This woman is a role model for chinless socialists mumbling into their straggly beards. More power to her.Headteacher defends policy of putting pupils in 'lunch isolation'
Katharine Birbalsingh says pupils get extra teaching – along with sandwich and piece of fruit – if parents fail to pay for lunches
Katharine Birbalsingh: ‘The ones being threatened are people who just want other people to pay for their lunches.’ Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian
Richard Adams Education editor
Friday 29 July 2016 18.40 BST Last modified on Saturday 30 July 2016 01.25 BST
The head of a London secondary school that places pupils in “lunch isolation” if their parents don’t pay for school meals is unapologetic over the policy, arguing that parents who refuse to pay are betraying their children’s education.
Katharine Birbalsingh, the head of Michaela community school in north-west London who imposed the policy, argued that the children affected were from dysfunctional homes and needed the school’s support.
“Should we charge a poor single mum twice so she can pay for Jonny just because she has a sense of personal responsibility and Jonny’s mother doesn’t?” Birbalsingh said.
“Free school meals looks after the poorest. Even then we have all sorts of systems for people who really are in financial need, and I mean the real ones. I don’t mean the ones who are playing the system, trying to get other poor families to pay for their child’s food.”
The controversy surfaced after the Daily Mail reported that a parent of a pupil received a letter from the school’s deputy head saying: “You are currently £75 overdue. If this full amount is not received within this week your child will be placed in lunch isolation.”
The letter sent in June said that pupils in lunch isolation “will receive a sandwich and a piece of fruit only. They will spend the entire 60-minute period in lunch isolation. Only when the entire outstanding amount is paid in full will they be allowed into family lunch with their classmates.”
Michaela community school in Wembley Park, north-west London. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
The pupil highlighted by the Daily Mail had not been put in isolation, according to Birbalsingh, though the boy’s family dispute that. The pupil subsequently left the school at the end of the summer term.
Birbalsingh said the policy didn’t apply to pupils on free school meals – more than one in five of those attending the school near Wembley Stadium – or for those with money problems.
“We’ve got three families in the whole of the school where this is the case. They are all families who are betraying their children. One we are reporting to social services,” Birbalsingh said.
“Those children would leave school illiterate if they were at any other schools. At our school that is not the case. Why? Because we force them to go to reading club after school, we force them to do their homework, and we also, during the time we take them out of family lunch, do extra work with them so that they are catching up.”
The “family lunch” is an important part of the school’s day, with pupils serving food and eating alongside teachers, and discussions are held on selected topics. Pupils are not allowed to bring their own lunch to the school.
According to a teacher from another school who visited Michaela, the isolation entails pupils eating a packed lunch in a separate room while doing school work supervised by a teacher.
“It was three or four kids sat in a classroom chatting with their teacher over a sandwich. No one seemed upset and all were looking forward to getting back to family lunch,” the teacher said.
The Department for Education declined to comment on the controversy, though it is likely to seek clarification from the school.
The Education and Inspections Act of 2006 does not allow schools to impose disciplinary punishments for anything other than a pupil’s own conduct. And while schools are obliged by legislation to provide meals for children who request them, parents also have a responsibility to pay.
A policy of feeding only “plain sandwiches” and water to pupils in arrears was introduced in 2012 by a primary school in Scotland but it was quickly scrapped by East Ayrshire council.
Michaela prides itself on rigorous discipline. Its behaviour policy details demerits for daydreaming or slouching in class, or for having a loosely knotted tie. A full detention is earned by poor reading, swearing or lateness.
“Families who have difficult children deliberately choose Michaela because they know we will transform them,” Birbalsingh said. “I have mothers breaking down in tears in front of me, saying they don’t know what to do, that their child is going to end up in jail.
“They come to us and they transform. When I say transform I mean they are going to get good GCSEs, they are going to go to university.”
Michaela’s arrears policy was criticised by the National Union of Teachers, which said: “Schools should be careful not to create a situation in which children are stigmatised because of budgetary issues which are beyond their concern.”
Birbalsingh was unrepentant, arguing that her school demanded personal responsibility from pupils and parents.
“They come to us with a reading age of five or six. By the time they have finished year eight with us they have caught up to other 12- and 13-year-olds in their reading ages. As opposed to the rest of the country, where 20% of children leave school illiterate. At our school, nobody is leaving illiterate.
“We do that by holding children and families responsible and by believing in personal responsibility,” she said.
Birbalsingh lost her job as a deputy head after describing states schools as “utterly chaotic” in a speech at the Conservative party conference in 2010.
But she bounced back in 2014 by winning approval to open a free school, which has been regularly lauded by ministers. Most recently the schools minister, Nick Gibb, praised Michaela’s “excellent standard of education”.
Birbalsingh said criticism of the school’s policies such as the lunch isolation sprang from “middle-class liberal guilt”.
“We as headteachers ought to tell parents when they are not doing their jobs as parents – when they are letting their children down. We have a duty to the children we teach to ensure that they can leave school literate and numerate.
“Some families don’t want this for their own children, and the liberals who complain about schools holding these families to account are the problem.
“It’s white, middle-class liberal guilt. They are not actually interested in educating these children. They just want to make themselves feel better about their own privilege.” (Fuck yeah - I love this woman)