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Ruling over prayer rituals ban ‘victory for all schools’, headteacher says

A judge concluded the school’s prayer ban did not interfere with the student’s rights (Lucy North/PA)
A judge concluded the school’s prayer ban did not interfere with the student’s rights (Lucy North/PA)

A ruling dismissing a Muslim student’s High Court challenge against a ban on prayer rituals at her school is a “victory” for all others, its headteacher has said.

Michaela Community School in Brent, north London, faced legal action from the pupil, who claimed its policy was discriminatory and unlawfully breached her right to religious freedom.

In a judgment on Tuesday, a judge concluded the ban did not interfere with the student’s rights and was “proportionate” amid the school’s aim to promote an ethos of inclusivity and social cohesion.

Katherine Birbalsingh, the high-achieving school’s founder and headteacher, 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.”

She said the school of some 700 pupils, about half of whom are Muslim, embraces “traditional values” where “children are happy and are friends with each other across racial and religious divides”.

Ms Birbalsingh said people are informed about its strict rules before pupils join, adding: “If parents do not like what Michaela is, they do not need to send their children to us.”

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: “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.”

The student, who cannot be named, said after the ruling that her school was “very well run”, had good teachers and that being involved in the case “has not been easy for me”.

“Even though I lost, I still feel that I did the right thing in seeking to challenge the ban. I tried my best and was true to myself and my religion,” she said.

Her mother, who supported the challenge, said: “The case was rooted in the understanding that prayer isn’t just a desirable act for us — it’s an essential element that shapes our lives as Muslims.

“In our faith, prayer holds undeniable importance, guiding us through each challenge with strength and faith.”

She continued: “My daughter’s impassioned stance compelled me to support her and I stand firm in that decision.

“Her courage in pursuing this matter fills me with pride and I’m confident she’s gained invaluable lessons from the experience.”

Some Muslim leaders told of their disappointment in the ruling, with Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Wales, saying the court “hasn’t defended a very well-established British principle of freedom of religion”.

At a hearing in January, the court was told that Ms Birbalsingh, a former government social mobility tsar, introduced the policy in March last year, with it being backed by the governing body in May.

In March 2023, up to 30 students began praying in the school’s yard, using blazers to kneel on.

Lawyers for the school said students seen praying outside contributed to a “concerted campaign” on social media over the school’s approach to religion, with there also being a since-removed online petition attracting thousands of signatures.

Katharine Birbalsingh resigns
Katharine Birbalsingh, founder and headteacher of Michaela Community School in north London (PA)

The court heard the school was targeted with death threats, abuse, “false” allegations of Islamophobia and a “bomb hoax”.

The student’s lawyers argued the ban on prayer rituals on the premises “uniquely” affected her faith due to its ritualised nature.

The pupil alleged the school’s stance on prayer – one of the five pillars of Islam – was “the kind of discrimination which makes religious minorities feel alienated from society”.

Her legal team said she was making a “modest” request to be allowed to pray for around five minutes at lunch time, on dates when faith rules required it, but not during lessons.

The school argued its policy was justified as it risked “undermining inclusion and social cohesion” between pupils, would again expose it to “an unacceptable risk of threats” and that it avoided  “logistical disruption”.

Mr Justice Linden concluded there was “a rational connection between the aim of promoting the team ethos of the school, inclusivity, social cohesion etc and the prayer ritual policy”.

He said: “The disadvantage to Muslim pupils at the school caused by the prayer ritual policy is in my view outweighed by the aims which it seeks to promote in the interests of the school community as a whole, including Muslim pupils.”

He said the student had “at the very least impliedly accepted” that she would be “subject to restrictions on her ability to manifest her religion” when joining the secular school.

The judge said the pupil could also perform “Qada” prayers – permitted by Islam to “make up” for missing prayers earlier in the day – “to mitigate the failure to pray within the allotted window”.

He accepted the prayer policy caused the pupil a “detriment” but concluded it was “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”, adding that the school was justified in deciding that there were practical difficulties in allowing indoor Muslim prayer during the school day.

Mr Justice Linden said of the student: “I do not doubt that she has strong feelings, but she says that they are based on the whole of the events which have led to this claim … and on her views that she has been treated differently because she is a Muslim, that she is the victim of discrimination, and that she has effectively been told that she does not ‘properly belong here’, none of which is in fact the case.”

Evidence showed that since the prayer rituals ban was introduced “good relations within the school community have been restored”, the judge said.

He upheld the student’s challenge to a decision to temporarily exclude her from the school as a breach of its duty “to act fairly”.