Muslim student loses High Court challenge against ‘prayer ban’ at Michaela Community School

Muslim student loses High Court challenge against ‘prayer ban’ at Michaela Community School

A north London school led by “Britain’s strictest headteacher” has won a High Court battle with a student over its controversial prayer ban.

Michaela Community School faced a legal challenge from a Muslim pupil over claims she had been discriminated against on the basis of her religion.

The Wembley school, led by headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, imposed the crackdown in March last year, insisting its approach promoted “inclusion and social cohesion between pupils".

Delivering his ruling on Tuesday, Mr Justice Linden said the school had been entitled to impose a ban on “prayer rituals” and the student chose theschool knowing that it had strict rules.

He said that while the ban would be detrimental to Muslim students, itwas “a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aims” of the school.

The judge also found that the headteacher had been justified in suspending the student, based on the account of a teacher that she had been “ extremely rude and defiant”, as the prayer row continued to grow.

He said a second suspension had not been justified, as the student was not given the chance to give her own account.

Responding in a statement on X on Tuesday, Ms Birbalsingh said the decision was a “victory for all schools.”

She added: “A school should be free to do what is right for the pupils it serves.”

Ms Birbalsingh, who established the Free School in 2014 with the support of then-Education Secretary Michael Gove, has earned the nickname “Britain’s strictest headteacher” thanks to her approach to managing the school.

Strict rules are imposed on pupils including silence in corridors and detention for forgetting a ruler, while Year 7 pupils are reportedly put through a “boot camp” on their behaviour.

The school, which has been rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, has won praise from a string of Tory politicians including former Prime Minister Liz Truss and current Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, and Ms Birbalsingh was awarded a CBE in 2020.

She became a government social mobility tsar in 2021, and has been an outspoken critic of “woke” culture.

The High Court was told the Muslim pupil, who cannot be named, made a request to pray for five minutes at lunch time, on days when faith rules required it, but not during lessons.

She claimed the ban on prayer rituals is "the kind of discrimination which makes religious minorities feel alienated from society".

The student also challenged two decisions to temporarily suspend her from school.

But the school insisted its stance on prayer was justified and “proportionate” as it has faced death and bomb threats linked to religious observance on site.

During the High Court hearings earlier this year, Ms Birbalsingh took to social media to insist the school is defending its "culture and ethos", and the decision to ban what she referred to as “prayer rituals” contributed to "maintain a successful and stable learning environment where children of all races and religions can thrive".

"Ours is a happy and respectful secular school where every race, faith and group understands self-sacrifice for the betterment of the whole", she said.

"Multiculturalism can only succeed when we understand that every group must make sacrifices for the sake of the whole. We allow our children freedoms of all sorts, as long as those freedoms do not threaten the happiness and success of the whole school community.”

The school, where around half of the 700 pupils are Muslim, claims some of the students have faced peer pressure over religious adherence.

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

Lawyers for the school said students seen praying outside contributed to a "concerted campaign" on social media over the school's approach to religion.

The school also say it has been targeted with death threats, abuse, "false" allegations of Islamophobia, and a "bomb hoax".

After the court hearing concluded, Ms Birbalsingh told The Sunday Times she believes the school should "be allowed to be secular".

Imam Ajmal Masroor said the High Court ruling showed a “fundamental misunderstanding” of what it means to be a Muslim.

The London-based faith leader told the PA news agency he would urge the student’s family to appeal against the judgment “so that we can get a more nuanced ruling on this”.

He rejected comments by the judge who said the pupil could perform “Qada” prayers – permitted by Islam to “make up” for missing prayers earlier in the day – “to mitigate the failure to pray within the allotted window”.

Imam Masroor said: “If a child is in secondary school and misses their mid-afternoon prayer for five years, that’s not an exception. That’s been imposed as a rule.”

Her added: “As a Muslim I have to pray my five daily prayers, there is no compromise. It is my identity.”

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed, who is secretary general of the Muslim Council of Wales, told PA he was “really disappointed that the court hasn’t defended a very well-established British principle of freedom of religion”.

He added: “It’s not looking for preferential treatment, it’s looking for fairness in schools. It’s looking for the basic religious freedoms which have long been a part of the British public sphere.”