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16 April 2024

Katharine Birbalsingh’s prayer ban is a victory for tolerance

The Michaela School head teacher is right: secular measures prevent, rather than inflame, religious prejudice.

By Finn McRedmond

In Wembley, London, Katharine Birbalsingh has earned her reputation as the strictest head teacher in Britain. Michaela Community School – founded in 2014, a luminary of Michael Gove’s education reforms – subjects its students to a roster of punishingly tight rules. Pupils cannot talk in the corridors, they must walk in single file, adhere to strict policy on their uniforms, and eat lunch in pre-assigned intentionally multi-faith groups of six. As a spiritual project, Michaela Community School is haughty and Victorian.

Its success speaks for itself: that one-quarter of pupils are on free school meals yet around three-quarters of A-level students received an A or A* last year is a remarkable divergence from national expectations. In 2021, 82 per cent of students ended up at a Russell Group university. On one measure – how much a school improves a student’s academic performance – Michaela has come out on top two years running. A utilitarian would chalk this up as the epitome of second-level education.

But Michaela isn’t typically treated as a lodestar. Birbalsingh’s Dickensian practices have not been replicated across the country. Instead, the school has found itself at the centre of the 21st-century culture war – a vehicle for Britain to exercise its anxieties about multiculturalism. About half of the 700 pupils are Muslim. The rest are of various faiths: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, among others. Birbalsingh describes the environment at Michaela as one of “robust yet respectful secularism”. The rules are there to maintain that delicate balance.

It has quickly become a metaphor for the challenges of multi-faith Britain. How to inculcate tolerance between different groups and their seemingly incompatible needs? Birbalsingh’s argument is simple: everyone must make sacrifices at the altar of social harmony. Jehovah’s Witnesses, she says, accept studying Macbeth in spite of religious stipulations about texts that contain magic and witchcraft. Christian students attend revision sessions on Sundays. Muslims do not have access to prayer rooms. Every student eats vegetarian food owing to Hindu restrictions on beef and Muslim restrictions on pork.

The balance may have been carefully struck, but it seemed to work. Then, in March 2023 a small number of Muslim students began to pray in the school’s playground, apparently spontaneously. Birbalsingh describes an almost vertiginous shift in the school’s culture, as she saw students pressure one another into increasingly ardent displays of their faith: to fast during Ramadan; to wear a hijab; to drop out of the choir. She sensed a looming threat of increased segregation between the religious groups, too. The solution of the governing body was to prevent prayer rituals altogether. Allowing one group’s exercise of faith at the disruption of overall harmony was unacceptable, and in direct contention with the precisely cultivated secularism of the school.

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The metaphor inevitably escaped the perimeter of Michaela’s gates and ended up in court. A Muslim pupil – with legal aid – challenged Michaela’s prayer policy. The legal argument was predictable: failing to provide a prayer room or facilitate prayer rituals for Muslim students was “the kind of discrimination that makes religious minorities feel alienated from society”.

It was unsuccessful. On 16 April, the school won in the High Court. Dismissing the case, Justice Linden wrote: “The claimant at the very least impliedly accepted, when she enrolled at the school, that she would be subject to restrictions on her ability to manifest her religion.” In a statement, Birbalsingh declared the court’s decision a “victory for all schools”. “A school should be free to do what is right for the pupils it serves,” she added.

Birbalsingh’s vision for a functional multicultural community is just one among many, and rather harshly rendered. In pursuit of social harmony, top-down intervention is necessary to prevent atomisation and intolerance growing between religious groups. She is keen to stress that secularism is not the absence of all faith, but the search for a uniting value. “We sing ‘God Save the King’ because our country and our flag unites us,” she says.

Here lies an inherent contradiction to Birbalsingh’s vision: her multicultural utopia is rather one-note. In fact, it relies on superficial clichés of British identity.

She is certainly right about one thing. There is a naive assumption among a certain type of liberal that tolerance is the factory default setting of British life, not something that needs to be actively pursued and maintained. Michaela has reminded us that this is not the case. In this way Birbalsingh is a radical optimist: with the strictest of discipline and a keenly cultivated sense of self-sacrifice we can actually argue our way to a fairer world.

This is, of course, not a uniquely British problem: in France, laïcité is a deeply held value. Ireland is learning that it will soon need to face a similar kind of reckoning, that tolerance is not now nor has ever been a foregone conclusion. A superficial commitment to diversity – wherever in the world it occurs – will never be anything more than superficial.

Birbalsingh has not just won a symbolic victory for academic freedom. She has not just asserted the rights of teachers to design their own schools. And she has not just prevented a few people from shifting the values of the group. She has illuminated the trade-offs and contradictions inherent to the soul of multicultural Britain.

[See also: Inside the police vs the NatCons]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran