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Britain’s strictest headteacher taken to High Court over school's Muslim prayer ban

Katharine Birbalsingh at her desk
Often referred to as Britain’s strictest headteacher, Birbalsingh introduced a universal prayer ban in March last year - Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph

Britain’s strictest headteacher is in a row with Muslim pupils over a decision to impose a “prayer ban”.

Michaela Community School in Brent, north-west London, which is run by Katharine Birbalsingh, the Government’s former social mobility tsar, is facing a High Court challenge from a Muslim pupil over its prayer policy.

The court heard that the school has faced an online campaign over its approach to religion, as well as threats of violence, abuse and false allegations of Islamophobia.

Conservative MPs are understood to be concerned about the challenge to the governing body of the free school, which achieves some of the best academic results in the country.

‘It’s clearly being weaponised’

A source close to Suella Braverman, the former home secretary, told The Telegraph: “It is deeply concerning that the school is being taken to court over this clearly legitimate policy. It’s clearly being weaponised against Michaela which is a brilliant school doing a brilliant job for its pupils with a fantastic headmistress.”

A High Court hearing in London on Tuesday was told that the school’s stance on prayers was first introduced in March last year by its headteacher, and later re-made by its governing body in May.

About 30 students began praying in the school’s “wet” and “dirty” yard in March last year, using blazers to kneel as they were not permitted to bring in prayer mats, the court heard.

Lawyers for the school, which is opposing the legal challenge, had argued that proceedings should be held in private owing to concerns over past harassment, which included threats and a “bomb hoax”.

But following arguments by media organisations, Mr Justice Linden ruled that the hearing should be held in public and the school and headteacher can be identified.

Right to freedom of religion

Sarah Hannett KC, representing the Muslim pupil, told the court that the prayer policy had the “practical effect of only preventing Muslims from praying because their prayer by nature has a ritualised nature rather than being internal”.

The pupil, who cannot be named, claims the decision “banning prayer rituals” breaches her right to freedom of religion.

The pupil was seeking a “compromise” to the school’s position, the lawyer said, arguing they should be allowed to pray for around five minutes at lunch time, on dates when faith rules required it, but not during lessons.

Ms Hannett said the ban at the school, where about half of the roughly 700 students are Muslim, makes the pupil “feel guilty and unhappy, in her words, it ‘messes up her day’”.

Jason Coppel KC, representing the school trust, said pupils seen praying outside contributed to a “concerted campaign” on social media over the school’s approach to religion, including a since removed online petition attracting thousands of signatures.

Police were called to respond to claims of bombs being placed at the school, prompting it to hire a security guard and close two days early at the end of term.

Glass bottles were thrown over the school railings and a brick thrown through one teacher’s window, leaving staff “fearing for their lives”, Mr Coppel said, adding that the situation had since “calmed”.

Mr Justice Linden noted the school had received “disgraceful” abuse but concluded: “I do not accept that the evidence in this case establishes a risk to the lives or safety of members of the school staff or the school community that would justify holding the hearing in private.”

Michaela’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy

Michaela, which opened in 2014, is known for its “zero tolerance” policy towards poor behaviour and strict rules, including silence in corridors and no smartphones.

The school was ranked top in the country this year for “Progress 8”, a measure of how much a secondary school has helped pupils improve since primary school.

One third of the school’s GCSE pupils achieved a nine (the highest grade) this year, while 98 per cent were awarded grades 9-4 (the equivalent of A* to C) in at least five subjects. The sixth form sent 82 per cent of its pupils to a Russell Group university in 2021.

Ms Birbalsingh has received criticism for her outspoken views on education, despite her school’s results.

Mr Coppel is due to set the school’s defence to the case on Wednesday, when the hearing is expected to conclude.

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