Britain's 'strictest headteacher' on prayer ban court fight: 'You can't divide children by race and religion'

Headmistress Katharine Birbalsingh at Michaela Community School in Wembley
Headmistress Katharine Birbalsingh at Michaela Community School in Wembley

Britain’s “strictest headteacher” has said there will be despair among many parents and children at her school if a prayer ban is overturned, and pledged that she will not divide children according to race or religion.

Katharine Birbalsingh, head of Michaela Community School in Wembley told the Evening Standard that she and her teachers were “nervous but hopeful” about the outcome of a legal challenge to the school’s ban on prayer rituals.

The ban was brought in against a backdrop of violence, intimidation and racial harassment of teachers in March last year, Ms Birbalsingh said, and it restored calm and order. But a pupil has launched a High Court challenge to the ban, which she claims is discriminatory.

Ms Birbalsingh said the school went to great lengths to ensure children from all backgrounds mix, but allowing children to separate at lunchtime to pray would impact the ethos of the school.

Speaking on Times Radio on Monday she said: “When you have a multi-cultural community you need to actively encourage the children to cross those racial and religious divides… I do not want to divide children according to race and religion. And because of our building… because of our ethos, I would necessarily have to divide them. I would have to send all the Muslim kids upstairs and all the non-Muslim kids downstairs. I don’t want that.”

Monday's Standard front page (Evening Standard)
Monday's Standard front page (Evening Standard)

In a separate interview on she said: “If it’s the case that after lunch the non-Muslim kids are sent outside and the Muslim kids are all sent upstairs to run around the corridors to go into random classrooms to pray, it would mean total chaos.”

Asked by the Standard whether many people, including parents and pupils at the school, would feel despair if the school lost the case, she agreed. Ms Birbalsingh confirmed that it remained open as normal and morale was still happy, adding: “As soon as we banned prayer rituals last March, things returned to normal, and have remained normal ever since.”

The two-day court hearing took place last week and the judge said he would deliver a ruling “as quickly as possible”.

The ban was introduced after 30 students began praying in the school yard using blazers to kneel on. This led to a campaign on social media over the school’s approach to religion.

The High Court heard it was also targeted with “threats of violence”, abuse and “false” allegations of Islamophobia.

Michaela, founded by Ms Birbalsingh in 2014, has been dubbed “Britain’s strictest school”. It is one of the top-performing state secondaries in the country and was rated “outstanding” by Ofsted. Although a quarter of its pupils are from disadvantaged backgrounds, 82 per cent of its sixth form students went to Russell Group universities last year. Ms Birbalsingh said it does not have space for a prayer room, and families know this when they join.

Students have always been allowed to pray in the yard, she told Unherd, but she never saw any child doing so until the incident last year, when the culture of the school changed into “one which was quite aggressive and intimidating where Muslim children were being intimidated into doing things they didn’t necessarily want to do”.

She said some children who had chosen not to fast during Ramadan were intimidated into not eating, or into praying, and that one girl began wearing a hijab when she had not done so before. She said she does not believe parents were involved.

Ms Birbalsingh said if efforts were not made to integrate pupils “people tend to just stick with their own and then you end up with schools where you have the Hindu kids here and the Muslim kids there and the black Caribbean kids there and the black African kids there and so on, those kinds of divisions aren’t helpful, not if you want a multi- cultural society to succeed.”

Speaking on Times Radio on Monday Ms Birbalsingh said she was concerned about her safety. She has also said that staff were “too terrified” to travel alone after death threats and a bomb scare.

Court papers state that the pupil taking action over the prayer ban as a breach of human rights was suspended last year for allegedly threatening to stab another child. Lawyers for the pupil say that her account of events had not been taken into consideration.