Muslim student loses legal challenge against Michaela Community School's 'prayer ban'

A Muslim student has lost a legal challenge against a school previously dubbed Britain's strictest over its ban on "prayer rituals".

The pupil, who cannot be named for legal reasons, took the action against Michaela Community School in Brent, north London, claiming the policy "uniquely" affects her faith, with prayer one of its five pillars.

The High Court heard in January how she alleged the school's stance is "the kind of discrimination which makes religious minorities feel alienated from society".

Defending the policy, lawyers for the school argued it is "justified" and "proportionate" after it faced death and bomb threats linked to religious observance.

During a two-day hearing, the school's headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh - commonly referred to as Britain's strictest - said on X it was defending an environment "where children of all races and religions can thrive".

She welcomed the judgment as a "victory for all schools" and said they should not be forced to change because one pupil and her mother "don't like something", while Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said headteachers are "best placed" to make decisions.

The school, which is rated as outstanding by regulator Ofsted, enforces a series of strict rules on students, including a ban on conversations in corridors and groups of more than four anywhere on site.

Around 700 pupils attend the school, half of whom are Muslim.

In a written judgment on Tuesday, Mr Justice Linden said: "She [the pupil] knew that the school is secular and her own evidence is that her mother wished her to go there because it was known to be strict.

"She herself says that, long before the prayer ritual policy was introduced, she and her friends believed that prayer was not permitted at school and she therefore made up for missed prayers when she got home."

School targeted with 'bomb hoax'

Ms Birbalsingh, a former government social mobility tsar, introduced the policy in March 2023, after 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.

They added Muslim children were "observed to be applying peer pressure" to other Muslim pupils to "act in certain ways".

The court also heard the school was targeted with a "bomb hoax", death threats, abuse and "false" allegations of Islamophobia.

Reversing the school's "emergency" ban would again expose it to "an unacceptable risk of threats", lawyers said, adding it avoided "the logistical disruption and detriments to other school activities".

A 'modest' request

But the court was also told the pupil is making a "modest" request for permission to pray for around five minutes at lunchtime, on dates when faith rules required it - not during lessons.

The student also challenged allegedly unfair decisions to temporarily suspend her from school, which the judge upheld.

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The pupil said she doesn't agree it would be "too hard" to accommodate pupils who "wished to pray in the lunchbreak", adding the school is "very well run".

"Even though I lost, I still feel that I did the right thing in seeking to challenge the ban," she added. "I tried my best, and was true to myself and my religion."

Her mother said the case was "rooted in the understanding that prayer isn't just a desirable act for us - it's an essential element that shapes our lives as Muslims".