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‘I am fighting for my school’s survival’

Katharine Birbalsingh on why she won’t back down on her school’s prayer ban.

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Topics Identity Politics UK

The Michaela Community School in north-west London has long been at the centre of controversy. Its high academic standards, its strict rules and its refusal to indulge in identity politics have long put some noses out of joint among the education establishment. But the school currently faces its most formidable challenge yet. When Michaela decided to ban prayer rituals last year, its staff were threatened by Islamic agitators and its classrooms were vandalised. A pupil has even dragged Michaela to the High Court, to fend off accusations of discrimination.

Michaela’s headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, was the latest guest on The Brendan O’Neill Show. As she explained to Brendan, the case against Michaela strikes at the heart of liberal, secular education. Muslim activists’ demands for special treatment could have dire implications for schools across the country. What follows is an edited extract from their conversation. Listen to the full thing here.

Brendan O’Neill: Why was it important for the Michaela Community School to take a stand on banning prayer rituals?

Katharine Birbalsingh: I don’t necessarily think I’m taking a stand. I’m doing what I’ve always done, which is fighting for my school’s survival. As a school, we’ve been attacked many times in different ways. I’ve been fighting this now for 12 or 13 years.

Our decision on the prayer rituals was taken because we knew that our school would no longer be the same if we were to allow this. I know that there are lots of children and parents who would prefer that we had a prayer room. Aside from the fact that our school building physically couldn’t accommodate that, it would also be against our ethos to separate the pupils off by their religious practices.

So I don’t think I was really taking a stand. And we very much wanted to stay out of the media, which is why no one had read about this case until quite recently.

People find this case interesting because it’s about trying to balance religious freedom with our ability to do what’s necessary to run the school. I’m not sure it’s right for people on the outside to tell a headteacher how to run their school – I certainly wouldn’t dare. I might give advice, but I certainly wouldn’t compel them to do anything.

We’re just trying to defend ourselves against something that we see as an existential threat. Something that will destroy what we’ve worked so hard to build, if we let it.

O’Neill: What role did the school ethos play in your decision to ban prayer rituals?

Birbalsingh: We allow religious differences at Michaela as long as they don’t upset the balance of the whole. There are, for example, Muslim girls who wear hijabs. There are Sikhs who wear bangles. People try to say that we hate prayer, but the truth is that we always allowed prayer in the schoolyard. It’s just that, for eight years, nobody prayed. So it wasn’t an issue. And when they did start praying this time last year, beginning with a few children before it started spreading, we didn’t have an issue. The difficulty came when the children started asking for prayer rooms.

Some Muslim pupils also chose to fast during Ramadan. And again, we didn’t have an issue with that. It was perfectly fine. But there are some Muslims who don’t fast. And what we found was that some of the more observant Muslim children would try to intimidate the others and stop them from eating. In another case, one Muslim girl dropped out of the choir because she was told it was haram. Another started wearing a hijab when she had never worn one before.

The problem is that people always ask: what about the right to pray? But they never ask the other important question: what about the right not to pray? It’s my job as headmistress to protect all of the children and to take care of the whole.

We understand that, for a lot of parents, some of the things we do at Michaela are very odd. We’re a very strict, traditional school. In fact, we’re considered the strictest school in Britain. So we make sure to run families through the various things that they might not like about Michaela before they join. For example, we have silent corridors. Pupils will get detention if they turn around during a lesson. But a lot of this is done to maintain a feeling of cohesion for the children.

We also only serve vegetarian food at lunchtimes. Children are not allowed to bring in outside food. When we first opened, we offered meat options, but this required us to divide children according to cultural practices. We had to sort them into groups of who could eat pork, who could eat beef, who couldn’t eat meat at all. Then we looked around the hall and realised that we had just divided the children according to their race and religion. I resolved that nothing of the sort was going to continue under my watch. Going vegetarian allowed us to mix all the kids up again, encouraging them to make friends across those religious and racial divides.

The children at our school are very good friends across the lines of race, religion and sexuality. There is no ‘Afro-Caribbean group’ or ‘Hindu group’ or ‘LGBT group’. Everyone is allowed to be who they want to be, as long as the things that they’re asking for don’t upset the balance of the whole.

Katharine Birbalsingh was talking to Brendan O’Neill on The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics UK

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