London the iron principle that prohibits Islamic prayers Death threats

London, the iron principle that prohibits Islamic prayers. Death threats and denunciations

LONDON – You know her as “the strictest headmistress in England”: Katharine Birbalsingh is a well-known and controversial figure, she is no stranger to controversy – which she does not shy away from at all – but this time she has caused a stir, the consequences of which are danger to be very far-reaching.

She runs with an iron fist the Michaela Community, a school in one of London's deprived suburbs, where the vast majority of students are from ethnic minorities, many do not speak English as a first language and one in four come from families below the poverty line. Katharine has imposed an unyielding discipline that makes her school look more like a military camp than an educational institution: cell phones are banned, students are asked to walk silently in the hallways, and for the slightest infraction they are punished with solitary confinement.

But the results are astonishing: Michaela students beat many of the most prestigious private schools academically and 82% of them manage to get into the Russell Group universities, the club of Britain's elite universities. Birbalsingh has become an idol of the right and a bogeyman of the left, but families are queuing up to enroll their children in her school, even though selection – based on individual merit – is extremely strict. It was also for this reason that the government appointed the “Iron Director” to head the Social Mobility Task Force (a position from which she later resigned).

Now, however, a student has dragged Birbalsingh to the Supreme Court over religious discrimination. Last year it happened that a Muslim student – half of the students enrolled at Michaela are Islamic – began to pray during recess and used her jacket as a pad. Soon dozens of other students joined her, and so the headmaster finally decided to ban all forms of prayer on the grounds that the other students felt uncomfortable and under pressure. At this point, tensions exploded: Birbalsingh reported death threats, intimidation, bomb scares and bricks thrown at windows. Until the student who started the case reported the school for violating religious freedom and discriminating against Muslims.

The problem is that government guidance on the issue is ambiguous: schools are not required to authorize prayers, but they are warned against discriminatory behavior. For her part, the headteacher claims to have the right to run a secular school, explaining that multiculturalism, the principle that inspires Britain, works when “each group makes sacrifices for the good of all” and that they cannot allow it separate communities emerge. It is a debate well known in other countries, particularly France, but which Britain has so far avoided in the name of maximum tolerance. Now the iron director has blown the lid.