London school previously named Britain's strictest will face High Court after challenge from Muslim pupil on its 'prayer ban'

Wednesday 17 January 2024

A high-achieving north London school, previously dubbed Britain’s strictest, is facing a High Court challenge from a Muslim pupil over a decision to impose a "prayer ban".

The student, who cannot be named, alleges that the policy introduced by the Michaela Community School in Brent is discriminatory and had "fundamentally changed" how she feels "about being a Muslim in this country", a judge heard.

The pupil described the ban as "like somebody saying they don’t feel like I properly belong here", a hearing in London on Tuesday was told.

In the legal action against the free school’s governing body the student claims the decision "banning prayer rituals" also breaches her right to freedom of religion.

Speaking to TalkTV's Jeremy Kyle and Rosie Wright, Head of News at The News Movement Rebecca Hudson said: "It makes me really uncomfortable.

"The child who started this campaign says that it's made them question how welcome they are in this country to be a Muslim and I can understand why - they have a fundamental right to be able to pray, and they actually wanted to compromise to be able to pray twice a day in school time during particularly religious periods.

"I think Katharine Birbalsingh is a culture warrior, and anything she can do to throw red meat to Islamophobia, denying culture, climate change denial or trans rights just plays into a very specific sector of society."

Douglas Murray posted on X: "Katharine Birbalsingh has done more for school excellence than anyone in our time. She’s given pupils of all backgrounds the best chance in life. As evidenced by their results. Her school is now the target of a concerted political-religious campaign. Everyone should support her."

The hearing was told that the school’s stance was introduced by headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh – a former government social mobility Tsar – and later re-made by its governing body in May.

Around 30 students began praying in the school’s "wet" and "dirty" yard in March last year, using blazers to kneel as they were not permitted to bring in prayer mats, the lawyer told the court.

Lawyers for the school, which is opposing the legal challenge, 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 Michaela Community School has previously been dubbed Britain’s strictest school

But following arguments by the media, Mr Justice Linden ruled that the hearing should be held in public and the school and headteacher can be identified.

Sarah Hannett KC, representing the student only to be referred to as TTT, told the court that 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".

The barrister said it was "a ban uniquely on Muslim prayer", stopping pupils praying "at a time as required by Islam", under which it is part of the "five pillars" of the faith.

She said Muslim prayer requires "prostration and for the worshipper to face a particular direction", adding that there was no evidence the ban affected other faiths in the school.

Ms Hannett said it "wouldn’t prevent a Christian child sitting quietly in the corner of the playground from praying".

The pupil was seeking a "compromise" to the school’s position, her lawyer said, arguing they should be allowed to pray for around five minutes at lunch time, on dates when faith rules required it, but not during lessons.

Ms Hannett said the ban at the school, where around half of the roughly 700 students are Muslim, makes the pupil "feel guilty and unhappy, in her words, it ‘messes up her day’".

The school’s prayer rituals policy came after the public response to pupils praying outside and amid the harassment it received, the court heard.