures of charter schools in the US, partly as a result of the way that many profit-making companies have taken over the running of a school to such a degree that standards have actually fallen and boards and states are suing the very companies responsible for the schools.

Of course there is no “proof” that this is happening in the UK. That is because Academies and Free Schools are a very recent development and the chaotic and secretive way that they have imposed themselves onto the schools map around the country leaves them wide open to the forces of free-market intervention. But any fool would be able to see that, since the government itself has admitted that Academy and Free School expansion is financially unsustainable, the money will have to come from somewhere. Has it not occurred to Birbalsingh that this just might indicate that the commercialization of schools is a very real possibility? Is she herself blithely unaware that Gove himself has declared on at least two occasions that he is not ideologically opposed to the idea?

She describes herself as “naïve”. Well, her self analysis is flattering to a degree that Norma Desmond might find excessive. She claims that the ordinary person in the street would immediately equate free schools with profit because this is what Fiona Millar and the Local Schools Network has put out there. I don’t think so. The ordinary person knows little about free schools, how they are set up, what they are going to teach or where, or even how they are funded. The last thing to occur to them is that they are going to make profits. This hasn’t even occurred to Birbalsingh either, it seems.

Birbalsingh is a graduate of Oxford University. Much is being made of the private school inspired curriculum and culture of Academies and Free Schools, with the implication that ‘poor’ children enrolled in them will have the same academic advantages to compete for places at Oxbridge. This may be true. But Birbalsingh herself is not the best example to young people of the intellectual rigour commonly associated with Oxford University graduates.

When people like Birbalsingh resort to personal and irrational attacks, you know the game is up for them. Not only has her dubious credibility reached an all-time low, but once again her suitability to lead, inspire and influence has to be seriously called into question. If her school ever reaches Funding Agreement stage and if the rumours that Anthony Seldon of Wellington College is going into partnership with her are true, then we will really know that the state of state education in this country is rotten.
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Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 07/07/2011 - 20:04

I did post a response to this Telegraph blog pointing the author to this . It is a presentation in which Sir Bruce Liddington sets out the possibility of profit making schools and I am grateful to Helen Flynn for alerting me to it on this site some weeks ago.
I didn't write the headline for the article however the evidence seems quite clear that some of these companies are thinking along these lines. Here is another interesting article pointing to E-ACT thinking

Steve Sarsfield's picture
Fri, 08/07/2011 - 08:48

The Funding Agreements for Academies and Free Schools are totally shrouded in secrecy. Since this is taxpayer’s money I feel that this practice is unacceptable and Academy chains like E-ACT need to be accountable to the communities that they serve. E-ACT appears to be covertly preparing itself to become an out and out commercial entity whilst masquerading as a charity. Who is fooled by any this?
The desire to take their Academy franchises into primary schools is also part of its broader business plan and preparing a captive audience for their Secondary School Academies.
Fiona has previously likened this activity as Academies transforming into mini LEA’s. Who can dispute this as they top slice funding and use economies of scale to procure services and resources.
I am the only one who finds this practice rather ‘Orwellian’.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 08/07/2011 - 09:14

Even by KB's standards, the argument was extremely bizarre. The comparison just doesn't stand up to any sort of scrutiny.

Mark Luscombe's picture
Fri, 08/07/2011 - 09:34

You aren't the only one by a long way Steve. I'm beginning to wonder how long KB's blog will continue to survive. If the purpose of having her there was to be an advocate for free schools it is backfiring, the quantity and quality of the responses on the blog which question the policy is growing. Frankly her style of argument appears to be increasingly undermining the government's position.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 08/07/2011 - 10:31

I typed "profit-making" schools into the Local Schools Network search facility to match up articles written by Fiona and profit-making schools. There were none, yet Ms Birbalsingh says that Fiona regularly links "academies" and "free schools" with "profit". Now I haven't searched through all Fiona's comments - perhaps Ms B has. It would be helpful if Ms B could provide links to those threads which contain posts by Fiona linking these three words.

The thread which did link "academies" with "profit" was Helen Flynn's which drew attention to remarks by Sir Bruce Liddington about the possibility of profit-making academies. So we now have the bizarre accusation that in highlighting the remarks of an academy provider musing about the possibility of making a profit then it is Fiona, and not Sir Bruce, who is making the link.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 08/07/2011 - 11:19

Perhaps Ms Birbalsingh is unaware that other people have made the link between free schools and profit. Here is one from the right-wing Adam Smith Institute:


And Zenna Atkins, former Ofsted chair who now runs an education consultancy, said no-one really cared if anyone made a profit out of education or not, as long as it was delivered:


Even earlier, at the Conservative party conference in 2008, Mr Gove was told by the co-founder of Kunskapsskolan, the biggest Swedish free schools chain, that the UK must allow free schools to be run by profit-making organisations.


So who is really guilty of linking "free schools" with "profit"?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 08/07/2011 - 11:32

Here is a quote from Ms Birbalsingh's blog:

"She [Fiona] goes on, when discussing one of the academy chains E-ACT, to slyly refer to them having “the possibility of making a profit in the longer term”, but she never explains what on earth she means. Much later, she cleverly quotes Martin Johnson, the deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers."

Now my ex-GCSE pupils could spot the ways the writer manipulates the reader in this statement. They would quickly point out the words "slyly" and "cleverly" (and some might even notice the split infinitive). Then, if presented with information from Sir Bruce Liddington about the possibility of making a profit, I think they would conclude that Fiona had not be acting "slyly" at all but commenting on what Sir Bruce said.

Then there was the jibe in the blog about Martin Johnson wanting to tear up the curriculum in favour of lessons in walking. Cue: rolling eyes from readers convinced that the "educational establishment" promotes loony ideas. When he made his comments about lessons in walking he was making an analogy between walking and education. Walking meant matching technique with proposed route just as the best education recognised that different pathways needed different methods. I doubt that Ms B is unaware of the analogy, but far better to misrepresent it in order to make an easy point.

Ben Taylor's picture
Sat, 09/07/2011 - 02:42

"When people like Birbalsingh resort to personal and irrational attacks, you know the game is up for them."

Why did you start on her then? Are your arguments insufficient?

LSN = busted flush?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 09/07/2011 - 06:56

Ben - as many of the comments above are from me, I should be grateful if you could explain which of my arguments are "personal and irrational" rather than based on evidence or textual analysis.

Mark Luscombe's picture
Sat, 09/07/2011 - 07:56

If someone sets themselves up in the role of journalist pushing a political polemic as KB has done then there can be no complaints from themselves or those that agree with them if they then encounter vigorous debate.

If that person then goes a step further and indulges in personal attacks, based on misleading and poorly researched assertions then there can be no complaints when people with a different view highlight the fact.

The counter arguments evidence presented on this page are lucid and based on firm evidence. Yes, I grant you there is some anger and irritation too, but I don't think that is a reaction to being lied about (and lets be clear here, this is what has happened) that is unique to the contributors here.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 09/07/2011 - 10:13

The debate on profit-making companies running schools and the impact this will have on influencing and exerting education policy is a very important one. The issue has been hinted at by Michael Gove, raised on a number of posts here on LSN, by Edu chains themselves, in the press and ASI report by James Croft.

So there is a debate but Katharine Birbalsingh does not offer an opinion, instead denying that there is any reason for a respected education journalist writing in a national newspaper to raise the question of Academy chains making profits from schools. I don’t believe she is as naïve as she wonders herself to be but I do believe that the stupid and irrational way she lashes out in this blog, is an attempt to deny the truth of what is happening in order to stifle questions about the efficacity of school reforms.

In many way Birbalsingh’s divide and rule hectoring is the embodiment of what is confused about the coalition’s school policies – misguided, socially and politically divisive, delusional, hypocritical, covert, negatively competitive and less than honest about failures in reform models in other countries. She has cast herself as the brave and outspoken revolutionary who will not be silenced by her critics but if she actually presented any coherent opinions or arguments without smothering any that she may have with her armour of histrionics and personal vendettas, then more people might take her intellect a little more seriously. As it is, her entertainment value is hovering very closely to the attractions of a freak show and her suitability to head a school has to be questioned.

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