The government’s new social mobility commissioner has told MPs she wants to launch a nationwide campaign telling parents not to give their toddlers a mobile phone to play with because it will make reading harder for them later on.
Katharine Birbalsingh told MPs there was “a lack of knowledge out there” and that she would like to use her role to get information to parents across the country to help them better support their children and thus improve their social mobility.
She also played down the significance of the digital divide in learning, saying laptops were not the answer to educational disadvantage. The best way to tackle educational disparities between rich and poor children, lei disse, was to improve teaching in schools, ensuring good discipline and high standards for all.
Birbalsingh, the head teacher of a secondary school described as the strictest, in Britain, was giving evidence to the women and equalities committee on Wednesday at a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing before she takes up her role as chair of the Social Mobility Commission.
A critic of “woke culture” and a favourite of many Conservative ministers, Birbalsingh was quizzed about her view of the term white privilege, which she has previously said undermines black children.
She said she did not deny the existence of racism or sexism, but warned that if you keep telling children the establishment is against them, they are likely to give up. “I’ve always worked in the inner city. Many of the children in my schools have been ethnic minority kids.
“If it’s the case that you are telling them all the time, ‘You can’t get this job because you are black’, or ‘You can’t do this because you are brown’, it’s very hard for a child to be able to see above that. That does not mean we should bury our heads.”
The Institute of Race Relations criticised her appointment, saying it showed the government was ignoring the evidence on inequality and “hardwired racism” in the education system.
Birbalsingh is well known in the education sector as the head teacher of Michaela Community School, a secondary school in Wembley, north London, which has a “no excuses” behaviour policy and has been judged outstanding by Ofsted.
Asked about her plans for her new role, lei disse: “My initial thoughts are that I would like national campaigns on things like phones and not giving them to your toddler. I would love it if we could get to a point where [the issue is considered] in the same way that we know that you should eat four or five fruit vegetables in a day, or drink eight glasses of water a day.”
She agreed that the pandemic had been “a disaster” for disadvantaged children and she understood why the government had distributed laptops, but questioned the assumption that the more digital access you have as a family, the better off you are in terms of accessing education. “I think there’s a lot more to accessing education and I don’t think the solution is providing more laptops for families," lei disse.