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.
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.
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.