High Court

Michaela school wins High Court battle over prayer ban

Policy did not ‘interfere’ with a Muslim pupil’s religious freedoms because she had ‘chosen the school knowing its strict regime’

Policy did not ‘interfere’ with a Muslim pupil’s religious freedoms because she had ‘chosen the school knowing its strict regime’

A High Court judge has ruled any disadvantage to Muslim pupils caused by a prayer ban at Michaela Community School was “outweighed by the aims it seeks to promote in the interests of the school community as a whole”.

The judgment in favour of the high-achieving free school in Wembley, north London, often referred to as “Britain’s strictest”, was handed down by Mr Justice Linden this morning. 

He dismissed a Muslim pupil’s legal challenge to the policy on all key grounds, upholding one lesser allegation.

The judge ruled: “The disadvantage to Muslim pupils at the school caused by the PRP (prayer ritual policy) was outweighed by the aims which it seeks to promote in the interests of the school community as a whole, including Muslim pupils.”

It follows a two-day judicial review hearing in January, when lawyers for the pupil, who cannot be named for legal reasons, argued the ban breached equality laws and her freedom of religion, claiming it disproportionately impacts Muslim students.

But headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, the former government social mobility commissioner argued the policy was needed to restore “calm and order” and promote cohesion, after the court heard the school received threats, including a “bomb hoax”.

Ban did not ‘interfere’ with religious freedoms

The judge ruled the policy did not “interfere” with the pupil’s religious freedoms because she had chosen Michaela knowing it was strict and could have moved to a different school or prayed later on in the day.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan said “Michaela is an outstanding school, and I hope this judgement gives all school leaders the confidence to make the right decisions for their pupils”.

The judge said the prayer ban “only impacts Muslim pupils in the winter months”, when the window for performing the Duhr Islamic prayer overlaps with lunch break, and said they could perform Qada prayers later in the day to make up for it. 

The school was “right to take the view that the issue was whether to permit and facilitate ritual prayer indoors: in effect, to reverse its longstanding policy of not providing a prayer room”, as it would not be “appropriate” for pupils to pray outside in the winter, Linden added.

Birbalsingh implemented the temporary moratorium in March last year and it was made permanent with the backing of the school’s governing body the following month.

It came after pupils started praying in the playground in March 2023 and used blazers to kneel on after they were “prohibited” from using prayer mats.

This sparking an outcry when they were spotted by passers-by, which led to an online petition signed by at least at least 4,000 people and school staff being threatened , the court heard.

Around half of the 700 pupils at the school are Muslim.

Prayers were ‘undermining school’s culture’

In his timeline of events leading up to the ban, the judge said Birbalsingh argued it was clear there was a division developing with “one area in the yard being exclusively occupied by Muslim children during the lunch period”.

She said this was “undermining of the school’s culture of all races and religions mixing and being friends with each other”, he noted.

The minutes of a governing body meeting in May 2023 were quoted in the judgment, recording a summary of the reasons Birbalsingh gave in favour of making the ban permanent. 

These include that  “the pupils undertaking formal prayer rituals was undermining the discipline upon which the school is built” and “the ethos of the school, which is that the school community takes precedence over the individual”.

In January, the court heard how the school building “has limited space” and that Birbalsingh feared “a large majority of Muslim pupils” would want to pray inside if permitted.

This would create “difficulties with supervision” because more teachers would be needed to staff the corridors at lunch time, lawyers for the school argued. 

‘Logistical difficulties’ facilitating prayer on-site

Linden noted the school is housed in a seven-storey office block with “narrow” corridors and “cramped” classrooms.

He accepted “the thrust of Ms Birbalsingh’s evidence” about the “logistical difficulties” of facilitating prayer by Muslim pupils. 

The school is “entitled to say that… the cost in terms of use of the school’s resources would be such that it would not be proportionate” to facilitate this, the judge said 

There is no evidence the ban has affected enrolment or led to Muslim pupils leaving, he added.

“On the contrary, the evidence is that since the PRP was introduced good relations within the school community have been restored.”

Following the judgment, Birbalsingh said in a statement: “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.”

The judge said the headteacher “had acted unfairly” in excluding the claimant for five days in April 2023 “on the basis of what she was told by a teacher after an investigation which did not include asking the claimant for her account”, however.

In a statement, the unnamed pupil said she does not agree it “would be too hard to accommodate pupils who wished to pray in the lunchbreak”.

Following the judgment, Humanists UK called for the government to develop national guidance for England on the question of religious practices in schools.


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