Michaela School in Wembley challenged in High Court over prayer ban

Michaela Community School, Wembley

A Muslim pupil is challenging Michaela School in Wembley in the High Court after it banned “prayer rituals” last year.

The female student, who cannot be named for legal reasons, told the Royal Court of Justice yesterday that the policy is discriminatory and breached her right to freedom of religion.

She said the rule had “fundamentally changed” how she feels “about being a Muslim in this country” and described the ban as “like somebody saying they don’t feel like I properly belong here.”

Representing the student, Sarah Hannett KC told the court about half of the secondary school’s 700 pupils are Muslim and the policy had the effect of only preventing Muslims from praying.

She argued that Muslim pupils should be allowed to pray for around five minutes at lunch time but not during lessons.

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 does not have a specific prayer room.

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Michaela School is led by former government social mobility tsar Katharine Birbalsingh who, the court was told, first introduced the “prayer ban” in March last year.

The High Court heard Ms Birbalsingh was concerned coverage of the case would cause a serious risk of physical danger.

Lawyers for the school had even argued proceedings should be held in private due to concerns over “past harassment,” which saw it “face threats” and a “bomb hoax.”

The court heard the school was targeted with “threats of violence”, abuse and “false” allegations of Islamophobia.

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

Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh

Michaela Community School is an academically high-performing school renowned for its strict approach to discipline.

It is one of the most high-profile schools in the country and its headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh has made numerous media appearances.

On the second day of the hearing the school said reversing its decision to ban prayer rituals would again expose it to “an unacceptable risk of threats.”

The school told the court allowing prayer rituals risks “undermining inclusion” between pupils.

Jason Coppel KC, representing the Michaela School Community Trust, told the court the headteacher acted in an “emergency situation” and that returning to a policy of allowing prayer rituals would create “unacceptable” risks.

Mr Coppel said that during March 2023 “Muslim children were observed to be applying peer pressure to other Muslim children to act in certain ways.”

One student who had never previously worn a headscarf was “pressured into wearing one,” while a Muslim pupil dropped out of the school’s choir as she was told it was “haram,” or forbidden, the court heard.

The impact on Muslim pupils was “fully appreciated,” the lawyer said, adding the school “expressly considered equalities implications.”

Katharine Birbalsingh also released the following statement on X, saying she would never separate children “according to race or religion.”

A ruling is expected “as quickly as possible” at a later date.

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