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25th September 2023

Katharine Birbalsingh on the problem with government

Katharine Birbalsingh


I am sometimes asked if there’s any danger of children being put off by reading Shakespeare. Our children at Michaela Community, some of them start here at 11 years old and they’ve got the reading age of a seven year old and so we are just trying to get them to read at all – especially in the age of phones and Internet and so forth.

You might have a few kids in the top set who might read. When I do assemblies and take copies of Julia Donaldson and ask who’s read The Gruffalo and so on, a few children from the top sets might put their hands up, but most won’t. So they don’t really know books at all. For us, it’s not a question of should we do Ian Fleming instead of Shakespeare. It’s much more fundamental than that.

In our library we have speed reads, what they are books written for six and seven and eight year olds, we don’t want them to feel they’re written for younger children. The idea of them being voracious readers isn’t accurate, apart from a few children in the top set. One of them we say when families come into Year 7, is we want children reading half an hour every day – that’s additional to their English lessons. For some of them, we say, they can do ten minutes a day.

But in their lessons, they love Shakespeare. In their lessons they really enjoy it – they understand him, they can access him, and it’s dramatic. But our families have never heard of Hamlet – not only do the kids not know, but the parents don’t know. And the few who have, certainly don’t talk to them about it at home.

We’re trying to get families to talk to their children – and it could be about anything. Many middle class people without knowing it are in on this secret club without knowing it where everyone knows how to teach their children. They mention Hamlet, or they count how many peas are on the plate, or the daily news, or they teach them who the prime minister is, and to ask how their day is. They know how to do it and it’s naturally.

I’ve worked my whole life with people who don’t know much about their children. The question then is how to change this. The problem is that education moves very slowly. What’s a good today can be a bad school in three years’ time. The Education Secretary changes every couple of years and if you set up a new school it takes five years before you have results but by then you’ve had two education secretaries. It takes a while for things to change.

People in government I know from working in the Social Mobility Commission, they’ll change every few months – somebody new joins, and trying to find consistency is really hard and and that’s why there’s no institutional knowledge. I don’t know how you fix that – you’d have to change the way government works.

I suspect it’s a problem across government. It’s one of the things which makes the state weak. The people at Apple have been at Apple for years and year. Of course, they’ll bring in new people and lose people, but at any point time you’ll find that the core people have been there for at least eight to ten years. In government, you’ll often find that people have been there for that period, but the system they’ve been moving around within government doing different roles.

It’s not that they leave government, or that they’re not paid enough, it’s just the way the government is set up. Those who work there like the variety. I bought all my team of the Social Mobility Commission to Michaela Community to show them what’s possible, but it takes a long time to get them on board. And then you get them on board and they go off to some other part of government.

I’ve never chaired a commission and I’m not giving up just yet. I’m at the stage where I’m persuading people, and people are coming on board and I’m hoping people will stay and they won’t move. I’m hoping they’ll stick with me because they’ll have been inspired by what they see and hear.


Katharine Birbalsingh is the headmistress of Michaela Community School 


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