Picture credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Against Michaela multiculturalism

The school does not offer a successful model of integration for Britain

Katharine Birbalsingh is an unlikely darling of the British right. An outspoken London headteacher of Indo-Guyanese heritage, she first came to national prominence for a speech castigating New Labour’s education policies at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference. Since 2014, she has headed Michaela Community School in Brent, the poster-child for Michael Gove’s flagship “free schools” policy, winning praise from figures like Douglas Murray, Fraser Nelson, and Jordan Peterson

It’s easy to see why. A 2023 Ofsted inspection rated Michaela as “outstanding” in all categories, while the school’s GCSE progress score was the best for any English school in both 2022 and 2023. Advocates say that these successes are the result of Birbalsingh’s traditionalist, disciplinarian style of education — pupils at Michaela are forced to walk through corridors silently and in single-file, and can be punished for lack of eye-contact with teachers. 

Even more impressive is the fact that Birbalsingh has managed to achieve all of this in a diverse, deprived borough of Outer London. The Tokyngton area of Wembley, where Michaela is located, is amongst the most multi-ethnic in the country; 11.2 per cent of residents in Tokyngton were recorded as White British or English, compared to a national average of 75.6 per cent. More than 57 per cent of households were defined as “deprived”. If traditional schooling can work here, surely it can work anywhere?

For many of the former public-school boys populating the Tory benches, the idea of a strict schoolmarm bringing old-fashioned education to Modern Multicultural Britain is positively titillating. Add to this Michaela’s insistence upon making pupils sing the national anthem, and you could almost fool yourself into believing that we’ve returned to the Good Old Days. 

Perhaps that’s why so many Conservatives leapt to Birbalsingh’s defence last week, as the school came under fire for its policy on prayer. Last March, the school banned prayer rituals on its premises; it now faces a High Court battle with one of its Muslim pupils, who claims that the ban is discriminatory. 

The narrative writes itself — a successful school under fire from the nebulously-defined Woke, sacrificing standards in the name of diversity. More importantly, it gave centre-right commentators an opportunity to signal their recognition of the fact that integration in Britain has largely failed, without alienating their friends on the dinner party circuit. Suddenly, Michaela has become synonymous with successful multiculturalism amongst a certain section of the commentariat. 

But is Birbalsingh’s “Michaela multiculturalism” really all it’s cracked up to be? It depends on your perspective.

It’s integration, Jim, but not as we know it

It’s integration, Jim, but not as we know it. Despite her adherence to the aesthetic trappings of good old-fashioned disciplinarian schooling, Birbalsingh’s philosophy is decidedly modern. Michaela is underpinned by principles which are wholly unusual in Britain — strictly regimented, aggressively secular, and motivated by peacekeeping and compromise over the English tradition of personal liberties.

In a public statement issued last week, Birbalsingh made clear that her integration policies were motivated as much by philosophy as practicality, insisting that multiculturalism can only succeed when every group makes sacrifices “for the sake of the whole”. Christian pupils made to study on Sundays, mandatory vegetarianism in order to appease Muslim and Hindu dietary needs, outright bans on prayer — squint, and it starts to look more like sacrifices from the whole in order to appease a few groups.  

If this is what “successful multiculturalism” looks like, it is a grim vision of Britain’s future — an acquiescent majority endlessly forced to “compromise” with minority groups and stripped of their freedoms in the name of public order. Security states tend not to produce flourishing societies. 

Nor does Birbalsingh’s promotion of universalist, surface-level expressions of patriotism necessarily produce well-integrated pupils. Britain was not made prosperous and successful by a flag or an anthem, nor did we build a safe, high-trust society on a foundation of ill-defined “British values”; unlike multiplication tables, a deep and abiding connection to the nation state cannot be taught by rote. Michaela’s civic, diverse Britishness is an entirely new construction, and one which bears little resemblance to the chilly, windswept, austere, monocultural country that we once were. Why should we compromise on the tenets of a healthy Western society in order to “make multiculturalism work”? 

Given the ongoing High Court battle, can we even really say that Michaela is succeeding in building commonality and cohesion amongst its diverse student body? Even with its laser-focus on compromise, the Michaela method clearly hasn’t succeeded in integrating its Muslim pupils. By the school’s own admission, the rise in prayer amongst Muslim students was accompanied by a rise in organised pressure on less observant peers — girls who had not previously covered their heads began to do so, and insufficiently pious pupils from Muslim backgrounds faced mounting pressure to pray. Not exactly integration. With this in mind, should conservatives really be touting Birbalsingh as a herald of successful multiculturalism, and Michaela as a model for the whole country?

None of this is to say that there aren’t lessons to be learned from Michaela; clearly, the touchy-feely orthodoxy in modern education is failing children of all backgrounds. There is, however, little evidence that Michaela’s commendable academic performance is dependent upon Birbalsingh’s personal philosophy on multiculturalism; the school’s GCSE results probably owe more to the work of E.D. Hirsch. Keep the Victorian-style discipline, ditch the Ottoman-style integration. Even if we might accept that Birbalsingh’s methods are preferable to the anarchy that reigns at other London schools, we can do a lot better than her “Michaela multiculturalism”.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover