Birbalsingh "free" school comes to Brent

Jane Eades's picture
As reported before, I have been trying to find out from the DfE how much money was given to Katharine Birbalsingh and her Michaela Community School group for failing to set up a free school, firstly in Lambeth, then in Tooting.

Each time money has been spent on PR, consultants, website design, leaflets and leafletters, hire of halls for public meetings, etc. The DfE have refused to give the information and are now saying that this is because the information will be given when the school opens in September 2013.

The new Michaela School Group website contains the information that it has obtained premises in North Wembley - rather a long way for a pupil to travel from Tooting Broadway! This underlines the lack of transparency and political bias that has crept into the DfE but also, more seriously, the waste of money and the undermining of a local authority's ability to plan sensibly. Tooting has a surplus of secondary places, so has North Wembley. The need for places is elsewhere.

Given the National Audit Office's conclusion that £1 billion has been syphoned off from the general education budget to fund these vanity projects, I have to wonder how much has gone into black holes like this.
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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 31/12/2012 - 13:21

According to Brent council, there will be a shortfall of 570 secondary places in 2020-21 (taking into account the new capacity being created at Crest Academies which are currently being rebuilt). The Council says the key challenge to meeting this extra demand is lack of funding so they are considering free school applications provided these meet certain criteria listed in the document below. Presumably that’s because free schools would attract funding not easily available for new schools or expanding existing ones.

The document, dated 20 August 2012, said there were no free schools planned for Brent at that time. The deadline for application for secondary school places in 2013 has now passed. Yet the Michaela Community School’s website says the school is “pre-opening” for 2013 in a building somewhere in the Wembley Park area of Brent.

I think parents considering school places would at least like to know where the school will be. An empty hall hastily refurbished, perhaps? Or maybe an office block already containing small businesses or charities which would have to be evicted?

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 18:33

She would've gone to Lambeth where places are needed and she intended, if someone had helped her get a property - like the Lambeth LA. Lambeth have 62,000 sq. ft of office space in Phoenix House, St Georges Wharf at Vauxhall (tubes, buses, trains, wlaking distance to large council estates) where there are 10,000s sq ft still to let. Three LA parks nearby at Vauxhall Park, Spring Gardens and Archbishop's Park. If they can build an academy on a waste disposal site with bus only access with the kids going down to Brockwell Park for sport (New City Academy on Shakespeare road for 1200) why not a starter location for an entry of 120 year?

Happy New Year!

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 20:46

I am not at all convinved at Birbalsingh's altruism. I suspect her ego, force-fed and bolstered by her association with the Tory party and her frequent repetition of the coalition lie that that state schools were "broken", has propelled her as far away from the confines of Lambeth as it could go. And of course, she needs a job. No school would easily employ her. Not with her reputation.

Ingenue Guv's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 21:41

Knowing little about her I am trying to remain impartial on KB ; after above post I dipped into her book courtesy of Amazon search inside feature. The title "To Miss with love" is , I consider cringe-makingly narcissistic . I was also shocked for her "positive" characters to refer to kids at private school as "the good kids" . A few months as a school governor has taught me that that's completely unacceptable education parlance . She also clearly adheres to the myth perpetuated by Teachfirst and Labour and Tories alike that we should worship any holder of a 2.1 or first from a Russell Group University who deigns to dip a toe in the challenging waters of teaching in inner city schools.

Ingenue Guv's picture
Wed, 02/01/2013 - 21:49

Reading on the husband of Ms B's "fictitious" alter ego refers to the "nightmares" in his saintly wife's state school . I was a bit taken aback , given the poor qualityof the prose, to see the book is published by Penguin; i had assumed a vanity publisher such as crap=u=like or "delusional "

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 03/01/2013 - 07:48

Ingenue Gov - you might be interested in reading these reviews of Ms B's "inspirational" book that appeared on this site when the book was first published:

We should also remember that this was the teacher who thought it appropriate after only five weeks at a school to show pictures of her pupils at the Tory conference and publicly ridicule one of them. This unprofessional conduct led to her leaving although the myth is that she was "sacked for telling the truth".

Presumably Ms B was offered at job at the school because she persuaded the school's Governors she would help them turn round a struggling school. Instead, her actions helped finish it off.

Ingenue Guv's picture
Thu, 03/01/2013 - 08:42

KB appears to think she's the female BME version of Peter Hyman

Clapped out Barry's picture
Thu, 03/01/2013 - 17:28

The serious and detailed discussion on another thread begun by Roger Titcombe throws into sharp relief that the fact that Birbalsingh remains the poster girl for Tory policy.

The idea of Ms. Birbalsingh being given her own school to run is difficult one to deal with in any objective fashion. Her opening utterances at the Conservative party conference were a classic case of first impressions. The feelings aroused by her speech and subsequent writings trouble me

“I read Marxism today flirted with the swp… then I became a teacher.” Guffaws from the assembled crowd, and a self satisfied smirk on her face as she showed her talent for pressing her target audience’s buttons. A nod to the most cherished and most potent of Conservative prejudices against state school teachers, “if only they weren’t all lefties”.

Later in the speech she made the mistake that would cost her her career, in the short term at least, ridiculing a child in public. Nevertheless her instinctive understanding of her audience and her willingness misrepresent her colleagues in order to pander to that audience’s basest instincts were well established and so her new career was born on the ashes of the old.

Promoted as the woman who “exposed the failings of the comprehensive system,” she continued to display a talent for tapping into the myths of Conservative folklore. In the Guardian of all places, she repeated the old canard of only “17 teachers sacked in ten years”. Wittering about a “job for Life. This willingness trot out old lies for the cause has made her a polarizing figure.

When she talked in her Telegraph column about the tyranny of Local Authority Control: when she, quite outrageously and dishonestly, accused a contributor to these threads of slyly and falsely attributing profit making motives to a pro- privatization figure she garnered praise along the lines of “any one who upsets lefties must be doing a good job”; whilst her distortions earned her brickbats from people (myself included) who appeared to have some experience of the world she was describing to her new friends

It troubles me that someone who has done the job should arouse such ire. I was and still am instinctively loyal to former colleagues and my first reaction is to defend them, such as when Jonny Griffiths was so nauseously attacked by KB’s journalist pal Mr Young. So I come back to this question, is she simply naïve and foolish and believes the nonsensical statements indicated above or is she just a bad person willing to lie through her teeth in order to further her ambitions?

If it is the latter the she will not be the first Headteacher I will have encountered who is shall we say, economic with the truth. But if she is simply willing to swallow and regurgitate what anyone tells her then, well, she may not be totally morally reprehensible, but surely lacking in the critical faculties one might expect in a leader of learning?

Liar or lacky? Astute progangandist or useful idiot? What ever the answer what matters more is the very fact that some one who introduced herself to the political debate by saying “look at me I’m here to confirm your ill founded prejudices whilst insulting the children under my care” is listened to at all shows that we have a very long way to go before education policy can be shaped by meaningful debate and rational analysis of pedagogy, evidence and outcomes.

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 04/01/2013 - 01:19

It's a great post Barry.

For any instance of assessment teachers need a professional body and a professional relationship with their clients. Their peers need to be the main part of the professional body. As long as local authorities such as officers or councillors, A N Other politician, unions, businesses or whatever remain in charge as pseudo profs we can forget a proper teacning profession.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 04/01/2013 - 08:16

Ben - I agree with you that Barry has written a great post. However, you spoil it with misinformation. Schools are not controlled by local authorities - they haven't been since Local Management of Schools was introduced. The only "control" LAs have over community schools (ie non-academies) is how to spend that small part of the budget LAs retain to pay for some admin/legal services Although LA's co-ordinate admissions they don't have full control. They have to abide by the admissions criteria of schools which are their own admissions authorities eg VA schools, academies and free schools (you're no doubt aware that a quarter* of first-wave free schools have had objections to their admissions criteria upheld or partially-upheld by the Schools Adjudicator).

The A N Other politician who is trying to exert most control over school is Michael Gove.

*Canary Wharf College was censured by the SA in December, bringing the total of Free Schools who didn't abide by the Schools Admission Code to 6

For details of the five other first-wave Free Schools that have been censured by the Adjudicator see:

Clapped out Barry's picture
Fri, 04/01/2013 - 08:19

Thank you Ben. I’m not quite sure where my post ends and where yours begins but I think we should tread carefully before implying that we do not or cannot have a proper teaching profession.

Interesting that you should mention unions. I am firmly of the view that peole should organize themselves as they wish and there is a well established precedence of teachers being unionized not just here but abroad as well. There is also well established historical precedence of people using unionization to decry the professionalism of teachers and our friend KB has serious form on that score too by the way.

However unions do not run the profession neither do they have much influence on policy or teaching practice. As far as politicians are concerned I see no alternative whilst schools are (rightly) funded by taxpayers money and to having politicians call the tune. That is where organisations such as LSN are vital because they call politicians to account for how they frame debate.

Talking to GPs and Dentists I get the feeling that they feel that their professionalism is being underminded in a similar way by government accountability measures. However what they have done historically is define the terms on which they perform their duties serve their “clients” and regulate their activities.

In that respect teachers have failed. A body that had defined its own terms of service would have told OFSTED to take a running jump years ago with it’s ridiculous prescription of what makes a satisfactory , whoops sorry, needs to improve lesson. But I also think that that failing is in large part down to the fact that teaching is a dynamic, ever changing and ultimately altruistic calling. Look again at the debate on the Titcombe thread. Teachings Ts & Cs cannot be easily shoehorned into a producer friendly package and whilst this makes the profession vulnerable to the dubious rhetoric of politicians and, as we discussing, their stooges, few of us would really want to change that.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 04/01/2013 - 08:55

Barry - I agree with the main thrust of your post above. However, I don't agree with your statement that there is no alternative to "having politicians call the tune". Yes, politicians are responsible for ensuring that schools have the necessary means to do their job and there should be accountability by more sophisticated methods (eg sampling, inspections by properly-qualified HMIs and not outsourced) instead of judgement by league tables and an inspectorate which appears to be less and less impartial.

But politicians should not impose their views on the best teaching methods (eg synthetic phonics - see my thread linked below). We don't expect the Department of Health to make it mandatory that doctors treat, say, cancer in one particular way first and foremost. But it seems to be acceptable to support politicians' calls for such stuff as "back to basics".

Neither should politicians nor the media peddle myths about the English/UK education system eg "plummeting" down league tables in a decade (see faq above which debunks that) and claims that academies raise performance (see faq above re Henry Stewart's research). See second link below for more examples of Government misrepresentation.

Clapped out Barry's picture
Fri, 04/01/2013 - 12:07

Can't disagree with your analysis of how the current cohort of politicians call the tune Janet. It can and should be done better.

peter wardle's picture
Sun, 06/01/2013 - 19:24

Just to draw attention to the state of play for places in Brent for Sept 2013
This is from their current booklet.
They seem to be in dire straights, place wise.
Michaela might just save council embarrassment..


Every parent has the right to apply to any school of their choice, either within Brent or in a
different borough, but be realistic. There is an overall shortage of secondary school places in
Brent and the criteria will be applied strictly. Your preferences should be informed choices
based on the criteria set out for each school.
This handbook details schools and admissions policies for Brent only. You should contact the local
authority responsible for any out-of-borough schools you apply to for information about their
admissions criteria.
Brent Council’s School Admissions Service will be pleased to help with any additional information that
is not included in this handbook, or any questions you have about the information on the following
I wish your children well with their secondary education and success for the future.
Councillor Mary Arnold,
Lead Member for Children and Families,
Brent Council

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 22/01/2013 - 12:39

The question is - how much is the purchase of Arena House for use by the free school going to cost? And where is the money coming from? According to the Wembley Matters article you cited, Peter, Brent Council had not been consulted by the DfE.

The Minutes of the College of NW London Corporation, 5 July 2012, said:

"Marketing for this building [Arena House] was also underway, with closing date for bids in mid-September. It was NOTED that here the interest might be more focussed upon the land and its location rather than the building itself."

So, any bid for the building must have been sent to the Corporation by mid-September 2012 as this estate agent blurb makes clear:

peter wardle's picture
Thu, 24/01/2013 - 18:09

Well, Janet, the ££ comes, I presume, from the EFA
There is a little more info in the following article
Who knows what will happen next ?

peter wardle's picture
Wed, 20/02/2013 - 19:24

I note that 'Opening in 2013' has now been removed from this page.

Tubby Isaacs's picture
Thu, 25/04/2013 - 20:01

Prospective opening put forward to Sept 2014.

Phil Grant's picture
Fri, 24/05/2013 - 13:36

MCS Brent has held a consultation process which showed very little public support for Ms Birbalsingh's proposed school in Wembley Park, but what its own results show when published may be a different picture.

Brent Council's views, as set out to the DfE in a letter of 26 April 2013 by its Director for Children and Families, are also lukewarm:

'We would all recognise that the Arena House building is less than ideal both in terms of location and in terms of the facilities it offers, even refurbished. We do think it is vital ... that a solution is found to meeting the need for external play space.

It is fair to say that this local authority would not have invited the Michaela Community School into the borough as part of its school expansion plans but given that its opening is a fait accompli, we plan to work with the school both constructively and with vigilance.'

The frightening phrase in this letter is: '... given that its opening is a fait accompli ...' . A school that both the Council and local residents have no desire for, in a building which is unsuitable, but which will almost certainly go ahead because it is proposed by a darling of the Tory party who is supported by Michael Gove (and who has appointed herself as head teacher)! Is this a proper use of the government's education budget?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 24/05/2013 - 14:07

Phil - you are right to ask the question about whether the Government should be spending money on its pet projects especially when there is no need (eg Beccles Free School being set up in an area with surplus places) and/or there is local opposition.

The Treasury has allowed £1 billion for the free schools programme. But only this week we heard from the think-tank "Reform" that the education budget could be slashed by 18% and it shouldn't be ring-fenced.

Tubby Isaacs's picture
Mon, 05/08/2013 - 17:07

Thanks, Peter.

Are the DfE there comparing Michaela with schools which actually opened?

£168k for a school still 14 months off opening sounds a heck of a lot.

Tubby Isaacs's picture
Mon, 05/08/2013 - 17:20

Hang on minute. That's to Feb 2012 only.

And that FOIA took 6 months.

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