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Reversing school’s ‘prayer ban’ exposes it to risk of threats, High Court told

Reversing a school’s “emergency” provoked decision to ban prayer rituals would again expose it to “an unacceptable risk of threats”, the High Court has been told.

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 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.

Katharine Birbalsingh resigns
Katharine Birbalsingh said the school was a ‘happy and respectful secular school where every race, faith and group understands self-sacrifice for the betterment of the whole’ (PA)

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.

But the school’s lawyers claim its policy was “justified” and “proportionate” after it faced death and bomb threats linked to religious observance on site.

It took action on prayers due to concerns about a “culture shift” towards “segregation between religious groups and intimidation within the group of Muslim pupils”, the court heard.

During a two day hearing in London, the school’s headteacher said on social media that it was defending its “culture and ethos” along with decisions to “maintain a successful and stable learning environment where children of all races and religion can thrive”.

Posting on X, formerly known as Twitter,  on Wednesday, Katharine Birbalsingh 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”.

She continued: “Our decision restored calm and order to the school.

“We have always been clear to parents and pupils when they apply to Michaela that, because of our restrictive building combined with our strict ethos that does not allow children to wander around the school unsupervised, we cannot have a prayer room.”

Ms Birbalsingh, the founder of the free school of some 700 pupils, about half of whom are Muslim, said it is a “happy and respectful secular school where every race, faith and group understands self-sacrifice for the betterment of the whole”.

“We are one big Michaela family,” she said, adding all children must “buy into something they all share and that is bigger than themselves: our country”.

“We believe it is wrong to separate children according to religion or race, and that it is our duty to protect all of our children and provide them with an environment which is free from bullying, intimidation and harassment,” she said.

The court was told that Ms Birbalsingh, a former government social mobility tsar, first introduced the policy in March last year, with it being backed by the governing body in May.

In March 2023, up to 30 students began praying in the school’s yard, using blazers to kneel on, a judge heard.

Jason Coppel KC, representing the Michaela School Community Trust – its governing body – said students seen praying outside contributed to a “concerted campaign” on social media over the school’s approach to religion, with there also being a since removed online petition attracting thousands of signatures.

The court heard the school was targeted with “threats of violence”, abuse and “false” allegations of Islamophobia.

“These were very difficult days for the school, with tensions running high,” he said, adding that it is “hard to see how matters would have been improved by taking more and more disciplinary action”.

In written arguments, the barrister said the headteacher acted in an “emergency situation” and that returning to a policy of allowing prayer rituals would create “unacceptable” risks.

Mr Coppel said that during March 2023 “Muslim children were observed to be applying peer pressure to other Muslim children to act in certain ways”.

One student who never previously worn a headscarf “had been pressured into wearing one”, while a Muslim pupil dropped out of the school’s choir as she was told it was “haram”, or forbidden.

“A number of children had been told that they were ‘bad Muslims’ for not praying and had begun to pray,” Mr Coppel added.

He said there was “nothing to stop” the pupil bringing the legal action, referred to only as TTT, from moving to a school where there were no restrictions on prayer.

Mr Coppel said the ban avoided “the logistical disruption and detriments to other school activities”, adding that it was not “for all time”.

The impact on Muslim pupils was “fully appreciated”, the lawyer said, adding that a briefing note for governors “expressly considered equalities implications” and was not inaccurate nor contained misinformation about Islamic prayer.

Mr Coppel said the school was “exceptionally successful” academically and run with “military precision” and an “ultra-strict enforcement of prescribed behavioural rules”.

Miriam Benitez, representing Brent Council, said in written arguments that it “continues to remain neutral” over the legal dispute and attended the hearing as an “interested observer”.

The hearing before Mr Justice Linden ended on Wednesday, with the judge saying he would deliver his ruling “as quickly as possible” at a later date.