School prayer ban restored order says 'Britain's strictest headteacher'

Katharine Birbalsingh (Handout/PA)
Katharine Birbalsingh (Handout/PA)

Britain's “strictest headteacher” has defended the introduction of a “prayer ban”, saying the decision restored calm and order to her Brent school.

Katharine Birbalsingh, head of Michaela Community School, posted a statement on social media saying the decision to stop prayer rituals came against a "backdrop of events including violence, intimidation and appalling racial harassment" of teachers.

She made the statement amid a legal challenge at the High Court from a Muslim pupil who alleges that the school’s decision is discriminatory.

Ms Birbalsingh, a former government social mobility Tsar, introduced the rule in March last year, after 30 students began praying in the schoolyard using blazers to kneel on as they were not permitted to bring in prayer mats.

Jason Coppel KC, for the school trust, said pupils seen to be praying outside contributed to a "concerted campaign" on social media over the school's approach to religion, including an online petition attractingthousands of signatures.

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

Writing on X, formerly known as Twitter, today, Ms Birbalsingh said: “We are in court to defend the culture and ethos of Michaela…Wewant our multi-cultural and multi-faith community to flourish. Ours is a happy and respectful secular school where every race, faith and group understands self-sacrifice for the betterment of the whole.”

She wrote: “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, who founded the free school which has 700pupils, about half of whom are Muslim, said: “We are one big Michaela family," adding that she "will never separate children according to race and religion".

The headteacher said students "from all religions make sacrifices so that we can maintain a safe secular community".

She said Jehovah's Witness families had objected to William Shakespeare's Macbeth as a GCSE text, Christian families asked for revision sessions not to be held on Sundays, and Hindu families objected to dinner plates touching eggs.

She said: “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 added: “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.

“Our children, whatever their background, are British. As a school, we celebrate what we have in common so that the extraordinary diversity of cultures that we have under our roof can succeed.”Mr Coppel told the court the school had taken action on prayers due to concerns about a "culture shift" over "segregation between religiousgroups and intimidation within the group of Muslim pupils".

"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".

He said the school's actions were based on teachers' conversations with pupils over certain incidents, such as hearing about a Muslim girl who had dropped out of the school choir because 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 in his written arguments.

He told the court that the school is "exceptionally successful" academically, "highly oversubscribed", "aggressively" promotes integration, is run with "military precision" and uses an "ultra-strict enforcement of prescribed behavioural rules".

Sarah Hannett KC, representing the student, said the policy had the "practical effect of only preventing Muslims from praying because their prayer by nature has a ritualised nature rather than being internal".

Lawyers for the school had argued that proceedings should be held in private due to concerns over past harassment, which saw it face threats and a "bomb hoax".

The hearing before Mr Justice Linden continues. A ruling is expected at a later date.