OPINION - Rachel Johnson: We're in the Battle of Britain 2.0 and the Michaela school case proves it

It’s not exactly the Cabinet War Rooms in Whitehall, but another Battle of Britain is being waged almost unaided from a shabby Sixties-era former office block in the shadow of Wembley Stadium.

Unaided, because this battle isn’t being fought by the Department for Education after a teacher in Batley has been in hiding — and will probably never return home — after showing a class a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed. Nor by the Home Office, after the police registered a “hate incident” after four pupils scuffed a copy of the Koran at Kettlethorpe high school. There are other fronts, of course, but for reasons of space and in the interests of general sanity, let’s stick to education here.

As you rattle past the shonky edifice on the Tube, a large sign on the façade reveals the name of this unlikely redoubt of the resistance. Michaela secondary school in Brent. Its foundation is secular, or interfaith. It has small-c conservative values. It cares not if pupils are black, brown, white, male, female, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or identify as cats. They are all treated the same and eat the same vegetarian lunch so the 700-strong pupil body doesn’t shard off into different identity silos.

The entire ethos of the establishment is to be aggressively undivisive, which is just what the country (well, the whole world) needs right now. “Knowledge is Power,” the sign says, and guess what? It turns out that unfashionably standing up to your core belief — that traditional British values can be a vector for achievement and unity in our multi-ethnic rainbow classrooms — turns out to be powerful too. For this week, Katharine Birbalsingh, aka Britain’s strictest head teacher, won a historic victory in the High Court. This came just a year after a girl in Year 9 knelt to pray in the playground on her blazer, and was stopped from doing so (parents and pupils all knew this was against the rules). Then the school banned prayer rituals.

Katharine Birbalsingh’s victory proves that schools only work when everyone coheres to common values

Instead of saying “yes miss” and moving on, this ban led to a petition, bomb threats, racial harassment of teachers, bricks through windows. It has all cost you and me half a million pounds and this is why: the girl sued.

The legal-aided pupil, abetted by Matrix Chambers, argued that the prayer rituals ban was a breach of her right to freedom to manifest her religious beliefs. She also said it discriminated against Muslim pupils (even though they make up 50 per cent of the student body). In sum, she claimed her individual rights trumped the collective good. And she lost.

To my mind, the unsuccessful attempt to “Trojan Horse” — ie overcome from within — Michaela is a microcosm of the challenge London, and the wider UK, has faced and largely shirked out of a cringing, craven fear of “offending”. Or being accused of racism. But not Ms Birbalsingh. She went there.

“Katharine recognises that if our multi-cultural society is going to thrive, we have to unite around a common idea of what it means to be British,” Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union, told me. “That inevitably involves sacrifice, but unless we’re prepared to make those sacrifices our society will fracture and fall apart.”

Her victory proves that schools (and countries) only work when everyone coheres to common values: moderation, a rejection of religious extremism, respect, humour, and the offer of a nice cup of tea when everything goes wrong. Or as Birbalsingh puts it, “the school promotes a way of living where refusal of identity-politics victimhood, self-sacrifice for the betterment of the whole, are fundamental to who we are.”

This is a small and important victory in the Battle of Britain 2.0. We should take more note of Michaela school’s wise decision to empty the “identity space” to accommodate difference.

In fact, we should probably ban religion and mandatory daily acts of worship in all state schools, as many western European countries do (France goes further and bans all head-coverings, as I found out when I wore a hoodie to the Lacoste store in Paris) to stop the identity rot and extremist fervour spreading.

When at school, do what you are told by teacher. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Britain, be British.

It may seem like a minor win, but this week’s dismissal of the prayer mat claimant is a victory for all schools, as Birbalsingh says, and for common sense, community, and British values.

Never has so much been owed by so many to one woman.

Rachel Johnson is a contributing editor for the Evening Standard