Religion & Liberty Online

The Michaela Way and Living in Community

Michaela Community School, Wembley, London, Head Teacher Katharine Birbalsingh chats with pupils during brunch. (Image credit: Alamy)

Acknowledging religious and cultural differences often means honoring a space where those differences are set aside for the common communal good.

Read More…

Educators love innovation. Education reform is a perennial theme in political campaigns, and almost every government has new rhetoric about how to reverse plummeting test scores, declining student achievement, and increased school violence and truancy. Surely, then, the Michaela Community School in the London suburb of Wembley should be the exemplar of culture and curricular design, with school boards across the English-speaking world clambering to replicate the model that resulted in the best exam scores of any of England’s nearly 7,000 secondary schools. One measure, known as Progress 8, is designed to provide an indicator of how much students have improved from primary to secondary school. When the scores were released in Fall 2023, the Michaela School had the top scores in the country—for the second year in a row.

Michaela’s visionary headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, was forced to press through years of establishment resistance before opening the school and has been subject to intense scrutiny and criticism ever since despite the fact that student exam scores and outcomes outpace the national average by a mile. The school and the future of all its pupils are now imperiled by a lawsuit filed by a Muslim student who is demanding to be allowed to engage in ritualistic prayer during school hours and on school grounds.

The Michaela Way, as the school’s approach to education is known, involves discipline, order, and zero-tolerance for bad behavior. The curriculum is intense and prescribed. Students do not decide what they learn. Teachers are fountains of knowledge, so classrooms are organized with rows of student desks facing forward and much of the learning done by rote. Students, regardless of grade level, move quietly and deliberately through the hallways from class to class without AirPods and cellphones and in uniforms that are regulated more strictly than in most schools. The curriculum includes Shakespeare, and the students learn about and celebrate national holidays and sing together patriotic songs. All these aspects of the curriculum are oriented toward instilling in students an appreciation of what it means to be British. “Our children, whatever their background,” as Ms. Birbalsingh has aptly observed, “are British.”

All these “innovations” have provoked vitriolic criticism of Ms. Birbalsingh and her school. But what has sparked the present row and subsequent lawsuit stems from the school culture’s elimination of all things that create division and push children into tribes. Michaela Community School does not deny the reality of the multicultural context in which it exists, but as the headmistress has said, “Multiculturalism can only succeed when we understand that every group must make sacrifices for the sake of the whole.”

It is important to note that it is not just the Muslim student who has filed suit who has been asked to sacrifice “for the sake of the whole.” Ms. Birbalsingh’s statement on the matter reads in pertinent part:

At Michaela, those from all religions make sacrifices so that we can maintain a safe secular community. Some Jehovah’s Witness families have objected to Macbeth as a set GCSE text. Some Christian families have asked that we do not hold our GCSE revision sessions on Sundays. Some Hindu families have objected to dinner plates touching eggs. And our Muslim families have signed up to the school knowing that we do not have a prayer room. We all eat vegetarian food so that we can break bread together at lunch where children are not divided according to race or religion. We all make our sacrifices so that we can live in harmony.

It is important to note that the school’s ban on ritualistic prayer only came after it was clear that accommodation was negatively impacting the school’s intentionally secular culture. A few Muslim students began using the playground and time at lunch to pray, but very soon other Muslim students began reporting incidents of bullying by their Muslim peers because they did not participate. Female Muslim students were pressured to withdraw from school activities that other Muslim students found objectionable on religious grounds, teachers faced threats of racial violence and intimidation, and the school received bomb threats and accusations of Islamophobia. The new policy, according to the school, has restored order.

In an American context, a school like the Michaela School, which receives public funds, would be required to make “reasonable accommodations” for religious observance. This might include allowing head coverings, providing a space for prayer, or excusing absences for religious holidays. It is difficult to predict how the Michaela School’s lawsuit would play out in the United States because so many variables exist in the laws from one state to another. And not being an expert in English law, I can’t predict the outcome of this suit. But the controversy does raise a couple of important questions that the British and the rest of the West may have ignored for far too long.

First, what is religious freedom for? In a world fixated on individual rights, we tend to think of rights more like privileges that we assert over and against others. Many rarely consider the fact that our rights are exercised within a larger community to which we have obligations and responsibilities. Every right produces a corresponding duty imposed on others, which in some way shapes the actions of others in the community.

On a national scale, these effects might be relatively small or are easily diluted or mitigated because of the sheer size of the community. But when the community is smaller, the direct impact the assertion of the rights of some and concomitant duties imposed on others has is greater on the culture, cohesion, and shape of that community. Living together in a community of any size—a family, among roommates, a school, or a nation—requires sacrifice. And the more intimate the community, the more sacrifice may be required of individual members.

A few years ago while traveling in London, I walked right into a small community of sorts involved in an experiment with religious accommodation, and it was clearly failing. I needed a pair of shoes, so I went to a men’s shoe store where the service was quite slow because it became clear that each of the female clerks … in a men’s shoe store … was from a minority faith that did not allow physical contact with men. So each customer was forced to wait for the one clerk who could help us. This religious accommodation was one that exempted employees from nearly every meaningful aspect of what the job requires. I would hope that if I suffered from a severe peanut allergy, I would have the sense not to apply to work in a peanut processing plant and that an employer would have the sense not to hire me if I did. This is not so much a question of the law but of common sense and of understanding the goals—the raison d’être even—of the community, in this case a store that sells shoes exclusively to men. With that in mind, all the families who have voluntarily enrolled their children at Michaela Community School have done so with the full knowledge of what The Michaela Way requires in terms of discipline and sacrifice “for the sake of the whole.”

Second, how can we make multiculturalism succeed? No Western society is monolithic, so living in peace with one’s neighbors is a fundamentally different question now than it once was. The success of Michaela Community School, I think, provides some important clues. Michaela doesn’t require any student to abandon his or her distinctive religious identity. It is clear from the demographic makeup of the school that there is no bias in favor of or against any specific racial or religious group. Everyone is required to make some sacrifices, and if those sacrifices are untenable then it may be that voluntarily joining the Michaela community is an untenable proposition. But is Ms. Birbalsingh not right that this is a fundamental necessity for living in a multicultural society?

The “brotherhood of man” thesis of multiculturalism is bankrupt and ineffective. While it may be true that we have more in common with one another than we first suspect, we do have differences that are important and must be respected. But the only way to do this is to understand both the common and the different aspects of who we are. For Michaela students, this means focusing on their common British identity. Some students are descendants of colonized nations, while others descend from those who wielded colonial power. Honest, personal connection across different perspectives of British heritage, history, and values allows every member of the community to appreciate British identity in all its glory and its shame. The same can be said for every culture, not just those in the West.

An interesting analogy can be drawn from how some Jewish refugees from World War II and the Holocaust approached integration in their new home. In 1964, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik addressed a meeting of the Rabbinic Council of America on this very subject. Jewish refugees entering the United States were facing either the disappearance of their religious and cultural identities or a self-imposed segregation meant to preserve those things. Many in the group had engaged in ecumenical exchange only to find that they were often the junior partner at the table where conversations about shared concerns and values dominated. Soloveitchik encouraged good-faith engagement with the understanding that all parties understood the nature and depth of differences, because only at that point could they identify common ground for cooperation.

Soloveitchik was addressing a similar cultural moment, but one with significant differences, too. A direct application of his admonishment would seem to suggest a focus on defining differences first and only then identifying common ground. But Michaela Community School is just one of myriad social institutions. There are other institutions—families, churches, mosques, and community centers—that are better equipped to catechize, to borrow a phrase, children in the distinctive beliefs and practices of a particular faith or culture. Michaela, however, is a place where people with many differences come together to focus on commonality. “As a school,” writes Ms. Birbalsingh, “we celebrate what we have in common so that the extraordinary diversity of cultures that we have under our roof can succeed.”

Michaela Community School has cultivated an environment that has produced unrivaled success and that challenges the assumptions and even priorities of the educational establishment. By doing so, it has provided a robust model that can and should be extrapolated in hopes of establishing a multiculturalism that works for each of us and all of us.

Trey Dimsdale

Trey Dimsdale serves as counsel for First Liberty Institute (FLI) and executive director of the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an FLI initiative focused on education and cultural advocacy for freedom.