allowing for religious diversity in education is a tradition in England

A Muslim student at Michaela School in London has lost her High Court challenge against the school’s ban on prayer rituals. The school argued that the ban was put in place to avoid prayers “undermining inclusion”.

The school’s headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, described the ruling as “a victory for all schools”. She argued that:

Schools that are secular and multicultural must be allowed the same right that religious schools have: the right to unity, the right to reject division, the right to not have the black group, the Hindu group, the Muslim group, the LGBT group etc.

These statements present a problematic view about what is meant by “inclusion”. Refusing to accommodate the needs of religious groups at a school does not automatically create inclusivity.

Birbalsingh describes her school as having “traditional values”. But permitting religious diversity is a tradition in education in England. The needs of religious minorities have been quietly accommodated in schools for more than a century.

Understanding secularism

The “secularism” that Birbalsingh invokes is, I would argue, culturally and historically Christian, meaning that the needs of Anglicans and of many Christians are often accommodated by default.

Michaela School has two-week holidays over the Christmas and Easter periods, and names them for these Christian festivals. The school week is Monday to Friday, which does not impinge upon the Christian day of rest. This is a version of secularism that benefits the members of one religion but not another.

On X (formerly Twitter) Birbalsingh has said: “We allow religion at Michaela. Be clear: we stop anything (religious or not) that undermines the unity, ethos or practicalities of the school.”

This places the school in the role of gatekeeper about what is and is not an acceptable expression of religious identity.

When someone from a religious minority asks to have needs accommodated, such as the right to pray, it holds up a mirror to our conception of our society as secular and progressive and finds the reflection wanting. The reflection shows a society that may describe itself as secular, but which has many of the organisational, cultural and aesthetic trappings of its Christian heritage.

The school’s concerns over inclusion are reminiscent of arguments made in the 1980s and 1990s over applications from Muslim schools for the same state funding available to Christian and Jewish schools. When the Islamia School, a Muslim faith school in the London Borough of Brent, sought state funding in the 1980s, The Times expressed concerns that this would lead to the “further alienation of the Muslim community”.

Read more:
The school Cat Stevens built: how Conservative politicians opposed funding for Muslim schools in England

This vision of inclusion ignores the long history in English education of accommodating religious minority needs. From 1833, the government began subsidising education with building grants for Anglican schools. Within 20 years such funds were extended to Catholic, Wesleyan and Jewish schools. The state’s burgeoning financial involvement in education was accompanied by a pluralist approach to minority religions and denominations.

Matters of conscience

The 1870 Forster Education Act, the first major education act for England and Wales, enshrined the right to difference of religions within the legal educational framework. It contained a conscience clause, allowing non-Anglican parents to withdraw their children from religious instruction.

The end of Empire and the 1948 Nationality Act brought migrants to Britain from the Indian subcontinent. By the mid-1960s, Muslim children began to appear in schools in sufficient numbers that they were able to campaign collectively for the accommodation of their needs. And since the 1960s local education authorities and schools have accommodated Muslim needs within the same framework as those of Jews and Catholics.

In 1967, girls at the Moat Girls School in Leicester were given permission to wear the shalwar kameez – traditional dress of trousers and tunic – “on religious grounds” after an initial dispute between parents and the school. The Times quoted a statement from the governors who said that they were “concerned to maintain the religious tolerance which is traditional in this country”.

Arguments in favour of a tradition of tolerance were also raised in correspondence to the Leicester Mercury. One letter argued that in banning the shalwar kameez the headmistress would be “interfering with the principle of religious liberty so vital to English society”, comparing it to “Catholics being unable to withdraw their children from morning assembly or rosaries being banned in state schools”. Another letter asked: “why cannot a little tolerance be shown on this issue?”

Birbalsingh’s statement says that “our traditional values create a school environment that is a joy to be in”. She says that since the school’s inception, “our detractors have railed against our strict rules and traditional values”.

The examples above demonstrate that Birbalsingh’s invocation of “tradition” as a value of her school is flawed. Historically, there has been a tradition of accommodating religious need, not in all schools and not all the time, but enough that we should take notice of it.

The accommodation of difference is necessary in a country that may perceive itself as secular but is still officially Christian. Such accommodation does not undermine inclusion, it enhances it.

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