1 February 2024
Culture wars in the classroom.
By Lynda Goetz
For a long time, many in this country seem to have believed not only that our health system is the envy of the world, but that our education is also revered by others abroad. As our sainted NHS disintegrates, that belief is being severely tested, even by its most ardent advocates. At the same time, whilst our private education system and our universities continue to suck in wealthy foreigners, our state system appears not only to be crumbling (literally, in the physical sense with the reinforced autoclave aerated concrete [RAAC] problems), but to be succumbing to malign minority interests, albeit with the help of our own institutions.
The recent court case brought by an unnamed schoolgirl (using legal aid) against the Michaela Community School in Wembley, run by Katherine Birbalsingh and acknowledged to be a huge academic success story, highlights several major issues. The first is the almost complete polarisation of views between Right and Left. For those on the Left, Michaela School, in spite of its evident success in educating children from diverse and often deprived backgrounds, has a strict top-down ethos which is anathema. An article in The Guardian, written by Nadeine Asbali, on 19th January, describes the ban on praying in the school (the cause of the court case) as a ‘dystopian, sinister view of Britishness’. Two days later, Nick Timothy, in The Telegraph wrote a piece entitled ‘Multiculturalism is becoming a Trojan Horse for Islamist domination’. Who is right, or are they both wrong?
From the point of view of Muslim schoolteacher Ms Asbali, praying five times a day does not diminish her Britishness, but she sees Birbalsingh (who incidentally was born in New Zealand, brought up in Toronto and is not white) as ‘a symptom of a state that seeks to promote a version of Britishness that is monolithic and absolute’. She has every sympathy with the child (or possibly its parents) bringing the court case who argues that the prayer ban is ‘discriminatory’, as Muslims are expected to pray visibly (whereas Christians can pray in silence), and no prayer room is provided. Some 30 or so students had started putting blazers down on the playground for prayer and apparently not only putting pressure on other Muslim students to do the same (half the school’s 700 pupils are Muslim), but threatening and intimidating pupils and staff. The school considered that this was damaging social cohesion and ‘dividing‘ the students, resulting in the decision by the school governors to implement the ban.
The student in question had already been in trouble, after being accused of intimidating other Muslim pupils who did not fast during Ramadan, and had also been suspended for allegedly threatening to stab another pupil (which she denied). The law firm taking the case has not been named, but the barrister appointed is from Matrix Chambers, a human rights practice co-founded by Cherie Blair. According to The National Secular Society, ‘Community schools are generally secular and inclusive, they may be referred to as non-religious or even secular schools. In theory religious groups have no special role in running them and they should be entirely free from religious discrimination’. The Muslim Council of Britain has campaigned for spaces in schools to be given over to Muslim Prayer sessions and argues that not to do so is effectively discrimination, even where, as in the case of Michaela, the prayer ban extends to all religions. Our laws, especially equality and human rights laws, appear to allow activists and extremists to manipulate our institutions and our society into acceding to their demands. This will fundamentally undermine and change the very nature of our culture. As workplaces and public services have succumbed to political correctness and American critical race theory has infiltrated corporate life as well as public services, should we perhaps take note from Birbalsingh’s steadfast stance on the importance of ‘our country’? Birbalsingh says she asks pupils from all backgrounds to make sacrifices so all can live in harmony. “Our school must be a place,” she explains, “where children of all races and religions buy into something they all share and is bigger than ourselves: our country.” Nick Timothy puts the view that activists and their facilitators however demand that we ‘must treat people differently, in order to respect their beliefs and achieve equality not of opportunity but of outcome’.
A number of other instances illustrate the pressure put on schools by Muslim parents and activists. There is the case of Barclay School in the East End of London which was said to be considering reverting to online learning after bomb threats in a row over alleged ‘Islamophobia’. The row started in December last year after a Palestinian boy claimed he had been bullied and told to remove a pro-Palestinian patch on his clothes. The school banned all patches and flags from the school, but pro-Palestinian protests and seriously intimidating threats directed at staff and the school resulted in the school closing early for Christmas. St Stephens, another East London primary school, was ‘forced’ to rescind its ban on girls (under-11) wearing the hijab. Schools in Birmingham had to deal with protests against sex education, which is part of the National Curriculum, by angry Muslim parents and the teacher at Batley Grammar School who showed a depiction of Muhammad in an RE class in March 2021 is STILL in hiding nearly three years after the event, for fear of violent reprisals from the Islamic community.
The other area where there are major problems in the world of education (and indeed elsewhere) is that of gender. Although the Government finally released its long-awaited draft guidelines on gender-questioning children in December 2023, this was unfortunately not in time to save many educational establishments from having serious struggles with the issue. Nor is the situation helped by some of the opinions emanating from the Church of England (C of E). Only this week parents Sally and Nigel Rowe have written to Justin Welby asking him to withdraw C of E guidance which states inter alia that, “The protected characteristic of gender reassignment only works one way – not being transgender is not a protected characteristic. … Consequently schools can make adjustments to meet the needs of a trans pupil without being accused of discriminating against non-trans pupils.” This statement illustrates all too well Mr Timothy’s point about the demands of activists. It is not seemingly enough that we respect the beliefs of others, but those beliefs apparently need to be elevated over and above beliefs held by the majority (which beliefs many people would regard as being more in line with common sense or indeed the interests of society). Most people wish trans people no ill-will, but do not understand, for example, why the Rowes were told their six-year-old would be deemed transphobic if he did not recognise another boy as a little girl. At another school, it was revealed last week, several young girls were ‘traumatised’ to discover that one of their friends was actually a boy, but that this fact had been hidden from them by the school and the boy’s parents.
The Free Speech Union has this week reported another win for a woman sacked for her gender-critical beliefs. Earlier this month Rachel Meade, another FSU member, won her employment tribunal claim against her ex-employer on the basis that her gender critical views were protected beliefs under the Equality Act 2010. Perhaps the tide is beginning to turn on the imposition of minority views on the largely silent majority. It is surely important that impressionable children should have a clear understanding of the facts of life and biology and not be indoctrinated by activists, like Stonewall, holding very questionable views, which somehow seem to have become doctrine? Children are very influenced by their teachers and what happens at school. It cannot be right to make them question aspects of life which for 99.9 percent of people have never been brought into question. Should individuals, once they have reached adulthood wish to change sex or live a different sort of life, then as long as they are not forcing their views or lifestyle on others, then that is their prerogative. Whilst they are children, schools as well as parents should be giving them boundaries and certainties, which they will of course be entitled to question and almost certainly will. It is surely not the role of teachers or parents to introduce uncertainties, there are enough of those in life.
The success of the Michaela Community School has been achieved using traditional, old-fashioned methods which Ms Birbalsingh, after many years teaching at ‘progressive’ inner-city schools, concluded could produce better results for pupils. She maintains that children of black and ethnic minority backgrounds are not sufficiently taught about British culture or Britishness in schools which has left them feeling “culturally excluded”. Many teachers, she argues, place too much emphasis on the ethnicity of children rather than making them feel part of the country they are growing up in. The impressive GCSE and A ‘level results delivered by her school suggest that more local authorities should perhaps be imitating her. Far from currently having an education system to be proud of, the UK lags behind top performers in the PISA system and our teenagers were found to have among the lowest levels of ‘life satisfaction’. Allowing extremists of whatever persuasion to hold sway over what is taught, how it is taught or how schools are managed is a recipe for failure both in terms of exam results and childrens’ ‘life satisfaction’.