Critics of multiculturalism will have you believe that uniting people of many different faiths and cultures and ethnicities is all but impossible. But Katharine Birbalsingh was succeeding. Her elegantly simple answer is one tested by time and vindicated by experience: Secularism.
The 700 pupils at her free school – Michaela Community School in Brent, London – follow various religious diets. Halal, kosher, fish on Fridays, no pork or beef. Navigating this minefield of requirements to accommodate them all without transgressing any would have challenged even ‘Britain’s strictest headteacher,’ as Ms. Birbalsingh is often dubbed. But she did it. How? By making all school lunches pescatarian. An equal and inclusive answer to a quandary posed by diversity. If children want meat they can have it at home. At school they break bread together at the same table over the same meal. That is secularism.
Now the school has banned ritual prayer. It began with one pupil praying on their blazer in the playground because prayer mats are forbidden. Slowly but surely, more kids joined until 30 Muslim pupils were praying on their blazers. To keep to their school’s secular principles, Ms. Birbalsingh and the board of governors voted 11-1 to ban ‘prayer rituals’ of all kinds. Again, one rule for all. If children want to pray, they may do so but not at a secular school. Indeed, the Quran and hadith allow Muslims to make up for missed prayers later in the day. Praying during school hours is not a requirement of Islam, only of Islamism.
Nevertheless, the reaction has been venomous. Glass bottles came flying over the fence and bricks through the windows. Teachers got stopped on the street and threatened, then threatened some more on social media. An online petition against the ban garnered 16,000 signatures before it got taken down. A bomb hoax compelled the school to hire a security guard and close two days early at the end of term in December last year. Now the school is getting sued by an unnamed Muslim pupil for discrimination.
This is not an isolated incident. A parent of a pupil at Barclay Primary School in east London broke the ban on political symbols by sending their child to school with a Palestinian badge on their jacket. The school reprimanded both and provoked a similarly aggressive reaction. Teachers were threatened and activists broke onto the school grounds to cover the buildings in Palestinian flags. In February last year, an autistic boy at Kettlethorpe High School in Yorkshire brought in a Quran reportedly as a dare, slightly scuffed it in the playground, and soon enough the school had to call the police and suspend four pupils. In January 2018, St Stephen’s Primary School in east London banned girls under the age of eight from wearing the hijab and fasting at school during Ramadan. That rule did target Muslim pupils specifically but it had the blessing of local imams. Even so, much the same again. 500 emails a day poured into the school inbox, staff got intimidated, the chair of governors resigned, and the ban got reversed.
Most pupils at Michaela are Muslim. That hardly chimes with its critics’ accusations of ‘Islamophobia.’ Those parents chose to send their children there and now they are choosing to keep them there. Why? Most likely because it is rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and sends 82 per cent of its pupils to Russell Group universities. It implies that most Muslim parents care more about the school’s academic results than its secularism. Do not believe the claims of Ms. Birbalsingh’s opponents and critics that they are representing all the school’s Muslim parents. The school has every right to make its own rules and the parents have every right to send them to or take them out of that school.
But that must be a choice between two clearly separate types of school. If secular schools keep capitulating to Islamist bullies, that line will keep blurring. The blurrier the line, the blurrier the choice before parents. Are they sending their children to a secular school or a faith school in the making? They have the right to send their children to either – but they need to know which it is. The schools have the right to make and enforce their own rules – but they need to know whether they are a secular institution or not.
For the sake of parents and the peace preserved by equality under secularism, teachers, governors, councils, and police must have the courage to resist Islamist assaults on secular education. Ms. Birbalsingh must win.