The best school in the country, measured by the progress made by its pupils, is not what many would expect. It does not select by ability or by postcode. It serves a deprived community in Wembley, London. It is unapologetically strict and rigorous in its teaching.
Michaela, founded by Katharine Birbalsingh, is loathed by many on the Left, who despise its methods and resent its success. But the news that a pupil is suing the school over restrictions on ritual prayer has shocked many on the Right. “How could this happen?” ask immigration liberals and advocates of multiculturalism, with a naivety that is difficult to believe.
The answer is plain. In many respects, and compared to other countries, Britain has succeeded in managing its newly multiracial identity. But in other obvious and very visible ways, it is failing. There is widespread self-segregation along ethnic and religious lines in British towns and cities. In many schools, segregation is more pronounced than in the communities they serve.
Meanwhile, backed by ideological academics and lawyers, and encouraged or appeased by politicians and public bodies, activists peddling grievance harry individuals and organisations to win favour, special treatment and institutional power.
They can do so thanks to the structures, laws and norms we ourselves have created. And the Michaela example is a case in point.
The school is a sort of Singapore of the British education system. Just as Lee Kuan Yew concluded that his multiracial city state could only maintain peace through uncompromisingly tough justice, so Birbalsingh ensures her pupils are treated equally under a tough school disciplinary policy. Everyone eats vegetarian meals to avoid religious segregation at lunchtimes. There is no prayer room for any religion.
Birbalsingh says she asks pupils from all backgrounds to make sacrifices so all can live in harmony. “Our school must be a place,” she explains, “where children of all races and religions buy into something they all share and is bigger than ourselves: our country.”
But this vision is rejected by activists and their facilitators, who demand exceptionalism, not equality.
It is no longer enough, in their worldview, to treat people equally. They argue we must treat people differently, in order to respect their beliefs and achieve equality not of opportunity but of outcome.
Some go further still: they are more interested in turning invented hierarchies of oppression upside down – which is why so many of them tolerate discrimination against whites and Jews.
At Michaela, half its 700 pupils are Muslim. When around 30 started public prayer rituals in the shared playground, the governing body intervened. Birbalsingh explains that the decision was taken “against a backdrop of events including violence, intimidation and appalling racial harassment of our teachers”. Staff received death threats and were told the school would be bombed.
Now, an unnamed pupil is suing Michaela, backed by over £100,000 in legal aid, and likely much more to come. The student had already been in trouble after being accused of intimidating other Muslim pupils who did not fast during Ramadan, and was suspended last year for allegedly threatening to stab another child (which the pupil denied).
They are supported by a law firm in receipt of huge sums in public funding. They have instructed a barrister from Matrix Chambers, the legal practice specialising in human rights co-founded by Cherie Blair.
Even though the school policy applies to all faiths, the Matrix argument is that it is a de facto Muslim prayer ban, because Islamic prayer is ritualised and not internal. Christian children, they say, are still allowed to pray personally and quietly.
This all appears to come from the extremist playbook. As Ed Husain explains in The Islamist, the “total Islamization of the public space at college (open prayers, Islamist posters, women in hijab)” is an expression of power and intimidation – of staff, other pupils and other Muslims. At Michaela, when the playground prayers began, more aggressive behaviour followed. A girl was pressured to wear a hijab. Another left the choir because she was told music was haram. Others were pressured to pray in public.
It is no coincidence that MEND, described by the Shawcross review of Prevent as having a “well-established track record of working alongside extremists”, and the Muslim Council of Britain, subject to a “no-engagement” policy by ministers over extremism concerns, have both campaigned for school spaces to be given over to Muslim prayer sessions.
This all matters, because our failure is shaping the kind of society we are fast becoming. This case ought to be a wake-up call, but it is not an isolated example. In east London, Barclay Primary School has police officers stationed on-site after receiving threats following the headteacher’s decision to prohibit political symbols, including the Palestinian flag.
Another east London school, St Stephen’s, was intimidated into dropping its ban on primary-age children wearing the hijab. There were Islamist protests against sex education outside schools in Birmingham, and the Trojan horse plot, when activists attempted to take over state schools and impose a hardline Islamic ethos.
There is the Batley teacher, still in hiding after showing a depiction of Muhammed in a religious education class, and the kangaroo court held in a Wakefield mosque after a boy lightly scuffed a copy of the Quran.
Extremists are turning our schools – and other public institutions – into a battleground. But instead of confronting them, the authorities are appeasing and encouraging them.
Our laws, especially equality and human rights laws, allow extremists and activists to play the state and society like a fiddle, while workplaces and public services have succumbed to political correctness and American critical race theory.
Instead of letting ideologues destroy them, we need to build more institutions like Michaela – resilient, unifying, and focused entirely on excellence. In Wembley and elsewhere, this is the choice we face. It could not be more serious.