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Headteacher of school behind prayer ban says legal case ‘taking a massive toll’

 (PA Media)
(PA Media)

The headteacher of a school which is facing a legal challenge over its decision to ban prayer rituals has said the process is “taking a massive toll”.

Michaela Community School in Brent, north London, argues allowing such practices risks “undermining inclusion and social cohesion between pupils”, with its ban coming after a “vitriolic campaign of abuse, harassment and threats” against staff.

The high-achieving free school, previously dubbed Britain’s strictest, is facing a High Court legal challenge from a Muslim student who claims its approach to prayer on the premises is discriminatory and “uniquely” affects her faith due to its ritualised nature.

Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh has said the school decided “to stop prayer rituals when some pupils started them, against a backdrop of events including violence, intimidation and appalling racial harassment of our teachers”.

All my teachers and I are trying to do is run a successful school and make the world a better place.

Katharine Birbalsingh

The two-day hearing in London before Mr Justice Linden ended on Wednesday with the judge saying he would deliver his ruling “as quickly as possible”.

Ms Birbalsingh, the founder of the free school of some 700 pupils, about half of whom are Muslim, told The Sunday Times the process was “taking a massive toll”.

“I go to school and am worried,” she said. “I am at Michaela at 6.45am every day.

“All my teachers and I are trying to do is run a successful school and make the world a better place.”

Ms Birbalsingh said the ban was necessary to fulfil her school’s mission to promote integration between pupils of different ethnic backgrounds and religions.

“If a school is secular, it ought to be allowed to be secular,” she said.

Ms Birbalsingh told the paper the school will “definitely appeal if we lose”, adding: “I will not divide children according to race and religion; it will not happen under my watch.”

The pupil, who cannot be named for legal reasons, alleges the school’s stance on prayer – one of the five pillars of Islam – was “the kind of discrimination which makes religious minorities feel alienated from society”, a judge was told.

Her lawyers said she is making a “modest” request to be allowed to pray for around five minutes at lunch time, on dates when faith rules required it, but not during lessons.