The chair of the government’s Social Mobility Commission has quit her role after just over a year in post.
Katharine Birbalsingh said the media attention that her opinions attracted was a distraction from the work of the Cabinet Office advisory body
Liz Truss appointed Birbalsingh to lead the commission in November 2021. Truss was equalities minister and foreign secretary at the time.
In 2014, Birbalsingh co-founded the highly successful Michaela Community School in Wembley, north-west London. Home secretary Suella Braverman was its first chair of governors.
Writing in education-sector title Schools Week, Birbalsingh said she had decided to step down from her Social Mobility Commission role after coming to the conclusion that her “propensity to voice opinions that are considered controversial” was putting the organisation in jeopardy.
“When I gave my inaugural speech in June last year, I spoke about how we often have too narrow a view of social mobility: we often imagine the feel-good rags-to-riches trope of Hollywood movies when there are so many other mobilities we could and should celebrate,” she said.
“Of course, that doesn’t mean that those who achieve the ambition of going to Oxbridge shouldn’t be admired too – only that not everyone has to go to Oxbridge to be admired.
“We had hoped that this new narrative might be received with interest. Instead, the press insisted that I personally believe ‘working class people should stay in their lane’.
“Other interesting points were then lost amid the outrage. A tiny apology was published days later, but the damage had already been done. I am still to this day attacked for my apparently abhorrent views on social mobility.”
Birbalsingh said she recently realised that she had come to view successful media interviews as ones in which she managed to avoid giving opinions that could bring attention to the commission.
“Instead of going out there to bat for the team and celebrate our achievements, I am becoming a politician,” she said. “And I can’t bear the idea of ever being a politician. It just isn’t who I am or a skillset I wish to develop.”
Minister for women and equalities Kemi Badenoch said SMC deputy chair Alun Francis would serve as interim chair following Birbalsingh’s departure.
“I am very grateful to Katharine for her time as chair, and congratulate her on successfully giving the organisation a strong sense of direction and purpose. I know that Alun will continue to build upon her excellent work,” Badenoch said.
“During his time as deputy chair, I have seen that Alun has all the necessary skills and experience to ensure accountability and strong leadership of the commission and will continue to champion and improve social mobility across the UK.”
This year the commission is due to publish a new State of the Nation report, that will see its social-mobility index enhanced with a regional “overlay” and breakdowns that include gender, ethnicity and disability.
The commission said the new breakdowns would connect personal characteristics to places and would help to inform “early thinking” in relation to policy solutions.