A Place of Wrath and Tears: Some thoughts on the Michaela School Judgment, Part I

This is the first of two pieces by Arzu, on the Michaela School judgment and its context. Almost two weeks ago a pupil lost her high court case in the UK, against the school banning her and other students from praying on site (she and others had been praying in the playground first using prayer mats, which were confiscated and then using their blazers).

If you pass by Michaela School you will see in (one of) its playground(s) large signs in purple and yellow. At least two carry the final lines of the poem ‘Invictus‘ by William Ernest Henley:

I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

Nothing could be more ironic.

It appears that students at Michaela are not or no longer captains of their own souls – the school, quite literally, is.* Other students interviewed by the BBC explained how the ban made them feel:


“Once I did find out about the prayer ban, I felt like the school had stripped me and other students of my Islamic identity,..”

“I felt belittled and that I had to somewhat change who I was in order to fit in because it’s like they made it seem that being overtly Muslim was non-British or toxic. So I could never really be true to myself.”

“School is stressful and prayer was the only time I got to just connect to God and just find peace and connect to myself again, and it helped me with my learning – the fact that I couldn’t pray any more, it honestly did more bad than good…That absolutely just made me just dread going to school.”


These are just some of the comments.  Michaela has been controversial over the tenish years of its existence for many reasons, and this type of control over the emotional and mental space of their students is just one of them.  In the guise of creating better academic standards and better manners any number of restrictive measures are the norm of school life.  This from Time magazine is just a snippet:

“The school’s 484 pupils study in an atmosphere of rigid austerity. ‘Demerits’ are given out for the slightest errors: forgetting a pen, slouching, turning to look out of a window during a lesson. Two demerits in one class equals a detention. “That’s another demerit… you’re too disorganized,” an English teacher tells one girl who’s struggled to find her textbook in the allocated ten seconds.”



“The transition between classes is also timed, and completely silent. A black line runs down the center of the corridor carpets, and children are expected to silently proceed either side to their next classes. Eagle-eyed teachers stand ready to reprimand those who walk too slowly. Every detail is designed to maximize the amount of learning time. In the student bathrooms, there are no mirrors, lest they distract the students.”


In this case that control has specific anti-Muslim bias.  In many ways the culture of strictness that Michaela is in some circles hailed for, has much wider ramifications.  This case is about more than discrimination against Muslim students who want to pray.  It is not simply an Islamophobic policy working in a vacuum.  It plays to a public audience acculturalized to anti-Muslim narratives, and helps perpetuate institutional Islamophobia and other racisms in educational settings.

It is also, crucially about the shrinking of political space and (ironscally again) the embedding and normalising of deeply ideological projects in education – all without the safeguards and oversight (with all its flaws) of the maintained / traditional educational sector in the UK.


A bit about Michaela

Michaela – for my non-UK friends – is a school infamous as the shining example of a ‘free school’, run by the country’s strictest headteacher Katherine Birbalsingh. The free school model is a deeply ideological project from Michael Gove, that sought to overhaul UK education. More on Michael Gove here, here, and here.

This overhaul was supposed to deliver freedom for disenchanted teachers (like Birbalsingh whose 2010 Tory party conference speech attacked alleged ‘leftist’ culture in school, ‘well meaning liberals’, teachers’ alleged fear of accusations of racism and vilified black boys to boot) parents and interested groups, to set up schools outside the state system that would be able to innovate and create a culture of better results, higher standards and the arresting of what is now termed ‘woke culture’ from being institutionalised in schools.



Despite what sounds like a project (and was pitched to a conservative audience) as providing an alternative to ideological hegemony in state school spaces, indoctrination and dogma, all the while providing a ‘neutral’ space that delivers high academic achievement, what we get is in fact the opening of space for peak ideological projects.

This piece looks at the failures of the free school project ten years down the line.  For more detailed critique of the free school project, Fiona Millar is a good place to start.


Free Schools for Muslims? A Good Thing, No?

Yes, many Muslim schools opened or tried to under this model.  A combination of the problems associated with the ‘free school’ model: lack of adequate funding, lack of qualifications of staff and leadership, and yes some of the Islamophobia evidenced by Ofsted and the Department for Education, these were often ‘unsuccessful’.

The wider narrative regarding these schools however utilised Islamophobic tropes to justify educational projects that restricted minoritised communities expressions of identity, whether faith, dress or otherwise: school takeovers by ‘extremist Muslims’ as demonsied in the Trojan Hoax affair, diminishing of British culture and values as a result of the promotion of Muslim rights (prayer, hijab, recognition of Eid etc).  Just read the head of Michaela School’s post-judgment statement, all of the tropes are unashamedly there.


It’s literally gleeful.  Ministers have piled on in similar terms.  Kemi Badenoch, the Minister for Business and Trade, has employed some of the worst stereotyping in her support of the school and the judgment:

“This ruling is a victory against activists trying to subvert our public institutions. No pupil has the right to impose their views on an entire school community in this way. The Equality Act is a shield, not a sword and teachers must not be threatened into submission.”

Teachers, the entire school and public institutions need shielding from one Muslim pupil (and in Birbalsingh’s narrative, her mother)!  It is an extraordinary claim, the illogic of which should be laughed at.  Except this is mainstream.

Free schools, as with other educational projects related to Michael Gove, were a way of breaking the stranglehold of ‘woke’ (read pro-Muslim) ideology and indoctrination in the mainstream, and opening the education system to the market, with free schools (stemming from the previous government’s academy school policy) just another way of opening up the sector to privatisation.  All the while so-called ‘leftist’ ideas within the national curriculum were attacked with advisers brought in to e.g. restore the prestige of the British Empire into the national curriculum, the latter in any case not to be imposed on academies and free schools*.


Neither needed or wanted

The Michaela Community School was parachuted in (as it now appears many free schools have been) into an area that did not want or need it, according to local education activists and educators.

Michaela was in many ways a laboratory experiment of how to set up the vision of a free school, now turned laboratory to experiment on how to ‘manage’ diverse student populations.  The framing of the court judgment in the school’s favour will make a recourse for other school leadership with less than egalitarian views when it comes to racialised minorities, working with a societal culture that increasingly demands curtailment of expressions of Muslimness – real or perceived.

The debacle around alleged advice received from the Islamic Cultural Centre in London about qada prayers (prayers made in lieu of those missed at the prescribed time), is a further signifier of how controlling expressions of Muslimness has become a state preoccupation.  As Faisal Bodi points out in an excellent thread:

“This is all part of a deliberate policy to socially engineer a secularised and state-conformist Muslim community A key tool in that effort is to tell Muslims how they should practice their own faith, in effect defining Islam for them.”



Research on free schools from the Educational Policy Institute has been damning:

“… when free schools were established in deprived areas, these were in places where pupils were already performing well, rather than in “challenged white communities”, where educational outcomes are lower…”


“Even when free schools were in poorer areas, they did not always admit the most disadvantaged pupils. On average they have fewer children eligible for free school meals than their local communities.”


The promotion of Michaela as an exemplar in a sea of otherwise floundering and increasingly unheard of free schools, hides the litany of controversies that have followed it around: from the actual safety of the school building to the political and ideological links the head teacher has with the right of the Conservative party, particularly Michael Gove.


Quality Control versus Ideological Control

On the issue of quality control a former head teacher attending Brent Council’s consultation on the school before it opened, reported on how headteachers, including Birbalsingh, are appointed:

“When I asked about the appointment of [her] as headteacher of the school and the process involved I was told that Katharine was the proposer of the free school so she was the headteacher – ‘That’s the way it goes with a free school’.”

“When I asked, therefore, what quality control there was of the appointment, given the rigorous procedures involved in the appointment of headteachers in the maintained sector, I was told that the free school application had been ‘vetted’  by the DfE.”


An interview with the then Deputy Head Jonathan Porter in Time magazine, reported that he was (in 2018) just 28 years of age, a Cambridge graduate who attended Oundle, a prestigious U.K. private school:

“Like the majority of Michaela’s staff, he is young, charismatic, and filled with a kind of religious zeal when it comes to Michaela’s ethos. “We’re certainly all evangelical,” Porter says.”

Also in the same piece, Porter explains that the:

“…school’s strict rules allow “pupils to be free, to be truly free” to learn.”

The article picks up on the ‘evangelical’ – or ideological – zeal from staff over and over again:

“The school has produced a book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, which sets out the “brave new world” Michaela promotes. Throughout my interview with Birbalsingh, she repeatedly refers to the need to “spread the word.””

Reports from inside the school over the years however see the culture as ‘toxic’.  The BBC article quoted at the outset of this piece struck me, as it applies across the board and has been a frequent criticism coming from students past and present. More from ‘Sarah’ one of the two students interviewed:

“Sarah said day-to-day life at the school was stressful and detentions for “silly mistakes” were common, adding any obedience from pupils came “from fear rather than the children actually wanting to learn”.”



Back to Invictus and its (lack of) relevance to Michaela Community School.  You may remember the film of that name, referencing the fact that Nelson Mandela found strength and succour in this poem during his incarceration on Robben Island.

There are of course the Invictus Games also which take their name form the poem.  A poem about overcoming adversity, of asserting your individual worth.

Birbalsingh, in her defence of the ban, spoke repeatedly about the school’s ethos being one of making children see the need to sacrifice for the sake of the whole.  How banning prayer, an individual act of spiritual communion could threaten the whole – never mind the fact that half the school are in fact Muslim – is still not clear to me and many others.

Instead it seems that the suffering and adversity that Invictus refers to is in fact being inflicted on students by the culture of silence and silencing of individuals and groups, whether as students, Muslims or other.

The school seems to push for the very opposite of mastery of one’s fate, or indeed captaining one’s soul, with the strictness of the regime promoted as its USP and key to its ‘success’.

Invictus means unconquered.  I live in hope that this struggle for student rights will be victorious.

Meanwhile, I noticed at least one of those signs was part dismantled last week.  Was it weather damage, or did the school realise it was sowing the seeds of its own end in the words of W.E. Henley?*

Here is a link to the full poem

The full final two stanzas below:


Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.


Michaela School Judgment

* My second piece will go into that in more detail on that culture regarding education, the Trojan Horse affair, the crushing of expectations for Muslims in the British education system and the instrumentalization of Islamophobic narratives to engineer the British educational system.

Arzu Merali is a writer and researcher, who has specialised in studying Islamophobia and its narratives in UK, North American and European settings.

Photo of Michael Gove from Policy Exchange CC 2.0, photo of Katherine Birbalsingh from Wikimedia, CC2.0


* This article was updated on 30 April 2024 to reflect the following information contained in this thread on X / Twitter