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The Michaela Community School

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Written by Robert Tombs

The Michaela school is a bright spot in an often depressing cultural and educational landscape. For this reason, it has many enemies, and is again under attack. It is nothing like the caricature often drawn of it.

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Many BfB readers will be aware of the Michaela Community School in London, run by Katherine Birbalsingh, and of the legal action recently taken against it to force it to allow communal (Muslim) prayer, despite its announced secular character.  This is by no means the first time that it has been attacked, but in the past, I believe, the attackers have been Left-wing activists and some teachers’ organizations, who hate the fact that the school stands for very different values and methods from theirs.  No doubt their anger is fuelled by its brilliant examination results.  Most of the children come from ethnic minorities.  Many are new arrivals.  Most, I seem to remember, are not native English speakers.  The school is a landmark of successful and happy integration, in which children lustily sing the National Anthem and recite Kipling’s ‘If’ (often called the nation’s favourite poem).  Needless to say, all this agitates a variety of groups.  Among them is the journalist Will Lloyd, who wrote a very negative and I thought rather mean-spirited article about the school in a recent New Statesman (26 Jan).  I wrote a letter in reply, which the Statesman rather gallantly chose as its Letter of the Week (2-8 Feb).  However, it did edit the letter, removing what I thought were some of its most interesting titbits.  So for this reason, and for readers of BfB who may not be regular readers of the New Statesman, my full letter follows:

Reading Will Lloyd’s diatribe against the Michaela school (‘Decline and Fall’, 26 Jan-1 Feb) makes me think he has never set foot there, unless with eyes tight shut and fingers in ears.  I shared some of his prejudices when I first visited, half expecting cowed children and an oppressive atmosphere.  Second thoughts started when I asked the man at the Tube ticket barrier (Black, as it happens) if he could direct me.  ‘I can,’ he said. ‘My son goes there; it’s the best school in England.’  Classroom doors are always open for visitors to wander in and out.  Children come and talk to you, without teachers present.  I had lunch with five children, and talked about soundscapes; then Fatima (about 13, in hijab) spoke to the school about it.  A lesson for me and for her – practising public speaking in English, her second or third language.  The children I met were happy and proud of what they are doing.  Will Lloyd talks of children being ‘turned into something they do not want to be’.  He really seems more annoyed that they do want it: yes, including singing the national anthem and learning Shakespeare.  These children are being shown that the country they live in is theirs.  Its culture, its history, its institutions are theirs to possess.  Perhaps he would be happier for them to remain marginalized and alienated minorities, who know their place.

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About the author

Robert Tombs