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Free Schools, State Attacks

A ban on Muslim students expressing their faith at a London school has nothing to do with secularism’s triumph and everything to do with right-wingers shaping the education agenda.

Katharine Birbalsingh is head teacher at the Michaela Community School. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The current media storm surrounding a school in Brent, where a pupil took legal action against their school for alleged Islamophobia, has led to outcries from liberal and Tory commentators alike about the sanctity of secularism. What it reveals, however, is that Muslim school pupils have become the undeserving target of a reactionary political elite that rampant privatisation has allowed to infiltrate the state education system.

Michaela School, a free school run by Katherine Birbalsingh, has long been known for its controversial approach to state education. Nicknamed ‘Britain’s strictest headteacher,’ Birbalsingh vehemently promotes a ruthlessly punitive environment in which pupils can only converse in groups of four and are reprimanded for the smallest misdemeanours. Characterised by military discipline and rote learning, the school’s approach remains popular with local families keen for their children to be accepted into high-achieving universities. And on this the results speak for themselves, with 82 percent apparently gaining places at Russell Group institutions.

Birbalsingh’s approach is not just about unorthodox pedagogy, however. She has frequently railed against ‘woke culture,’ criticised the Black Lives Matter protests, and regularly speaks at political events, most recently the National Conservative Conference. A prolific tweeter and contributor to the right-wing press, Birbalsingh appears to have no problem making her views known on everything from self-ID to domestic violence.

Coverage of the recent court case was no exception. The pupil received EHRC-funded legal aid to challenge her teachers’ decision to ban students from spending five minutes praying during lunch breaks on dates their faith required it, taking their headteacher all the way to the High Court. The pupil’s claim was that this could constitute religious discrimination, particularly in an area with a large Muslim population. Her courage cannot be understated, especially given the media strings Birbalsingh was able to pull to discredit her own pupils.

A full-page spread and cover story in the Evening Standard put Birbalsingh’s defence across in strongly partisan terms, alleging she was acting in the interests of multicultural harmony and that ‘pupils need help to cross religious divides.’ Sensationalist articles in the Telegraph and Daily Mail are consistently on the side of Birbalsingh over the pupils. The judge this week ruled in Birbalsingh’s favour, to the disapproval of the London Central Mosque and other Muslim groups. It is not yet clear whether the pupil will choose to appeal the decision. During the trial, she had described the prayer ban as the ‘kind of discrimination which makes religious minorities feel alienated from society.’

This is yet another example of Tory elites using state institutions to bully and belittle minorities, coming shortly after Suella Braverman’s grotesque characterisation of asylum seekers as ‘cockroaches’ and pro-Palestinian protestors as a ‘hate march.’ Braverman herself has been a long-term advocate of free schools and was a founding chair of governors at Michaela. Liberal commentators such as Polly Toynbee are therefore missing the point when they endlessly extoll the virtues of secular schools: it is Birbalsingh and Braverman who are the extremists here, not the ‘woke left’ nor indeed the pupils of Michaela School.

The saga reveals much more about how free schools and academisation have undermined democratic accountability and community cohesion. The pupil’s allegations speak to a rotten educational culture in which educational institutions can be run without the minimum required standards of respect and accountability.

Free schools, and many academies, lack the local authority oversight of community schools, and therefore are removed almost entirely from the democratic structures implicit in councils. Free schools are not required to teach the national curriculum, meaning the contentious views of Birbalsingh are likely being inflicted in the classrooms as well as the courts. Just as troubling is their approach to the educational workforce: teaching staff do not need qualified teacher status, and employers can set their own employment terms and conditions. In many cases this has undermined collective bargaining agreements, leaving a pay gap between academy and community school staff. Unions such as the NEU have also pointed to the soaring salaries of academy trust CEOs, which are many times greater than that of the lowest paid.

Pupils at Michaela may be academically successful, but at what cost? This model of education puts civil liberties, working rights and democratic accountability at risk. And not all free schools can manage these levels of attainment, with one in eight since 2010 having to close or change management due to financial unsustainability or poor governance. One thing is clear: the privatisation of state schooling has been an abject failure, dividing communities, letting down families and undermining local democratic structures.

It is worrying that the Labour Party has not pledged to end academisation and bring free schools back into the public sphere. There are now clusters of failing academies across fifty-five local authorities in the UK, with councils often left to pick up the pieces but with limited resources to do so. A new Labour government will inherit this problem and needs to tackle this chaotic form of privatisation head on. If not, ruptures like that at Michaela are likely to happen with increasing frequency.