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Michaela School: Teachers ‘curate’ break time talk and are ‘never wrong’

michaela school secularism muslim prayer ban

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This expert view on the Michaela School case is based on an opinion piece published in Middle East Eye.

The academic success of Michaela School is well-attested. It is described by its headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, as the ‘strictest’ school in Britain. However, strict does not necessary equate to good.

There are other more successful schools without such a strict regime, such as Park View Academy – the school at the heart of the Trojan Horse affair.

Park View had similar GCSE results to the Michaela School, with a much less rigid policy, as Michaela demonstrated in court (see below), and with 73.7% of its pupils in receipt of free school meals compared with Michaela’s 25%.

Why did Michaela school have such a problem with making provision for Muslim pupils to pray?

Its intake is 90% ethnic minority of which 50% are Muslim. In many other successful schools with this kind of intake, facilities for private prayer would be provided.

Michaela School’s enforced secularism

The court was told it would have been logistically difficult to do so. More importantly, it would have been against the ‘ethos’ of the school.

The judge was told it was a ‘secular secondary free school for boys and girls’ and that its ethos involved ‘aggressively promoting integration’.

This included a rigid hierarchical relationship between pupils and teachers in which teachers’ judgements could not be questioned both in the classroom and, remarkably, in breaks and lunch periods.

A glimpse of this rigidity reveals a startling environment: the school applied a ‘rule of four’ at breaks, where no more than four pupils could gather together at one time.

Teachers would intervene to ensure that any group was ethnically and religiously mixed.

Pupils had to eat their lunch in ‘family groups’ of five and conduct a conversation on a topic curated by a teacher. Pupils were not allowed to mix across year groups.

Worryingly, Barbalsingh regarded prayer together with co-religionists as a form of segregation to which her rigid policy was opposed.

The technicalities of the Michaela School case

The claimant, pupil TTT, accused the school of being in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights, discriminatory in the light of the Equalities Act 2010, and in breach of the Public Sector Equalities Duty. This was always going to be difficult in the light of the recognised unwillingness of the courts to uphold ‘collective rights’, as against the right of an individual herself.

The judge followed previous precedents to argue that because the pupil had voluntarily attended the school and was theoretically able to move to another school, her rights were not breached.

Strikingly, in defending the prayer ban, the headteacher and commentators defending her alike pointed to the school being ‘secular’. But the school was not in fact secular; there are no secular state schools in England.

What was missing from the case was any discussion of the requirement on English schools to provide compulsory religious education and daily acts of collective worship, which should be of a Christian kind (albeit, non-denominational).

There is little discussion of this in the judgement itself, except to note that, ‘twice a week, pupils will attend assembly where they sing the national anthem and receive a talk from Ms Birbalsingh or a Head of Year’.

A school in violation of education policy

Ms Birbalsingh’s separate statement to Schools Week also indicate that the school is in breach of the requirements to provide space for collective worship.

The guidance is clear and of longstanding : ‘Collective worship in schools should aim to provide the opportunity for pupils to worship God, to consider spiritual and moral issues and to explore their own beliefs;’.

Parents may withdraw their children and a school would be expected to provide alternative provision for pupils whose religious (or other) beliefs meant they could not participate in the dominant form.

A school can also apply for a determination for non- Christian worship, for example, Islamic worship, and it might have been expected that Michaela School would have done so to accommodate the different religious commitments found amongst their pupils.

They did not. What they can’t do however, is ignore the requirements, as Humanists UK allow in their guidance to schools.

In her statement to Schools Week, Ms Birbalsingh stated, “No, we don’t have prayers and our way of celebrating Christmas, for instance, is very secular. There’s a Santa, there’s a Christmas tree, but these are all very secular things.”

“We would never have a nativity play, for instance, we don’t talk about Jesus; we absolutely embrace the idea of secularism and from the moment we opened in 2014 we’ve never had a prayer room.”

In fact, in the court case, the judge found that this last statement was incorrect. Provision was made, at least for sixth formers, up until summer 2021.

The judge commented, “Regrettably, she does not acknowledge that her second witness statement, or other statements which she has made to the effect that hitherto no pupil had shown any wish to pray in school, were inaccurate in this respect. Nor does she explain how the inaccuracy came about”.

When developing the ‘whole child’ excludes spiritual welfare

Had Michaela School been following the government’s guidance properly, they would have a precedent for the provision of prayer.

In other words, collective rights associated with religion are recognised in law, just not in the legal frameworks pleaded in this case.

The judge cites Birbalsingh that the “focus of the school is on developing the whole child rather than merely being an exam factory”. But it is a curious interpretation of the idea of the ’whole child’ that requires children to leave their religious identities outside the school gate.

The phrasing is significant. It echoes Section 77 of the 2002 Education Act, which requires schools to promote “the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society”.

The requirements for religious education and compulsory worship fall under these clauses.

So, too, do the more recent requirements to ‘promote fundamental British values’ introduced in 2015 after the Trojan Horse affair.

Michaela school’s aggressive ‘integration’ policy is aligned with the latter, but it is clearly deficient with regard to the former.

As with the Trojan Horse affair and the inquiry conducted by Peter Clarke, senior educationalists like Ms Birbalsingh, and officials at the Department for Education show themselves either unaware of the obligations with regard to religious education and collective worship, or willing to ignore them.


Braverman and Birbalsingh: Revisiting the hard-right Tory ties of the Michaela School

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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