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Artillery Row

Katharine Birbalsingh is wrong about religion in schools

Education should prepare us for the good life, not just good grades

Last Tuesday, a high court ruling upheld a prayer ban at the Michaela Community School in Brent. The ruling follows a hearing brought forward by a Muslim student who felt that the prayer ban offended their religious freedoms. The presiding judge, Mr Justice Linden, disagreed. Both Rishi Sunak and Kemi Badenoch have praised the decision, the latter calling it “a victory against activists trying to subvert our public institutions.” But, despite what Badenoch may seem to suggest, Michaela is not a model for other public institutions to follow. The prayer ban should be allowed, not praised and emulated.

There is no doubt that the Michaela Community School — headed by Katharine Birbalsingh, the former Chair of the Social Mobility Commission — is good at what it does. The results of the students who study there are far better than the national average. Indeed, they are better than the results of the students at the average fee-paying school, despite Michaela being a state school. It is also the best at raising attainment out of all the secondary schools in the whole country. And all of this is despite the fact that the school takes in a vast proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds — a quarter of them are entitled to free school meals.

A key ingredient to those successes is the level of uniformity required of Michaela’s students. Pupils are allocated seating at lunchtime, as opposed to being able to choose where to sit themselves. Each lunchtime has teachers set mandatory topics for discussion. Students can only move around the school’s corridors in silence and in single file, and all phones that are either seen or heard are confiscated. In short, any expression of individuality is suppressed for the good of the collective.

The prayer ban is just one facet of the school’s communitarian ethos. Public prayer led to increasing segregation between Muslim and non-Muslim students, so it had to go. Indeed, Birbalsingh’s school takes similar measures when it comes to all religions: Christians must attend revision classes on Sundays, Hindus must eat from plates that have touched egg and all food is vegetarian, regardless of one’s dietary preferences.

the school also enforces upon the students a uniform ethos that plays the role that religion otherwise would play

Praise for Michaela’s ethos abounds: “[y]ou’d hope that her model would be copied and rolled out nationally,” one journalist wrote. “Just get religion out of education completely,” wrote another. But the reason why the model works is not because it manages to erode religious differences. Rather, it manages to replace them. While forbidding any one student from expressing a religion which may be different from that of their peers, the school also enforces upon the students a uniform ethos that plays the role that religion otherwise would play. It is an ethos specifically designed to boost academic attainment. Mandatory poetry recitals before lunch replace saying grace before meals. The ultimate goal is not Heaven or Jannah, but rather a good set of GCSE results.

The problem is that this is not the goal of life. It is not even the goal of education. The purpose of education is not to produce good grades for their own sake, but because they — and the good education they represent — are conducive to living a good life. But, for a religious person, there is no good life without religion; the importance of getting good grades can never override the importance of doing one’s religious duties. A life that is faithful but consists of getting mediocre grades at GCSE is preferable to a life that consists of perfect grades but permits no space for prayer or worship. Ideally, you can have both — faith schools deliver better academic results than their non-faith rivals, while also facilitating their students’ religious life.

Indeed, Michaela is a kind of faith school — a secular faith school. It takes what faith schools do well — a uniform, religious ethos that all students assent to — and gets rid of the religious bit. That is brilliant if you are not religious, but completely inadequate if you are. The religious bit, for a religious person, is not just essential for preparing somebody for the good life — it is the good life. If every school was to adopt an ethos of uniformity, where religious differences are sacrificed to maximise academic attainment, the religious vision of the good life would be very difficult to live out. The high court judgment that favoured Michaela implicitly agreed. The judge justified his ruling on the basis that the student could move to another school that allowed prayer at lunchtime. If every school were to emulate Michaela, this would not be the case.

By suppressing religion in her school, Birbalsingh created a collective ethos that facilitates academic attainment above all things, including above religion. But, while academic attainment is important, it is not the only thing that matters in life. Birblasingh’s school assumes a very particular vision of the good life; a vision that I, and many others, do not share. Her model should be allowed, for the sake of those who desire to sacrifice individuality or religiosity at the altar of academic excellence. They are free to do so. But, for the sake of those who disagree with such a vision of the good life, it is not one to be universally emulated.

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