In defence of Katharine Birbalsingh
The Michaela school's High Court fight is about much more than a prayer ban.
Despite being one of Britain’s most successful headteachers, Katharine Birbalsingh has been forced to spend this week defending her Michaela Community School in the High Court. This is because a Muslim pupil has sued the west London school for discrimination following its introduction of a prayer ban in March last year.
There were good reasons for the ban. Just over a year ago, a small group of Muslim pupils started praying in the school playground at lunchtimes. When teachers tried to rein in the practice, they were abused. Glass bottles were tossed over the school railings. A brick was thrown through one teacher’s window. Staff were reported to have been left ‘fearing for their lives’.
In response, the school suspended one pupil and introduced a temporary ban on prayer ‘rituals’. This restored calm and, several weeks later, the ban was made permanent. Now, the school is being sued by a pupil who claims the ban unfairly targets Muslim children and challenges freedom of religion.
To understand what’s driving the case against Michaela, we need to look at more than just the prayer ban and one aggrieved pupil. We also need to look at our cultural and educational elites’ animosity towards Katharine Birbalsingh.
Michaela is a state ‘free’ school, independent of the local authority, in a deprived part of London. Its pupils make better progress in their learning than any other school in the country. Many leave with superb exam results. And it’s this, it seems, that sends education academics, union leaders and ‘progressive’ teachers into a rage. Michaela challenges their belief that poor children will always struggle to succeed. Rather than making allowances for pupils with disruptive home lives, and excusing bad behaviour, Michaela holds every child to the same exacting standards.
Furthermore, as Birbalsingh explains in her statement to the High Court, Michaela is ‘a place where children of all races and religions buy into something they all share and that is bigger than themselves: our country’. This strikes at the heart of the elite belief that schools should affirm each child’s racial, religious and gender identity. Her emphasis on ‘our country’ challenges those who want schools to ‘decolonise’ their curricula and teach national shame. And, in her strict approach to discipline, Birbalsingh asserts the importance of adult authority over children’s feelings.
The current High Court case against Michaela does not come out of the blue. It is one in a long line of politically motivated attempts to discredit Birbalsingh and her brilliant school. Right now, the pupil suing Michaela is being backed by what The Times estimates to be between £100,000 and £150,000 in legal-aid money. It is shameful that public money is being wasted trying to take down a highly successful school.
Losing in the High Court will not just damage Michaela. It will also strike a blow to adult authority in schools across the land. It would suggest that children and judges, rather than teachers and school governors, should decide on school rules.
In many ways, Michaela should be applauded rather than slammed for its ban on prayer rituals. The school imposed the ban in order to maximise social cohesion. It wants to avoid pupils segregating themselves into religious groups. It wants pupils to see themselves as members of the same community, with a common identity and goals.
Michaela’s focus has always been on integration. At lunchtime, the school canteen serves only vegetarian food, so all faiths can eat together. The unity of the school community is elevated above the feelings of any one group. As Birbalsingh points out, this means everyone makes compromises. Christian families put up with revision classes on a Sunday. Pupils who are Jehovah’s Witnesses must study Macbeth alongside other students (they are usually forbidden from reading texts that feature magic).
In this way, the school becomes an important buffer against an outside world divided by cultural and religious identities. Inside, children can follow their intellectual and creative interests free from the pressures to conform to group demands. At Michaela, children are pupils first and members of religious and racial communities second.
The cost of allowing religious, cultural and political division to infiltrate schools is high. Just take Barclay Primary School in east London, which may soon be forced to close and pupils made to learn online. The school has faced accusations of Islamophobia after children were stopped from wearing pro-Palestinian badges. Last month, matters came to a head when a TikTok video went viral. It alleged that an eight-year-old pupil at Barclay was being bullied by teachers for being Palestinian. This was followed by bomb threats, protests and masked men scaling the perimeter fence at night to put Palestinian flags around the playground, forcing the school to close early for the Christmas holidays.
When schools become a political and religious battleground, the authority of teachers is undermined and education becomes impossible. Schools should not be places for Palestinian flags or prayer rituals. Children should be socialised to become part of British society, enjoying a common sense of unity and purpose.
The Michaela school’s High Court battle has implications for us all. We must hope Birbalsingh triumphs.
Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and author of How Woke Won, which you can order here.
Picture by: Getty.
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