Douglas Murray Douglas Murray

The triumph of Katharine Birbalsingh

There are two questions that need to be asked of any society: what is it that is going wrong; and what is it that’s going right that should be done more? It’s only natural to focus on the first question – not least because it is easier. But it is the second question that should be asked more.

Whenever I think of the few things that are going well in Britain, I think of the Michaela Community School in Wembley, London. I have visited the school a couple of times. It sits in one of London’s most deprived communities. Set up under the era of Michael Gove’s free schools scheme, it is the creation of Katharine Birbalsingh. Pupils are almost all from non-advantaged backgrounds.

The school’s success is a rebuke to a whole class of malevolent or criminally inept educationalists

Whenever she is profiled in the media, people tend to write about Birbalsingh as ‘Britain’s strictest headmistress’ or similar. The implication skews towards the negative. Commentators, especially of the left, like to suggest that there is something a bit suspect about this striving for discipline and excellence. ‘Shouldn’t the kids be allowed to let it all hang out a bit more?’ is a frequent note, hit by people who have either forgotten what their own education involved or like to gloss over the advantages they have had in life.

Happily, Michaela’s success has been demonstrated beyond all doubt. Last year, Ofsted rated the school as ‘outstanding’, noted that the pupils’ behaviour is ‘exemplary’ and that the school has an ‘exceptionally rich curriculum, which prepares pupils exceptionally well for the next steps in education’. All of which is very good – but the proof is in the grades. For the last two years the school has received the country’s highest Progress 8 score – which tracks how well secondary schools improve performance after primary school. Pupils at the school achieve twice the national average in GCSE performance and in the English Baccalaureate. An astonishing 82 per cent of its sixth-form students go on to matriculate at Russell Group Universities. In other words, if you have a huge amount of cash and want to send your child to an expensive private school in Britain, you’d be better off saving the money and moving to Wembley.

So why should Michaela have been the subject of so much opprobrium? Even before Birbalsingh had found the site for her school, people tried to stop her. A different London Labour council had the perfect site available, but when the council found out what it was for, they sold the site to someone else. It has been the same at every turn. Trade unions have had their members protest outside the school and harass staff and pupils. Every attempt has been made to take Birbalsingh and the school out. The case that hit the headlines this week was just the latest.

It started because a Muslim pupil claimed that the school wouldn’t allow her to practise Muslim prayer rituals at the school. Strangely enough, this pupil’s family were able to bring a legal case against the school. I wonder where the money and inspiration for that came from? Perhaps someone can find out.

Of course, the reason why the pupil was not allowed to bring Islamic prayer rituals into the school was that the school is a non-faith school. All pupils and parents agree when signing up to the school that they understand the school’s ethos and that religion must be left at the school gate. There are plenty of good reasons for this, in the Islamic space in particular. Around half of the school’s pupils are Muslim, and reportedly most of the Muslim parents at the school were appalled at the case.

As they should be. I have spoken to pupils at other schools in London who have told me first-hand about the sort of pressure which is applied once Muslim pupils get into this kind of escalation. It starts with a Muslim girl who wears the hijab questioning girls of Muslim origin who do not, and proceeds from there. Before you know it, you have allowed a system of shame culture to embed in the school. That then becomes the seedbed for bullying and worse.

The past year must have been torture for the teachers. The case, which dragged on for months, could easily have been the end for Michaela. If the school had lost, everything would have fallen apart. And not just for that one school. It would have signified that schools could be bullied into changing their principles because of one set of parents who had clearly either not understood the school they were signing their child up for, or who understood it very well and wanted to pull the whole thing down from inside.

Happily, the High Court this week ruled against the people bringing the case. The 83-page judgment said that the claimant had ‘at the very least impliedly accepted’ the rules of the school. The court accepted the school’s claim that allowing dozens of Muslim girls to pray in the school playground risked ‘undermining inclusion’ among pupils. Birbalsingh welcomed it as a ‘victory for all schools’, as indeed it is. But how was this case even brought, under a Conservative government which is meant to care about such things?

More importantly, I go back to my original question. Why should life have been made so difficult for the staff, teachers and parents of this demonstrably outstanding school? And why are there not hundreds of Michaela schools all across the country? (If you want one answer, look not far from Michaela, where a school set up by a Labour party adviser in the same period has plummeted down Ofsted’s rankings. Its founder will be advising the next Labour government.)

Why do people not celebrate Michaela and want more children to have the same education? The reason is that Birbalsingh and her school show up the utter failure of their critics. Michaela’s success is a rebuke to a whole class of malevolent or criminally inept educationalists. People who can’t build tear things down. If only we could become a nation that builds.

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