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The complicated world of Katharine Birbalsingh | Schooling

December 22, 2022
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Last Thursday I was due to attend the book launch of my friend Katharine Birbalsingh. In the end I couldn't bring myself to go. I like and admire much about Katharine, but have found myself increasingly perplexed by her shifts of public persona over the years, which seem to bear little relation to my knowledge and experience of her as she "really" is, or was.

Katharine is a teacher much in the news of late. She is the deputy head-turned-education guru who violently polarises opinion along party political lines – Labour loathe her, Conservatives adore her. She supports tough discipline and strict boundaries. With her youth, good looks, mixed race background and seemingly unimpeachable credentials in state education, she seems to be almost tailor-made for a role in the spotlight. She took the Tory party conference by storm and is now a poster-girl for their free school policy, one of which she is planning to set up herself.

The book launch was for "To Miss With Love", a redacted version of an anonymised blog of her teaching experiences. The book purports to be a factually-based depiction of life in a state school; according to the publisher, Penguin, it is the "diary of an inner-city school teacher". The event incorporated a panel discussion – "What should be taught in our schools" – with Katharine, Toby Young and a few others at the Rich Mix Centre in the East End. There has been much debate about how accurately Birbalsingh's accounts portray the sector – some have suggested the book is more fiction than fictionalised.

I first met Katharine at Camden Arts Centre in early June 2007. We were there for the launch of a report called Boxed In: How cultural diversity policies constrict black artists. I was co-chair of the cultural strategy group at City Hall, and spoke from the floor that day. Katharine approached me afterwards, mentioning that she was a school teacher and asking if I would be willing to mentor and talk to her class. She came across as very open, direct and engaging, and I recognised in her a fellow dissident with experience of establishment.

She emailed me and set up a meeting at City Hall a week and a half later, where we agreed that I would carry out a "talk and encounter session" for the children she was teaching during their visit to the British Museum in July. By this stage, I had noticed that every email, from her personal email account, came with a signature at the end, which was a link to her blog Katherine had mentioned she blogged anonymously (as "Miss Snuffleupagus") – I recall her referring to it in passing as some form of literary endeavour or creative outlet. Some time went by, however, before I had a look at what she was writing; I was taken by surprise when I did.

Until then I had been dealing with her in her capacity as a committed education professional. My head jerked back, however, as I took in the first lines of her prose, beautifully crafted and entertaining though they were. What nonplussed me about Katharine's blog was not the nature of the events she described, nor the (quite amusing) Hunter Thompson quality of hyperbole in her writing – but the absence of any real sense of conviction about her teaching work. The blog succeeded as literature – it was funny, frenetic, despairing and revelatory, as only good narrative fiction can be.

Artistically I had no quarrel with Katharine about what lay within "To Miss With Love". Yet it felt as though she was traducing her work at school for creative ends. The writings comprised cascade upon cascade of dramas small and large concertinaed into a few hundred words; entertaining to read, but it felt like she had harvested a week's worth of incident and excitement and shoe-horned them into a day or less. It did not chime with my own inner-city experiences of working with young people in Southwark from housing estates off the Walworth Road, Camberwell and Peckham.

I was abashed that Katharine appeared genuinely unselfconscious of and oblivious to the contradictions inherent in having two faces at the same time: even if the contents were entirely made up, was she not aware of how badly it would reflect on her as a teacher were she to be found out to be the author of the blog? As it was, she was hardly hiding her connection – every email from her iterated the invitation to click on the blue link at the bottom: – "do come and visit" it signalled.

I was to meet the class in early July 2007. Katharine, who knew I had worked with street gangs in Peckham in the early 1990s, took pains to impress upon me how tough these kids were. I passed this on to my friend Richard Blurton, head of the South Asia section at the British Museum, who had arranged to facilitate the class in small groups so that they could play with Mughal games – while I was to work with them in the Great Court.

In the event, Richard and I found the two dozen or so children from a middle year in secondary school a pleasure to be with. They did not seem particularly challenging. I found them responsive, and good at listening and participating. I admired Katharine and her colleagues who took part – they and the children clearly had good reason to trust each other – while smiling inwardly at the gulf between the dire warnings about the class and what transpired.

Then, in early 2009, Katharine began to talk about a novel, "Singleholic", she had been developing under the pseudonym "Katherine Bing". By Valentine's Day she had created a Facebook page for Katherine Bing, from which she wrote to contacts, inviting them to friend her, being quite explicit about who she really was: "On the eve of Valentine's, I am saying hello. This is Katharine – Birbalsingh – whose alter ego is Katherine Bing. Notice my alter ego spells her name with an E in the middle. Notice that she has also written a book about being single, which I, of course, know nothing about! Add me as a friend, as we are, er, friends after all. Kx". She had also had actors or friends create a YouTube clip as publicity for the book; the preview image still shows the naked rear of a man, although the clip itself has gone.

"Singleholic" launched in April that year on Amazon and elsewhere. The cover in cartoonified form shows a recognizable Katharine standing with a look of indecision whilst two suitors proffering flowers crowd through a door in the background – one is blonde, the other black. The back cover states: "White men, black men, brown men . . . Who's better to marry? And who's better in bed? Have you ever wondered who has the biggest packet?" Inside there are references to BPT – "Black People's Time" – the apparently chronic lateness of people from that ethnic group; the protagonist lies awake thinking about her blonde and her black suitor while elsewhere she finds somebody whose "LUNCH BOX is just the perfect size; not too big, not too small".

Katherine chatted with me from time to time about the PR and media strategy for the book and I coached her for a live interview for a radio show. In relation to the latter she emailed me: "Men and packet size will be the topic of discussion! I have decided I support Arsenal and am just trying to figure out what footballers I fancy. What else are men interested in?? Bloody hell!" She later had the brainwave of Facebooking her interviewer to ask him out for a date so that he could report back to his listeners about the experience. She also asked her friends to pre-order copies at Amazon to give the impression that the book had interest. Among her print interviews as Katherine Bing was one for The Voice, which carried a full face image of her.

The Singleholic blog is still up: describing the book thus: "Sarah is a black Bridget Jones. She is mixed-race, and dates men across Brixton and London." Tellingly she posts at 2am about her double life: "I feel like my head might spin off! My normal work takes up so much time anyway, and now I'm trying to squeeze in this whole 'double-life'. I'm Katharine Miss teacher in the day, and by night, I'm Katherine Bing! I think I'm having an identity crisis."

I could understand Katharine's transformation into "Singleholic Katherine Bing"; it came from the same lineage as the meta-Katharine "Miss Snuffleupagus" from her "To Miss With Love" blog. But once again I wondered at her calculation that she could create and sustain yet another alter ego for the purposes of publishing without detection by her school and her students.

In June 2009 Katharine contacted me to arrange another encounter between me and a class – and wrote to me from her "Katherine 'Singleholic' Bing" Facebook account. By now I was wondering how she was apportioning her time between her official and off-record lives. I arranged to meet them at the Hub Culture, off Carnaby Street, in early July.

Again she mentioned that the group could be challenging, and again I found them ready to engage. They turned up on time, all present and correct, and later Stan Stalnaker, CEO of Hub Culture, was so taken with them that he suggested to Katharine he could arrange internships for some of them.

In 2010, Katharine and I did not cross paths. It was her Annus Mirabilis, the year she wowed the Conservative Party Conference, which in turn led to multiple media appearances and an unexpected, unplanned career as an education commentator. Then in January of this year Katharine emailed a circular about the launch of the book-of-the-blog "To Miss with Love". In it she exhorts: "Please do DEFINITELY come! I'm giving you plenty of notice for a reason!" In February she followed up with: "Feel free to bring your loved ones, your friends, and anyone who you think might support my point of view. 🙂 I need as many friends in the audience as I can get!" Weeks later she alerted us to an interview with her in a newspaper: "Of course you all know I don't blame teachers for the system. They are victims, just like the kids. Just read it with a pinch of salt!".

A few days later Katharine updated us: "Next Sunday, the Observer will run what will likely be a shocking indictment of the book, as Fiona Millar and Francis Gilbert are reviewing it!" She adds about the book: "The events are all REAL. If anything, I have played things down." She ended that email with: "Let the games begin. . . "

I have a lot of affection and respect for Katharine – in my experience she has considerable humanity, is an outstanding teacher, and a lateral thinker who doesn't stand on convention. I have however finally reached a limit to my ability to associate with her public endeavours. I welcomed working with her classes; I have been able to stand by Katharine where the narrative is clear: "here are some young people whose lives would directly benefit from you working with them, no matter how briefly". Now I feel genuinely confused by the mixture of fiction and reality in her life. Devoted teacher, secret blogger, education guru or chick lit novelist . . . just which one are you, Katharine?

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