High Court

Michaela school taken to High Court over prayer ban

'Britain's strictest' school facing judicial review after it banned pupils from praying on its premises, court hears, after privacy bid rejected

'Britain's strictest' school facing judicial review after it banned pupils from praying on its premises, court hears, after privacy bid rejected

Michaela Community School, frequently referred to as “Britain’s strictest”, is facing a High Court challenge from a pupil over a policy banning prayer rituals.

The free school in Wembley, north London, is subject to a judicial review over the policy, brought by an affected Muslim pupil who cannot be named for legal reasons. 

The school can be named after an application to remain anonymous was rejected.

Ban has ‘particular affect’ on Muslim pupils

The court heard that about 30 pupils started praying in the playground over a six-day period in March and used blazers to kneel on after they were “prohibited” from using prayer mats. 

The school, where around half of its 700 pupils are Muslim, does not have a specific prayer room.

The praying pupils were “visible from the street” which sparked uproar among members of the public and led to the school receiving “abuse and harassment”, the court heard.

Jason Coppel KC, representing the school, said there was a “concerted campaign” on social media including a petition and “death threats”, including a bomb hoax, which led to the outright ban.

The ban decision was made by headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, the former government social mobility commissioner, on March 27 last year and was later “remade” by the school’s governing body in May.

But Sarah Hannett KC, for the claimant, said “it’s a decision banning prayer rituals which we say has the particular affect of only preventing Muslims” from praying because their prayers have a “ritualistic quality” and at times required by their religion.

Hannett said “the claimant’s evidence is that if she was permitted to pray in a classroom which was cleaned every day she wouldn’t need a mat” and added “her evidence is that her prayers would take five minutes”. 

Hannett said “the discrimination to which (the pupil) says she has been subjected has had a serious adverse adverse affect” on her and “her evidence is it’s fundamentally changed how she feels as a Muslim in this country”.

She said the ban breached equality laws and the pupil’s freedom of religion. The ban was imposed “without any consultation with pupils, parents or religious authorities”, she added.

Lawyers acting for the claimant also question whether exclusions were lawful without considering her account of the misconduct alleged.

Judge denies anonymity for school

Lawyers for the school had applied for the proceedings to be heard in private. Failing that, they wanted details such as the name of the school and its headteacher – the outspoken Birbalsingh – to be non-reportable.

Katharine Birbalsingh
Katharine Birbalsingh

However, after representations from members of the media, including Schools Week, Mr Justice Linden ruled that the proceedings must be heard in public. 

Coppel had argued that public proceedings and wider publicity around the prayer ban policy “would give rise to a real and immediate risk of harm to the headmistress, school staff, and potentially pupils at the school”.

But Mr Linden said: “I do not accept the that the evidence in this case shows a risk to the lives or safety of members of the school staff or its wider community which would justify holding this hearing in private.”

He accepted the application for the claimant – a pupil to be referred to as “TTT” –  and another person involved in the litigation, to be referred to as “UUU”, but he ruled that the school and the local authority can be named.

Despite this, the judge said he does not “underestimate the unpleasantness of the events of March 2023”. 

School faced ‘disgraceful’ abuse

He said “there were numerous and public accusations of islamophobia” and “very unpleasant abuse” was directed at the school and at one staff member, who cannot be named for legal reasons, in particular.

“The racial and misogynistic abuse directed at her was disgraceful”, he said.

He added: “There was hoax email stating that bombs had been planted at the school, although, as I indicated, that was not in fact the case, and there was damage to property in the form of a window of a teacher’s home being smashed.”

He accepted these factors gave “rise to a genuine concern on the part of the school and in particular its headteacher” but noted there was no evidence of any “physical confrontation” towards members of staff.

Schools have a legal requirement to hold a daily act of worship that is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”, but many have opted out.

Government guidance states “schools will not be acting unlawfully if they do not provide an equivalent act of worship for other faiths”.

Michaela regularly tops the national league tables for exam results. It has been dubbed the strictest school in the country, with silent corridors and other controversial policies such as ditching SEND labels and giving detentions for failing to have a pen.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman was founding chair of the free school, which opened in 2014.

Lawyers for the school are due to set out their case tomorrow, when the hearing is also due to conclude.

UPDATE: This piece was updated at 6.20pm with further details from the court hearing.

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  1. Inspector Clouseau

    Britain’s Strictest School – what does that even mean?!!! What’s the benchmark?
    If you create an image of being opinionated, outspoken and relish that public image – you need to be prepared to be take the scrutiny and not try and hide behind anonymity!

    Ms Birbalsingh has spent to much time in the company of Creulla Braverman m’thinks!

  2. Wow! Reading these articles have been really upsetting. This is not the circumstances of why prayer was banned. There was a number of incidence were when as little as 2 students were praying out of view in a quiet area, they were approached by teachers and whilst praying were told to stop. They were then suspended for no reasons such as not answering the teacher at the time. This continued over a period of time to many students. Ramadan is a time when spiritually it becomes important. It sometimes takes 5 mins. Some parents requested some consultation to resolve this issue, but it was ignored. Complaints were made about the incidents to the council, ofsted, reviews added and petitions set up. People still have evidence of this, but the school had them removed. There was one text sent to say the school were threatened apparently due to an untrue allegations, parents and students have proofs of all of this, and they closed one day earlier. Pupils were then threatened at school regarding praying. Again parents complained by their policy is they don’t care. They don’t even respond. It’s actually disgusting they have facilities available and students could easily facilitate this. I hope other students and parents are approached so the actually sorry is shown. I feel sorry for the student who has brought this forward as she can be easily suspended without given reason, as is often the case at this school.