Britain’s ‘strictest headteacher’ statement in full as Muslim pupil loses bid to take part in prayer rituals

Katharine Birbalsingh welcome the High Court ruling  (Riverdog Productions)
Katharine Birbalsingh welcome the High Court ruling (Riverdog Productions)

The Michaela Community School in north London has successfully defended a High Court challenge over its ban on prayer rituals.

Following the ruling, the school’s headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, who has been commonly described as Britain’s strictest, made a statement.

Here is her response in full:

“A school should be free to do what is right for the pupils it serves. The court’s decision is therefore a victory for all schools. Schools should not be forced by one child and her mother to change its approach simply because they have decided they don’t like something at the school.

“At Michaela, we positively embrace small-c conservative values which millions of people, including so many of our families and pupils, also value. Those values enable extraordinary academic progress.

“But they also promote a way of living, where gratitude, agency and personal responsibility, refusal of identity-politics victimhood, love of country, hard work, kindness, a duty towards others, self-sacrifice for the betterment of the whole, are fundamental to who we are.

“Multiculturalism works at Michaela not because we’ve emptied the identity space of the school in order to accommodate difference, but because we have a clear identity which anyone can sign up to, if they are willing to compromise.

“Michaela is a school that works miracles in London’s inner city, achieving on average nearly two-and-a-half grades higher at GCSE, with the best Progress 8 score for two years running, out of all of the 4,000 secondary schools across the country.

The Michaela Community School is situated in the Brent area of London (Getty Images)
The Michaela Community School is situated in the Brent area of London (Getty Images)

“But our families choose Michaela not just because of the extraordinary learning and access to social mobility that we provide. They choose Michaela because they recognise that our traditional values create a school environment that is a joy to be in.

“Our children are happy and are friends with each other across racial and religious divides. Our 800 visitors a year can attest to this. All anyone needs to do to see this for themselves is sign up on our website for a visit.

“Ever since the idea of Michaela began in 2011, our detractors have railed against our strict rules and traditional values.

“Their patronising, paternalist, ‘we know what’s best for you’ progressive thinking goes like this: ethnic minority families cannot possibly know what they want and have chosen and continue to choose for their children.

“Those choices must be made for them. We need to have the honesty to call that out. A deep-seated progressivist racism fuels the condescending belief that ethnic minorities cannot think and choose for themselves. It is what has allowed a particular kind of bullying identity politics to take such a grip of our country.

“More than 40 per cent of our pupils are siblings. In 2014, 30 per cent of our intake was Muslim. It is now 50 per cent. We are over-subscribed. If our families did not like the school, they would not repeatedly choose to send their children to Michaela.

The legal battle was depicted on the front page of Tuesday’s Evening Standard (Getty Images)
The legal battle was depicted on the front page of Tuesday’s Evening Standard (Getty Images)

“At the two welcome events that all parents must attend before sending their child to Michaela, I run through everything that makes Michaela different to other schools: constant supervision, family lunch, silent corridors, no prayer room, easy ways to get detention, strict uniform etc.

“If parents do not like what Michaela is, they do not need to send their children to us.

“Can it be right for a family to receive £150,000 of taxpayer-funded legal aid to bring a case like this?

“The judge is clear that the child’s statements were not written by her alone. Indeed, this mum intends to send her second child to Michaela, starting in September. At the same time, this mum has sent a letter to our lawyers suggesting that she may take us to court yet again over another issue at the school she doesn’t like, presumably once again at the taxpayer’s expense.

“People of all religions tell me that Michaela is more Christian, more Catholic, more Islamic, more Jewish, or more Hindu than schools they have seen elsewhere.

“The reason for this is because our robust yet respectful secularism is allied to those traditional values which all religions share. We all believe in the Michaela Way.

“In institutions where secularism has come to mean an absence of belief, often identity politics fills the vacuum. Every ‘community’ is catered for in a way which emphasises differences between people and can unwittingly encourage victimhood.

“Ours is very much a strong belief in small-c conservative values where we all move towards a shared goal, rejecting victimhood, together. In our ever-more diverse society we at Michaela stand for those values which save us from the worst of the divisiveness which identity politics engenders.

“Last year, we watched our Muslim pupils put under pressure by a tiny number of others to fast, to pray, to drop out of the choir, to wear a hijab.

“I watched one of my black teachers racially abused and intimidated, another teacher who had her personal home nearly broken into, and another with a brick thrown through her window.

“I have a duty of care to protect all of our pupils but also to my staff. There is a false narrative that some try to paint about Muslims being an oppressed minority at our school. They are, in fact, the largest group. Those who are most at risk are other minorities and Muslim children who are less observant.

Ms Birbalsingh said the decision to introduce a ‘prayer ban’ came against a ‘backdrop of events including violence, intimidation and appalling racial harassment’ of teachers (PA Media)
Ms Birbalsingh said the decision to introduce a ‘prayer ban’ came against a ‘backdrop of events including violence, intimidation and appalling racial harassment’ of teachers (PA Media)

“What does it mean to be the headmistress in a school which tries to uphold our shared British values when different constituencies within our diverse society want different, sometimes opposing things, in the name of their religious commitments?

“It means offering what unites us – those shared values I list above – and then asking everyone to compromise for the sake of that shared communal project.

“To the Jehovah Witnesses: We teach Macbeth as a GCSE text, even though it has witches in it. To the Muslims: We don’t have a prayer room. To the Christians: We will offer revision classes on Sundays. To the Hindus: The plates will have been touched by eggs.

“We are always clear about this: our restrictive building, strict ethos and desire to see multiculturalism succeed mean that self-sacrifice is required. Parents, knowing this, have the freedom to make informed choices. This is who we are.

“At Michaela, we expect all religions and all races to make the necessary sacrifices to enable our school to thrive. The vast majority do so without complaint. We make the sacrifice of eating vegetarian food at lunch to enable us to break bread with each other across racial and religious divides.

“For those of you who take a dim view of Muslims or multiculturalism, I would urge you to remember our hundreds of Muslim families who love our school.

“When we were in court, we fought to retain the media ban – because the threat of harm and the danger of violence were clearly very real. The member of the press in the courtroom who showed me the most compassion was Muslim.

“It is more of a challenge for a multicultural school to succeed. One need only look at the schools that top the Progress 8 chart: the vast majority are faith schools of one religion.

“Schools that are secular and multicultural must be allowed the same right that religious schools have: the right to unity, the right to reject division, the right to not have the black group, the Hindu group, the Muslim group, the LGBT group etc.

“Everyone is welcome in our community but our community isn’t an empty space – it has its own identity which we invite everyone to belong to. So we sing God Save The King because our country and our flag unite us.

“Ethnic minorities should be able to identify as British. If we are saying that being an ethnic minority AND being British are incompatible, then as a nation we are in deep trouble.

“At Michaela, we want our children to live lives of dignity, whether they end up poor or rich later in life. In 2024, we tend to believe that a school is successful according to its exam results alone: the better the results, the better the well-paying job.

“But a life of meaning is not about being rich. At Michaela we believe that purpose and moral character matter, that there is such a thing as moral truth. Without moral truth, all you have is evolutionary biology in a brutal world where there is no obligation for the strong to help the weak.

“When we tell our kids to be ‘top of the pyramid’, our goal for them isn’t to be the richest or the most famous or even the cleverest. It is to be someone who lives a life of moral worth shaped by self-sacrifice, filled with gratitude for what they have, and doing all they can to help those who have not.

“For 25 years I have been in school at 6.45am, working 12 to 15-hour days, always with mainly brown and black kids from the inner city.

“Our detractors’ narrative that I hate children, that I hate Muslim children, despite more and more Muslim families choosing our school over the years and my own grandmother being Muslim, is clearly nonsensical. I could easily do something less stressful and earn more money or seek promotion elsewhere.

“But I have chosen to stay with the Michaela project for 13+ years and I continue to fight to defend our way of life.

“Why? Because I believe in something bigger than myself.

“Michaela stands for values that provide us with a way of living through the good times and the bad, whether we are rich or poor, with GCSE grade 9s or grade 4s, whether we are white or black, tall or short. At Michaela we cherish and embrace these values for ALL of our pupils, whatever their race, whatever their religion.

“Strength and honour. God save the King.”

Additional reporting by PA