Prayer ban: Michaela School and its headteacher only have themselves to blame

Katharine Birbalsingh. Pic: Jørgen Schyberg. Wikimedia Commons License.

Former headteacher Jahangir Akbar says Michaela Community School in Wembley and its headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, have woefully mismanaged a simple request by Muslim pupils who wanted to pray and should only blame themselves for the situation spiralling out of control.

Imagine an “outstanding” inner-city state-school serving at least 300 Muslim pupils where they are banned from praying because the controversial headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, wants Muslim pupils to “sacrifice on some cultural agenda issues that might threaten the happiness (and the ethos) of the whole.”

You couldn’t make this up.

A female Muslim pupil, rightfully so, is challenging the Wembley school in the High Court after it banned “prayer rituals” last year. She told the Royal Court of Justice lat week that the school’s decision is discriminatory and breached her right to freedom of religion. She said the rule had “fundamentally changed” how she feels “about being a Muslim in this country” and described the ban as “like somebody saying they don’t feel like I properly belong here.”

Without doubt Michaela Community School attains remarkable GCSE outcomes, but I believe a concerning agenda lurks behind these school walls.

An interview with the right-wing Unherd podcast, a recent press release, and a few inflammatory broadsheet articles all contribute to the evidence that the headteacher at this institution not only has a distorted understanding of what it means to be British, but her comprehension of multiculturalism is even more alarming.

Gillian Keegan, the current Education Secretary, has conveniently weighed in on the matter stating that Michaela is “one of the top performing schools in the country,” which was “in no small part due to the incredible leadership” of its head teacher. But let’s not get distracted by some praise, statistical digits and debatable Progress 8 measures (whatever that means); the mask has fallen off. I knew she was strict, you know “iron-fist” type strict, which is a good thing, but the more details that have come out over the past week the more worrying it got.

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I understand she is controversial; I get that, and, in many ways, when seeking excellence, I appreciate you are walking on a knife edge and controversial decisions need to be made. But not at the expense of a child’s identity; that’s a no-go zone.

Being a head is a very lonely place and sometimes you are battling against the tide, but a prayer ban, nope, this is simply not on and makes this whole situation go stupid on another level. It’s not about Ms Birbalsingh being controversial anymore, and the more I hear these reoccurring monotonous interviews, the more suspicious I get.

Is this Islamophobic territory? Possibly.

‘No school can evade accountability’

The context of this story is quite conflicting. The headteacher of the strictest school in the UK states in her interview with Freddie Sayers that “our children are so polite, lovely, kind and happy,” yet last year when Muslim children wanted to pray during Ramadan the school “had to take the decision to stop prayer rituals when some pupils started them, against a backdrop of events including violence, intimidation and appalling racial harassment of our teachers.”

In fact, the court heard that about 30 pupils started praying in the playground over a six-day period in March and used blazers to kneel on after they were “prohibited” from using prayer mats.

In one interview she states that they could pray in the yard; no joke. I had to rewind the interview to hear that again. Muslims praying in a yard during cold rainy days is totally unacceptable and a safeguarding and health and safety breach. But apparently this can be overlooked because “it’s the most strictest school in the UK.”

Michaela Community School, Wembley

I don’t accept that. No school can evade accountability. Such a spiritual action was irresponsibly reduced to a “yard” and then later banned altogether. No wonder some turned on the school when they saw young Muslims praying in the cold and wet yard on their blazers. Who wouldn’t be furious?

During Ramadan there is a sense of heightened Islamic spirituality amongst the Muslim community, so naturally they are engaged in a lot more worship and schools up and down the country not only embrace this but are well prepared too. So why the insensitivity?

Most schools are well prepared for this, and they embrace it effectively. Yet it was the total opposite at Michaela. The needs of the pupils always come first and there is nothing wrong in allocating a designated a safe prayer space.

Ms Birbalsingh states that she has 350 Muslims children; her assumption that all 350 would want to pray at once is simply an exaggeration. I mean it would be terrific if all the kids prayed, but the reality is it’s not happening. So, it’s wrong to emphasise such a hypothetical and baseless assumption.

And if such a school can handle hundreds of pupils moving effectively across the building in silence, then there should be no excuse not to provide a designated prayer space.  She states that there will be chaos. I mean in the strictest school in the country, chaos, no chance.

If you nurture, coach and mentor the pupils and demand high expectations during the prayer time, trust me, your Progress 8 will jump to another level.

Tory agenda

The banning of prayer and the malarkey about “making sacrifices for the whole” provides compelling evidence that her interpretation of Britishness (whatever that may entail), multiculturalism, and social cohesion has failed catastrophically. The erroneous guiding principle of this school is as follows: we want you to sacrifice aspects of your identity to preserve the “happiness” of others because we think what you do as Muslims goes against being British and creates divisions along the lines of race and religion.

Nothing is more abhorrent than this. In my 16 year career, I witnessed a lot, trust me, but this type of ideological construct, never. Had I heard this drivel I would have told that person to go away and rethink and most certainly I would never have employed them. But the right-wing industry takes a different approach because Islam is in the equation so let’s jump on the Islamophobic bandwagon.

Suella Braverman. Editorial credit: I T S /

Ms Birbalsingh, you have to have some audacity and support from the “top” to be able to tell the public that “we banned prayer.” I am not surprised by this Islamophobic rhetoric emanating from this school as it is drenched “knee-deep” in Tory affiliation. Suella Braverman was the co-founder and Chair of Governors for several years. Ms Birbalsingh (herself a Tory) delivered a Michael Gove-approved speech at the contentious 2010 Conservative Party Conference. She praised parts of Douglas Murray’s book, The War on the West, and if that wasn’t enough she received a CBE in Boris Johnson’s 2020 honours list.

In addition to this, Neil Mahapatra, a Tory donor, was also a director of the school along with Anthony Sewell, who stated that institutional racism “does not exist.” Sir Anthony Seldon, also a senior Tory, acted as a previous guarantor and Calvin Robinson, an outspoken Islamophobe, conservative political commentator, writer and broadcaster was also a governor at the school.

So it seems to me that the pushing of bans and using un-academic definitions of Britishness and multiculturalism is heavily influenced by Tory politics.

Islamophobes emboldened 

A cursory look at social media posts since this case reached the public consciousness reveals that almost every commentary section about the prayer ban is laden with racism and deep anti-Muslim hate. And it’s not just the keyboard warriors hiding behind fake social media accounts, we actually have “mummy” journalists stating that they hate the sight of young primary aged Muslim girls wearing the hijab.

Moreover, some middle-aged journalists don’t even know that prayer, post-pubescent, is an obligatory act of Islamic worship. Who would have thought that journalists would be “hating” young Muslim girls?

The headteacher stated that: “We noticed one girl for instance, who never wore a hijab before who was suddenly wearing one.” There seems to be a weird infatuation with the hijab. In the same interview she stated that “our lovely school turned into one that was quite horrible.” But pupils just don’t turn on staff or create this “horrible” environment. Hundreds of schools – both primary and secondary ones – across the entire country allocate dedicated time, resources and facilities for many religious groups to carry out their religious actions, including the Islamic prayer.

In fact, Muslims have been praying in schools for decades, so why is this an issue now? There are many schools dotted around the country that face even more logistical challenges than Michaela School, but not only do they manage to provide a place and time for prayer, they thrive at it and recognise the importance of embracing the “whole being” and not this stupid idea of “sacrificing parts of you for the whole.”

Prayer is obligatory on all post-pubescent Muslims

You can’t just choose your own unchallenged and reductionist idea and definition of multiculturalism and Britishness and then impose this onto the pupils and then naively expect the world to just readily accept it. I am sorry that’s not how it works. And you can’t and shouldn’t hide behind Progress 8 results and “we told you from the outright that we don’t have a prayer room.”

Put it this way, there are hundreds of other schools that literally do the total opposite of Michaela (and I literally mean the total opposite) where pupils from all backgrounds thrive, are exceptionally well behaved, pray and achieve remarkable GCSE outcomes. It’s not the “sacrifice for whole” or the so-called “secular” bit that is getting the outcomes in Michaela; it’s a combination of a well-executed behaviour policy, having high expectations, delivering quality teaching and learning and sustaining effective leadership. Any school running a tight ship like this will thrive.

Most headteachers are driven via evidence, action research, academia and sharing good practice; this is why no other school in the UK does anything remotely similar to Michaela School, because it doesn’t make academic or pedagogical sense. Just because you have an ethos, rules and policies that doesn’t mean they are legal, compliant or correct. This is why banning prayer rituals is totally unacceptable. In fact, the school does a strict ethos, but why should that impede a pupil’s human rights and civil liberty?

Whilst on the subject of ethos, if the school wants to identify as a “secular” school or one that doesn’t have a designated religious character, that doesn’t mean it should prevent Muslim pupils from praying. A strict ethos should celebrate everyone whilst ensuring performance, respect, tolerance, mutuality and co-existence.

In effect, the entire right-wing media and their crony journalists are effectively contesting the very notion that Muslim children have rights. This pupil hasn’t just decided out of nowhere to go through with this; it seems the governing body and the leadership team have stubbornly failed to listen and recklessly dismissed the needs of the pupils. I wasn’t surprised that at the time of writing this article, the governors’ names were not available on the school’s website.

No ethos, aims or objectives are more important than the needs of the pupils. The school could have easily reached a mutual and amicable solution, but it didn’t, probably because it didn’t want to because it wants to “remain the strictest school in the UK.” The governors should have carried out their own due diligence. That’s the sad part in all of this – when the school stops listening. You must give the pupils a voice, a chance and opportunity. So, when in-house options have been exhausted, what choice is left? Take it further. This un-inclusive attitude has brought the school into disrepute and Ms Birbalsingh and the governing body are fully responsible.

Targeting the pupils

But instead of the right-wing media putting detailed questions to Ms Birbalsingh about how this situation got out of control, the Islamophobic media has turned on the Muslim pupil.  She is just exercising her legal right to take this to court, but for some reason the right-wing attitude is that using legal aid for this is unacceptable and should not be allowed.

Just to remind the righties, “Fundamental British Values,” the ones you conjured up, which includes the rule of law, applies to everyone. Freedom of speech and expression are all British Values too so then why is a Muslim’s right to pray at school being prevented?

All schools are required to promote the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development of pupils across the curriculum. One of the most explicit ways to meet the spiritual aspect of SMSC, is via prayer. What is deeply worrying here is that Ms Birbalsingh seems to be compromising on every aspect of SMSC.  She has a moral and human duty to ensure her pupils “bring their whole self” to the school rather than have this traumatic subconscious worry about shredding part of their identity at the school gates just to satisfy her warped definition of multiculturism and “getting along” with everyone.

I have never heard of Muslim prayer causing division along lines of race or religion in a school. In fact, pupils who pray are well behaved, disciplined and respectful. And who says race and religion are divisive? It’s the other way round. Differences create unity, respect, love and mutual acceptance. In my view it “turned horrible” in school not because of the pupils but because of the staff.

Today Ms Birbalsingh stipulates that pupils must forego and sacrifice their prayer for the betterment of the whole so that we can all get along and be united, but tomorrow it will be something else requiring sacrificing and so on. So where does this “sacrificing” stop?  Ms Birbalsingh also states that the pupils are all British. So? In other words, by being British, you can’t be anything else? By imposing toxic labels and enforcing “ideological identity” like “be British,” you’re saying they can’t be anything else in your school. This is wrong.

It’s worrying because here you have a headteacher, a decorated public servant, that does not acknowledge a mandatory pillar of Islam which is so important to Muslims. What this does is that it creates an uncomfortable atmosphere towards the pupils, who in return for no fault of their own detect this indifference and thus it creates an uncontrollable response. This is wholly unacceptable and Muslim pupils are well with their legal rights to pray in school. In other words, you are creating the conditions for conflict and it’s evident that this is what has happened. It’s unheard of in any secondary school in the country for pupils to be going around a school creating this kind of tension.

What you should have done is sit and have constructive dialogue with 350 Muslim pupils to discuss their needs and how to meet them. But you have not only pushed them away but rather than blaming yourself, you have shifted the blame onto the Muslim pupils.

The core belief of multiculturism is to accept, appreciate and tolerate differences.  Simultaneously, adopting diverse viewpoints will provide an opportunity to safeguard against conflicts. You know what Britishness is; it’s multiculturalism and multifaith. Each community has the right to experience their own cultural background at any given point.

Headteachers are in the business of servitude and all of this could have been avoided had the school simply allowed the pupils to pray. A school’s ethos can easily accommodate prayer. We must champion all pupils and their identities. If anyone needs to make a sacrifice for the whole then Michaela Community School needs to lead by example and make the right sacrifice.

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