Telling Tales of the ‘British’ Nation: The Michaela School Moment and the End of Minority Rights

Arzu Merali looks at how the Michaela School judgment fits into new narratives of nation in the UK, and how it heralds the collapse of minority rights norms. [This article was first published on 22 May 2024 in The Long View journal.  Read the full issue here]

Who gets to explain what Britain is? A country supposedly with some of the highest levels of soft power in the world – there is an idea (fiction?) that the UK is a land of equality. It is internalised and celebrated in many parts of the world. How its institutions work is still perceived elsewhere to follow what Arun Kundnani described to the Counternarratives to Islamophobia project in 2018 as the ‘very simple equality and multiculturalism story that is in a way the official, liberal, tolerance argument that’s been there in British society for some time as the official way of thinking about race.’ This, notwithstanding the declarations of politicians and the media since 2011, is the myth that persists.

This is the story projected about ‘race’ to the outside world. Britain, the country where people of non-‘white’ heritage (even Muslims) can hold the highest offices of state. Where girls can wear hijab to school, and celebrity chefs adorn the same. This story, told from the inside, is very different. Reading deeper, we find characters and events that have been directing the narrative, creating a dystopia by demonising the minoritized.

Into the character list comes Katherine Birbalsingh, the supposedly strictest headteacher in the world, and the school she heads, Michaela. The school hit the headlines recently when a High Court judge sided with the headteacher after she decided to ban praying. This was in response to Muslim students performing one of their obligatory prayers in the playground. The school’s leadership and its prominent political and media supporters hailed the decision as protecting the values of the ‘majority’. What is it that the majority needs protecting from? Moral panics abound – Islamification of education and society, terrorism. It matters not what those demonised say. Theirs is not (part) of the accepted story

Students from Michaela, interviewed by the BBC, have stated their feelings about the ban:

“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.”

Whilst on record on the BBC website, this part of the Michaela story has not found recognition in law or praxis. How those feelings expressed by students, or their need to pray, can be a threat to majority society is never explained. Instead, it is the tale(s) told by Birbalsingh and her political connections like Michael Gove and Suella Braverman, right leaning think tanks like Policy Exchange et al. that currently hold the public imagination.

When looking for the ten key counternarratives to Islamophobia in the UK, the Counter Narratives project undertaken by IHRC and partners across Europe, identified the need for a rewriting of the story of the nation. In the UK, academics noted that the UK is more plural today, and that requires a national conversation that includes many voices. Many of those interviewed, whether academics, activists or artists came back to the idea of the story of the nation. Whilst Britishness as a monolithic ethnic, religious and cultural identity has become a narrative of the last decade and a half, the actual makeup (now or even historically) of the state that is the United Kingdom does not reflect in religious, ethnic, class or cultural terms the narrative being propounded.

The Michaela (School) moment is but one of many education-related scandals across decades. In these ‘scandals’ toxic narratives about Muslims became part of legal and policy language and praxis. They also become part of a vociferous storifying of Britain as a nation. A story where British values are being valiantly imposed in education, across wider culture and through law even, because there are those bent on either dividing the nation or worse, taking it over. These stories of nation do not have a good heritage: one nation was the cry of Isabella and Ferdinand as they expelled and murdered Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula 500 years ago. This was the birth of the ‘nation’ state, and so many iterations subsequently have seen those in power or seeking it, minoritize, marginalise and expel the undesirables. It takes many forms: banning and burning books, ghettoising, enacting second class citizenship openly and by stealth. Concentration camps. All of these measures require a story to justify them, and the narratives currently in play in the UK, involve the denial of plurality that is a feature of this type of ‘nation’ building.

Narratives of minority rights were developed in the wake of the Second World War with the purpose of preventing another mass genocide. Those measures include protected rights for minority children in education: the ability of minority parents to choose the type of schooling their children have and to be able to offer them schooling that caters to their needs; linguistic, religious, cultural. The language of the UK’s own Human Rights Acts 1998 state that parents have the right to ensure their children’s education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. The school’s ban and the judgment in support not only highlights structural bias in the legal system, it unravels the reasoning for minority rights.

The demonised focus on Muslims that will be recounted below – from politicians, think tanks, advisers, media and the legal system – has its own purposes. This includes both the targeting of possible dissent but also innovations and transformation based on new / old ideas whether from Muslims (and Islam), Marxists, or others deemed undesirable. They also provide distraction from the wider crises in British society. The stories being told about Muslims are not only often not true, or highly biased, thus justifying punitive measures against Muslim communities, they are camouflage for system change measures. Meanwhile, the marginalised, are both battling the narratives used against them, but also trying to integrate by making the other narratives about equality, choice in education work for them in the way our national myths of equality imply. Yet in trying to do the latter, Muslims have been exposed to even more accusations of the former.

The battle for British education

To understand how this works: we have to start with an explanation of the politics of ‘free schools’ in the wider context of schooling in the UK and the ideological attacks on the sector from the successive governments. Even without the furore about multiculturalism, Muslims, wokeism etc, this would still be a sector of crisis: draining government coffers; ideological interventions from successive governments across the blue-red divide; power struggles between local authorities and central government.

In 1976, then Prime Minister James Callaghan prompted the ‘Great Debate’ about the nature and purpose of public education. As educational journalist Fiona Millar argues, this was: “widely seen as a challenge to the “secret garden” of the education world; a place inhabited by unaccountable teachers, a nebulous curriculum and most definitely off limits for the political classes of the time.”

Millar (writing in 2013) describes the shift since as one where ‘the balance of power between schools and Whitehall’ has entirely shifted, with central government in the 1970s having a handful of powers over schools. The Secretary of State for Education now has over 2000, covering everything from teacher standards to the national curriculum to the location of new schools. More controversial, she states, is who runs schools now:

“Once upon a time, this was essentially the preserve of councils and the established churches, whose role in state education goes back decades. Today almost anyone but a local authority can open a school.”

Extraordinarily this shift from local physical and financial control and oversight to the centre, has also meant a shift of ideological control from educational professionals to government[1]. This latter, means non-educational specialists, a network of advisers and think tanks are advising ministers, in what academic Sonia Exley describes as an:

“extensive and growing national and international sprawl of think tank, research and ‘knowledge actor’ (Stone, 2000) sites of education policy activity. Such activity takes place in parallel and in the shadow of government reform and it has supplanted a more traditional civil service reliance on academic policy expertise.”

In current times this includes right leaning think tanks like Policy Exchange, Reform and the Taxpayers Alliance, some of which also promote anti-Islam narratives and advocate for crackdowns on Muslim civil society. It is worth noting that one of the founders of Policy Exchange was Michael Gove.

Demonising narratives about the leftists imposing inappropriate politics and ideologies on unsuspecting British youth pre-exist the current panic about Muslims ‘Islamifying’ schools. These narratives have been used to justify seismic changes in how education is delivered, its content and the institutions that provide and oversee it. At the same time, a supposedly empowering narrative about ‘parental choice’ has been deployed. It was levied by Ministers and their advisers as a tool of social empowerment, and as a corrective to the corrupting power of the ‘loony left’[ii] in education. Both narratives mask the existence and role of educational ideology channelled between think tanks and ministers (personnel of which are often interchangeable).

When New Labour took office in 1997, a key election mantra was ‘Education, Education, Education’, based on the concern that the UK’s school standards were falling behind its competitors, and that schools in areas of disadvantage were out of control.

Enter academy schools, academisation and free schools. Academy schools were introduced by New Labour, and have been described as the ‘most radical and encompassing programmes of school reform seen in a developed country’. Whilst still considered state schools and publicly funded, they are managed by a private team of independent co-sponsors. Those sponsors delegate management of the school to a largely self-appointed board of governors. They in turn have responsibility for employing all staff, setting pay and conditions of service, discipline codes, performance management etc.

Today some 80% of secondary schools (age 11+) and 40% of primary schools (ages 4 – 11) are academies [iii]. Whilst many schools volunteered to become academies, the government accrued powers to itself along the way to force academisation onto schools deemed to be underperforming. Many of these are part of Multi Academy Trusts – chains in effect – run by non-profit organisations.

Allowing not-for-profit organisations to get involved in the educational sector was supposed to help deliver innovation by bringing in business and other sector competencies to secure better, nay, transformed futures for the nation’s children. It is worth noting that the schools caught up in the Trojan Horse (hereafter referred to as the Trojan Hoax) affair, were schools whose leadership teams (including parent governors and teachers) had brought ‘turned around’ failing schools into the academy system, and who were lauded by government at one point and encouraged to take over other schools as part of the academisation model.

The profiles of the board of Ark Schools, which oversees 34 academy schools, provides some insight into the new regime. Five out of eight members are hedge fund managers. None has any background in education. One of the original board of managers for Ark Schools is Amanda Spielmann. In 2016 she was appointed Chief Inspector of Schools in the UK. She too has no background in education.

Free for whom? The Free Schools movement and Muslims

The media and policy narratives around ‘free schools’ also had a faintly familiar ring. No longer talking about the ‘loony left’, the word woke has now entered the discourse. Not solely related to Muslims, it nevertheless provides cover for those who would argue that minority rights – especially those of Muslims – are egregious demands made to the detriment of the majority, as opposed to basic requirements for a cohesive and equal society. Kemi Badenoch, the minister for business and trade invoked this in her post-Michaela comments: “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.”

‘Free schools’ are the Conservative party – or more specifically Michael Gove’s contribution to system changes in education. All free schools are academies. They are set up from scratch, and unlike other academies, do not need to follow the national curriculum. Further, and more radically still, any of the following can set up a ‘free school’:

• charities
• universities
• independent schools
• community and faith groups
• teachers
• parents
• businesses

It is important to understand that other critiques ran alongside those of educational and professional. Racialised communities (including those racialised by faith), were amongst the most aggrieved. Now living several generations in the UK, they found themselves at the lower end of educational achievement not because lack of aspiration, but of where they found themselves living and the state of the schools in those areas. Add to this structural discrimination that set minoritized children at a disadvantage across the schooling system: profiling by teachers, lack of awareness or hostility to cultural and faith practices; gendered and racialised stereotyping in the curriculum etc. Then add peer pressure, hatred and often violence. For many, school was not a happy place, nor a route to social mobility. Their parents wanted change, and this manifested in different demands: from adapted school uniforms and space to pray in mainstream schools, to state funding for Muslim schools (as was already provided to many Christian and Jewish schools).

Michael Gove has held various ministerial positions since 2010, including the position of Minister for Education from 2010 – 14. He was deeply unpopular with the teaching profession not least because of his ideological zeal when it came to education. US watching readers of this piece will have noticed similarities between the free school and charter school movement. These are not coincidental with the former seen to be inspired by the latter. Likewise, the attack on ‘woke’ and the culture wars run parallel in both countries. However, the genesis of ‘anti-wokeism’ in the US can be largely traced to the Christian right. In the UK, it is figures like Gove who have championed it. Gove – though firmly of the right – does not hail from a ‘religious’ tradition. He did however wax lyrical about ‘Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools’, and has set his ideological stall as ‘traditionalist’ education. This type of education is something that Michaela School is supposed to excel at; a focus on love of country, the teaching of English writers and English history before all else. Professor of Education, David Buckingham, in his review of one of Birbalsingh’s books about Michaela describes her as an:

“outspoken crusader[s] against this ‘progressive’ educational orthodoxy… she described herself as leading a ‘revolution in education’:.. Birbalsingh claims to be non-political… but to judge from the interactions on Twitter, and from the comments on YouTube, her following is heavily dominated by the far right, and the so-called ‘anti-woke’ movement.”

Citing the book he continues his description:

“However, there is also a clear political agenda… based on a particular reading of recent (British) history, which sees it as a narrative of moral and cultural decline. In this account, discipline, tradition, morality, national culture and social cohesion have allegedly been undermined by a form of ideological perversion. Apparently, modern Britain has lost its sense of patriotism and national pride: ‘our songs, stories and history have been sidelined’. There are too many people in modern Britain ‘who appear to believe that rights are not always mirrored by responsibilities’. There is too much emphasis on ‘diversity’ – on the things that divide us, rather than those which unite us; and this has resulted in a form of ‘debilitating collective ignorance’.

“By contrast, at Michaela pupils are required to sing patriotic songs (‘God Save the Queen’, ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’), to wear poppies and celebrate the Queen’s birthday, and to support the England team at football. This form of patriotism, we are told, is a source of ‘uplifting unity’. Likewise, according to the Michaela Way, ‘powerful knowledge’ means a particular selection of British knowledge. The role of the curriculum is to prepare pupils for life in ‘our’ country, and to cultivate a sense of national pride…

“This is clearly not a multicultural, diverse notion of Britishness (or indeed Englishness); nor is it simply a matter of ‘knowledge-based’ teaching. On the contrary, it is about inculcating a particular nationalist political ideology – and doing so at a time when this is being asserted in the wider world in ever more vicious and racist terms.”

This ideological project controls political narrative about the domestic but also the international. Birbalsingh’s friendships and alliances include Gove, but also other doyennes of the right like Suella Braverman (a recent Home Secretary and like Gove a notorious Zionist). Gove – whose anti-Islam philosophy was set out in his book Celsius 7/7 – was the initiator of the Trojan Hoax witch-hunt against Muslim teachers and governors in Birmingham. Braverman is a co-founder of the Michaela school and was from its inception until 2018 the chair of the Board of Governors. There are ever-decreasing circles of figures involved in telling this story: depicting themselves as the brave warriors against ‘wokeness’ and ‘Muslimness’. Simon Vessey explains this network of think tankers, ministers and Birbalsingh in detail for Media Diversified, in his piece, ‘The Real Trojan Horse Affair.’

Muslim parents, students and groups found themselves on the wrong side of the free school argument. Ironically, many Muslim and other faith community groups found some sympathy with the idea of ‘traditionalism’ in teaching. From issues as diverse as mathematics teaching methods to the teaching of queer sexualities in social education classes, they were a natural fit for the free schools agenda.

Any expectation that the methods, funding and educational space afforded by free schools could be applied to Muslims however were misplaced. Practically, attempts often failed and were denigrated using Islamophobic terms. Claims about gender segregation were often levelled against Muslim free schools in the media and by Ofsted, with claims coming that this had no place in the UK. This was particularly galling given than gender segregated education exists outside faith settings, and that Michael Gove’s daughter was sent to one such school. Further, despite the supposed opt out from the national curriculum, free schools are in many ways less free than local council schools when it comes to their ideology. They are under the direct supervision and control of the Department of Education, and are inspected by the same inspectorate as all other schools, an inspectorate charged with being institutionally Islamophobic by teaching unions and reported to have been recruiting staff on the basis that their number one priority is to challenge ‘woke nonsense’.

Narratives supplant evidence: Where the tropes go

Tweeting on the Michaela judgment, solicitor Zillur Rahman noted that much trust was put in Birbalsingh’s accounts without corroborating evidence. Narratives supplant evidence. The judge did not question her story. Thus, two of the most prevalent Islamophobic tropes were further institutionalised: Islam and Muslims opposing ‘British values’; and Muslims attempting to foist their beliefs through intimidation and violence onto others.

It is a rerun of the tropes used in Trojan Hoax: school takeovers by ‘extremist Muslims’; Islamification of schools; diminishing of British culture and values as a result of the promotion of Muslim rights (prayer, hijab, recognition of Eid etc). Just read Birbalsingh’s post-judgment statement, all of the tropes are unashamedly there. Various ministers and politicians released similar statements. Mainstream media commentary took their cues accordingly.

A non-exhaustive look at the 2010s reveals more examples. There was the proclamation by the head of Oftsed, Amanda Spielman (remember her?) that Muslim girls wearing hijab were being sexualised and thus a school banning the hijab was correct to do so. Also the claims of erstwhile Prime Minister David Cameron, that Muslim women lacked basic English skills leading to their exclusion from the labour market (not discrimination) and their children being radicalised by Daesh. This idea of Muslim (women’s) lack of education runs against endless research, but still exists as a narrative, providing grist to the mill of misrepresentation. Even Sajid Javid MP, whilst a minister (the Communities Secretary no less) reiterated the ‘finding’ of the Casey Review in 2016, that it was Muslim women in particular and the Muslim community more generally who were responsible for the lack of integration into the workplace (read lower employment numbers) of Muslim women.

Set this last announcement and everything stemming from it in the context of reports, that the institutionalising of such tropes in careers advice has resulted in school staff and careers officers steering girls away from certain professions or failing to give proper advice, to refusing to give references for university courses. In one particularly brutal case received by IHRC, a sixth former was denied a reference to study medicine despite being predicted 4 A* at A-Level, and despite both her parents being doctors. The reason given by the school when challenged was that she would probably just leave the profession and get married and have children in a few years anyway.

Let’s go back even further and the comments of the (then infamous,) Bradford headteacher Ray Honeyford whose diatribes against the incompatibility of ‘Asian’ and ‘West Indian’ cultures to British school and society, cost him his job in the 1980s. His incendiary writings included the idea of a conspiracy by Asians to ‘produce Asian ghettoes’ and their ‘value system’ (as opposed to a perceived British system) and that there was a “an influential group of black intellectuals of aggressive disposition, who know little of the British traditions of understatement, civilised discourse and respect for reason”.

The ghost of Honeyford can be found in Trojan Hoax and in the Michaela case. Whilst contemporary politics eventually saw Honeyford discredited, he is posthumously being celebrated. The Salisbury Review, which printed Honeyford’s piece cited above, wrote in 2006, that it “salutes Mr Honeyford’s courage and intellectual integrity, which has been so clearly vindicated by recent events”. The Daily Telegraph reprinted the full piece. Once a villain in popular understanding, Honeyford is now a hero of the anti-woke crusade.

What does the majority offer that needs protecting?

As with the Michaela case, narratives become ‘truth’. Actual evidence is either never sought or is disregarded. The ‘recent events’ averred to by The Salisbury Review of 2006 include virulent political and media campaigns against Muslims as failing to integrate. Schools with large populations of Muslim students were targeted as fostering this ‘segregation’ physical and ideological, and of promoting values alien to `British society’. To prove the point, the government commissioned a study from the University of Lancaster. The study involved three schools: one which was almost entirely white; one predominantly Asian Muslim and one mixed. The authors found that:

“The all-White school is unable by itself to overcome the entrenched White extremism that is mediated through the family, the peer group and the enclave. This strongly suggests that in towns with sizeable ethnic minorities, unless White young people are exposed during their school careers to fellow pupils of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, attitudes of White superiority and hostility towards those of other cultures are unlikely to be ameliorated and smouldering resentments will continue into adult life. Enclavisation, however, assists the development of liberal and integrative attitudes among young Asian/Muslim people by providing an oasis of liberality in a strong and cohesive sub- community.” (Billings and Holden, 2008: 4)

As one of the report authors noted: ‘We have discovered a lot of findings that challenge those assumptions that Muslims are a problem.’ Needless to say, there was little media coverage. Instead of being vindicated, Muslims continued to be stigmatised.

The Trojan Hoax affair, coming seven years later, saw these unchecked tropes weaponised by various actors, starting with Michael Gove. Using the pretext of a fake letter claiming an Islamic takeover of schools in Birmingham, several schools and key members of their leadership teams, teachers and parent governors were labelled extremists, several enquiries were launched and disciplinary procedures and punitive measures brought against those targeted. Yet again, the idea that these schools were incubators for ‘extremist’ ‘anti-British’ ‘Islamic’ ideas was peddled. Their ‘evidence’ was the changes brought in by teachers and governors: school assemblies that reflected the faith of the majority of students, prayer spaces, sympathetic uniforms. The evidence actually showed these measures to be uncontroversial, with assemblies in particular being entirely consistent with government guidance. Instead, a narrative using those facts was deployed as evidence of an ‘Islamic conspiracy’. As the late former London Schools Commissioner and chief education officer for Oxfordshire and Birmingham, Sir Tim Brighouse wrote about the affair:

“…the arrival of academies and free schools has created an open season for lay people and professionals keen to pursue their own eccentric ideas about schooling: and when trust or governor vacancies occur, some perpetuate the very English tradition of inviting friends to join them. When the community is white it doesn’t cause much comment. In mono-ethnic east Birmingham, however, it is seen as a Muslim plot to expose pupils to an undefined “extremism”.”

Thus Muslims undertaking what other (read white, English) parents undertake in order to better their children’s educational circumstances, is pathologized. There is neither equality of opportunity here, or indeed any logic to the criticisms levelled at those involved. But then racism has no logic.

Shrinking spaces: No more expectations

Trojan Hoax showed what happens when Muslims try to make real the opportunities on offer to them as supposedly equal citizens of the UK. Professor John Holmwood and Dr. Therese O’Toole describe the affair in their book Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair, as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in recent British history. Teachers not only lost their jobs, many were banned from teaching. Likewise, parent governors. The schools themselves, with new leadership teams, all sank in standards. The case of teachers that went to tribunal collapsed as a result of malpractice by lawyers acting for the government who had failed to disclose evidence relevant to the defence, persistent misleading of the panel as to the true state of affairs, and the final refusal by the senior solicitor responsible to attend and explain her actions. In short, they couldn’t back up their story.

Yet this found little media coverage that may have gone towards rehabilitating shattered reputations. Holmwood and O’Toole forensically dismantle the claims made during the affair, much of which took its cue from the enquiry headed by former anti-terrorism police chief, Peter Clarke. Clarke’s report was shoddily put together: statements taken were repeatedly edited and misused. Clarke’s presence reinforced the existing tropes that terrorism was being incubated. Holmwood, in ‘Trojan Horse: A Professional’s View’ delves deep into all the ways the story was written with perverse and even malign intent. The central claim, that the school was ‘too religious’, was corroborated only by opinions (not evidence) expressed by those unhappy with the schools. The accusation in itself was meaningless given that – despite the claims of Gove, Clarke (and currently Birbalsingh et al) – schools in the UK are not secular spaces. In fact collective worship is a requirement, and the option of that reflecting the majority faith of pupils, uncontroversial.

The Trojan Hoax erupted in 2014. This was the year that the Michaela school was launched and the comparisons were readily made between these two versions of education in the UK – the one where Islam was being surreptitiously imported as pedagogy and Muslims were overtaking the system versus the brave new/ old world of Birbalsingh, Gove and the Michaela School.

Expectations: who is allowed to have them?

The generation that has undertaken the effort to access options such as free schooling, or simply to effect paper equalities are primarily aged in their late forties, fifties and perhaps older. Back in 2004, while I was part of the IHRC Muslim Expectations of the Government project, our third volume dealt with Education, and was published during the intense debate on schooling, Muslims and education in 2006. Over 1200 Muslims in the UK were surveyed. Regarding schooling they were asked whether they prefer: a Muslim school; a state school; or the best school. What were the findings and what do they mean?

The choice of Muslim school was the highest, with 47.5% of those surveyed preferring that. However, the option of the ‘best school’ (meaning the best school in an area regardless of its constitution (faith, state, etc) came second with 38.5%. Only 8.5% chose ‘state school’ as their preference. Looking at the responses for those who chose ‘Muslim school’ it seems that parents wanted a school where their children could grow up with confidence. The age group which chose this option in higher proportion was the one at that time aged 30 – 45, the group which had predominantly been born in the UK. The recounting of not so happy experiences at school was the basis of the expectations.

The recommendations from this research included that the state should fund Muslim faith schools in a manner equal to the provision for other faith communities. This however, was a recommendation of equality for Muslim communities, and reciprocity and acknowledgement from the state. In terms of actually delivering educational outcomes for Muslim children, the research proposed mainstream schooling integrate ‘dual spaces’ for students into the system: spaces which are shared, and spaces where faith traditions can also have expression. This was happening already in ad hoc manners for decades with schools offering ‘different’ assembles for Jewish and Muslim students, school uniform adaptations, prayer rooms etc., even before the Human Rights Act of 1998 normalised (in theory) these rights in law. With this type of approach, students could feel safe in their identities, and be able to excel: school becomes a safe place for minoritized identities, education is not a trade-off between faith / culture and opportunity; plurality becomes normalised and functional at an early age. This is basic minority rights.

The end of Minority Rights?

Along with these attacks comes the ever loudening cry of majoritarian rhetoric. In the name of the wider group / larger group, the school / government can impose its values on the whole, and crucially impose restrictions on those minoritized in the discourse. Not even actual minorities but the minoritized: school intake in the Trojan Hoax schools was mainly Muslim. At Michaela, Muslims make up half the school’s intake. Even when they are the largest group, Muslims are not allowed expression of their ‘majority’ status.

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 at a time when monolithic nationalism has become the driving ideology in schooling. The framing of the court judgment in the school’s favour will be a touchstone for other school leaderships with less than egalitarian views. It also propels a societal culture that increasingly demands curtailment of expressions of Muslimness – real or perceived.

(Re)Writing the story of the nation

Myriam François, on these pages, describes the need to write the diversity of the national as a counter to: “the truncated history British schoolchildren are raised on and which – alongside a doggedly resistant whiteness of our public sphere”. For the government not to engage in such practices is self-defeating (if the aim is to secure social cohesion and not to foster hatred as a distraction) when, as François elaborates, any of us, child or not sees that:

“the country which birthed you denies your full existence, forces you into narrow strictures which negate your reality and expect you to toe a line which betrays your humanity, the fireworks are surely inevitable.”

Fireworks or not, there is only so much that affected communities themselves can do to write those stories, tell the tales of their existence, and indeed the tales of what being ‘British’ in all its plurality might and in an everyday sense, be. Online Muslim media – of many varieties – abound. Art and poetry from the next generations, celebrate and critique unashamedly the multiple experiences and identities of our communities. Mosque open days, council – community festivals, Muslim led social projects (soup kitchens, neighbourhood services), present our own version(s) of events, history, society. What is missing is the reciprocity of those who hold the power to make those words writ large. Government, their advisers, friendly media and the legal establishment simultaneously exclude those voices, and undergird each others’ efforts at exclusion. That exclusion – a literal silencing – is only a few steps away from physical silencing. The road has been paved with bans of dress, of teaching, and now praying. How long before books too? I don’t mean Muslim books. Plenty bans of those exist (actual or self-imposed) as a result of the anti-terrorism laws. I mean the other books that will fall foul of the anti-woke crusade, the markers of which will shift as easily as they have for the signifiers of errant Muslimness.

In allowing all sorts of tales to be told about Muslims, the British establishment has created a story of the British nation that should be a concern to every observer who cares about minority rights. With no prospect of this or the next government changing the script, the ending does not seem to be a happy one. Nevertheless, if only for the sake of histories to be written after the fact, we need to continue telling the truth and exposing the lies.

Arzu Merali is a writer and researcher based in London, UK. She is one of the founders of Islamic Human Rights Commission, and headed their research section for a number of years. Follow her on X and Instagram @arzumerali, or read more on her site, arzumerali.com.

[i] A 2022 Education Bill was eventually withdrawn after even former ministers opposed what was widely seen as a power grab by the Department of Education that would cede even more power to the Minister for Education.

[ii] The term ‘loony left’ was prevalent in the press in the 1970s and 1980s and tended to target Labour councils.  An amorphous term it was used to slur individuals and groups (including some councils, the GLA and its then leader, Ken Livingstone) as obsessed with fringe issues, race and anti-racism measures, and support for causes such as Irish republicanism and Palestinian liberation.

[iii] As an interesting side-note, current statistics suggest that remaining council run schools are outperforming academies, calling into question the very reason for academisation in the first place.  See Banfield-Nwachi (2023)