Sam Leith Sam Leith

What Katharine Birbalsingh gets wrong about secularism

Katherine Birbalsingh (Credit: Getty images)

Katharine Birbalsingh is back in the papers again. The head teacher at Michaela, a free school whose outstanding academic record and ultra-strict behaviour policy have made it a culture-wars lightning rod, tells the Sunday Times that she and her staff have been getting death threats ever since her board of governors imposed a policy banning any form of prayer on school grounds. 

Until not all that long ago, the story runs, pupils were permitted to pray in the playground at break. This policy of tolerance worked fine for a bit, but only because none of the kids wanted to. It was a purely theoretical rule. But last March, a girl knelt on her blazer to pray during break time, and 30 other pupils joined her. Miss Birbalsingh says that at once, ‘the culture’ of the school changed. ‘We saw that Muslim kids who did not want to fast in Ramadan, did not want to pray or wear a hijab, were then intimidated into doing so. The lovely happy atmosphere in our school turned into something negative and scary.’ 

Like it or not, a ban on prayer in the playground adds up to a ban on Muslim prayer

On the face of it, a secular ethos in a secular school is exactly what we should be shooting for. Religious intimidation of the sort she describes is horrifying. And, of course, if the parents of pupils at the school aren’t happy with its secular policy they are quite within their rights to take their kids off to another school rather than insisting that the school change its policies to suit them. So two cheers, maybe as many as two and a half, to Katherine Birbalsingh on that front. 

Miss Birbalsingh argues that by forbidding the outward exercise of religious difference at the school, she is able to promote integration between the different faith communities. The children won’t form into mutually uncommunicative tribes.

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