'A victory for all schools': Britain's 'strictest headteacher' Katharine Birbalsingh hails High Court prayer ban ruling

Michaela Community School headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh (PA) (PA Media)
Michaela Community School headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh (PA) (PA Media)

Britain’s “strictest headteacher” on Tuesday described a High Court ruling that her prayer ban is lawful as a “victory for all schools.”

Katharine Birbalsingh introduced the ban at Michaela Community School in Wembley in March last year against a backdrop of violence, intimidation and racial harassment of teachers, she said.

The school has now won a High Court battle with a Muslim student over the controversial policy.

Writing on X, Ms Birbalsingh said: “A school should be free to do what is right for the pupils it serves. The court’s decision is therefore a victory for all schools. Schools should not be forced by one child and her mother to change its approach simply because they have decided they don’t like something at the school.”

The Muslim pupil had argued that she was discriminated against on the basis of her religion.

But Mr Justice Linden said the school had been entitled to impose the ban and the student chose the school knowing about its strict rules.

Responding to the ruling, Ms Birbalsingh said: “At Michaela we positively embrace small c conservative values which millions of people including so many of our families and pupils also value. Those values enable extraordinary academic progress. But they also promote a way of living, where gratitude, agency and personal responsibility, refusal of identity-politics victimhood, love of country, hard work, kindness, a duty towards others, self sacrifice for the betterment of the whole, are fundamental to who we are.”

She added: “Multiculturalism works at Michaela not because we’ve emptied the identity space of the school in order to accommodate difference, but because we have a clear identity which anyone can sign up to, if they are willing to compromise.”

Michaela Community School in Wembley (Lucy North/PA Wire)
Michaela Community School in Wembley (Lucy North/PA Wire)

She said Michaela “works miracles” in London’s inner city, with GCSE grades on average nearly two and a half grades higher than other schools.

She added: “But our families choose Michaela not just because of the extraordinary learning and access to social mobility that we provide. They choose Michaela because they recognise that our traditional values create a school environment that is a joy to be in. Our children are happy and are friends with each other across racial and religious divides.”

She criticised those who “rail against” the school’s strict rules and traditional values, describing their “progressive thinking” as “patronising and paternalist.”

She added: “A deep seated progressivist racism fuels the condescending belief that ethnic minorities cannot think and choose for themselves. It is what has allowed a particular kind of bullying identity politics to take such a grip of our country.”

Since 2014, the percentage of Muslim pupils at Michaela has increased from 30 per cent to 50 per cent, she said, adding that families are told in advance about the school’s strict policies, which include constant supervision, family lunch, silent corridors, no prayer room and easy ways to get detention.

She said: “If parents do not like what Michaela is, they do not need to send their children to us.”

Ms Birbalsingh also revealed that a sibling of the pupil who brought the case intends to start at the school in September.

She said: “Can it be right for a family to receive £150,000 of taxpayer funded legal aid to bring a case like this?

“The judge is clear that the child’s statements were not written by her alone. Indeed this mum intends to send her second child to Michaela, starting in September. At the same time, this mum has sent a letter to our lawyers suggesting that she may take us to court yet again over another issue at the school she doesn’t like, presumably once again at the taxpayers’ expense.”

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan issued a statement in support of the school. She said: “The Michaela Community School is an outstanding school with a history in excelling in its outcomes for all pupils, many of whom are from some of the most disadvantaged parts of London.

“The government has always been clear that heads are best placed to take decisions on what is permitted in their school on these matters, to balance the rights of all with the ethos of the school community – including in relation to whether and how to accommodate prayer. This judgment confirms this.

“This should give all school leaders confidence in making the right decision for their school, while prioritising tolerance and respect between those of different faiths and none.”

Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society, said: “Given the disruption experienced by the school, a ruling that the ban on prayer rituals was lawful is welcome.

“It also serves as a useful reminder that claims of religious freedom do not trump all other considerations. If a school wishes to uphold a secular ethos, it should be entitled to do so.

“Schools should be environments where everyone feels welcomed and valued, but that doesn’t mean students have untrammelled religious freedom. Where the manifestation of religion is deemed divisive or disruptive, a balance must be struck. We’re pleased the school’s actions have beenvindicated.”