Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 16 April 2024



School prayer ban upheld as pupil loses High Court challenge

Judge dismisses Muslim pupil’s claim that the policy at Michaela Community School was discriminatory, in ruling described as ‘victory for all schools’ by the head, Katharine Birbalsingh
Katharine Birbalsingh has been described as Britain’s “strictest headmistress”
Katharine Birbalsingh has been described as Britain’s “strictest headmistress” REX

A school known as Britain’s strictest has won a court challenge brought by a pupil banned from publicly praying, in a judgment welcomed by the government and secular campaigners.

Katharine Birbalsingh, head of Michaela Community School, revealed that the family who brought the High Court case are sending another child to the school in September and also planning a separate legal action.

Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, said the ruling should give all heads confidence in making the right decision for their school.

Others warned that without national guidance or new legislation, such cases would continue to be brought. Tuesday’s case is estimated to have cost the taxpayer at least half a million pounds.

The pupil had claimed that the policy that banned “prayer rituals” was discriminatory and affected her faith. She said the stance on prayer, one of the five pillars of Islam, was “the kind of discrimination which makes religious minorities feel alienated from society”, a judge was told.


The case against the free school was heard at the High Court in London in January.

In an 83-page judgment dismissing the pupil’s case on Tuesday, Mr Justice Linden said: “It seems to me that this is a case … where the claimant at the very least impliedly accepted, when she enrolled at the school, that she would be subject to restrictions on her ability to manifest her religion.”

Michaela is not a faith school and Birbalsingh, a former social mobility commissioner, said this was made explicit to parents when their children joined. She had claimed that the girl and her friends were putting pressure on other pupils to pray, wear hijabs and to drop out of choir and other activities of which they disapproved.

The judgment supported the head, saying of the pupil: “She knew that the school is secular and her own evidence is that her mother wished her to go there because it was known to be strict.

“She herself says that, long before the prayer ritual policy was introduced, she and her friends believed that prayer was not permitted at school and she therefore made up for missed prayers when she got home.”


The judgment accepted that the pupil was at a “detriment” because she was not allowed to perform a certain prayer, but added that it was “a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aims” of the school.

“The disadvantage to Muslim pupils at the school caused by the PRP [the school’s 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,” the judgment read.

Parents were made aware of Michaela Community School’s strict rules and traditional values, Birbalsingh said
Parents were made aware of Michaela Community School’s strict rules and traditional values, Birbalsingh said

Birbalsingh questioned whether it was right that the pupil had received £150,000 in legal aid to bring the case.

“The judge is clear that the child’s statements were not written by her alone. Indeed this mum intends to send her second child to Michaela, starting in September. At the same time, this mum has sent a letter to our lawyers suggesting that she may take us to court yet again over another issue at the school she doesn’t like, presumably once again at the taxpayer’s expense.

“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.


“Multiculturalism works at Michaela, not because we’ve emptied the identity space of the school in order to accommodate difference, but because we have a clear identity which anyone can sign up to, if they are willing to compromise.”

Birbalsingh added: “Ever since the idea of Michaela began in 2011, our detractors have railed against our strict rules and traditional values.

“At the two welcome events that all parents must attend before sending their child to Michaela, I run through everything that makes Michaela different to other schools: constant supervision, family lunch, silent corridors, no prayer room, easy ways to get detention, strict uniform etc. If parents do not like what Michaela is, they do not need to send their children to us.

“Last year, we watched our Muslim pupils put under pressure by a tiny number of others to fast, to pray, to drop out of the choir, to wear a hijab.

“I watched one of my black teachers racially abused and intimidated, another teacher who had her personal home nearly broken into, and another with a brick thrown through her window. I have a duty of care to protect all of our pupils but also to my staff.


“There is a false narrative that some try to paint about Muslims being an oppressed minority at our school. They are, in fact, the largest group. Those who are most at risk are other minorities and Muslim children who are less observant.”

Keegan said: “I have always been clear that head teachers are best placed to make decisions in their school.

“Michaela is an outstanding school and I hope this judgment gives all school leaders the confidence to make the right decisions for their pupils.”

The court was told that the pupil, referred to only as TTT, was making a “modest” request to be allowed to pray for about five minutes at lunchtime, on dates when faith rules required it, but not during lessons.

The student also challenged allegedly unfair decisions to temporarily suspend her from school. The judge upheld the claim relating to one of these suspensions, saying the five-day exclusion had been enforced without hearing the girl’s side of the story and that Birbalsingh had acted unfairly.


The school has about 700 pupils, about half of whom are Muslim.

In March 2023 up to 30 pupils began praying in the school’s yard, using blazers to kneel on. When this was banned, there was also an online petition and school staff also received death threats, abuse, “false” allegations of Islamophobia and a “bomb hoax”.

The court was told that “Muslim children were observed to be applying peer pressure to other Muslim children to act in certain ways”. The school claimed that allowing prayer rituals risked “undermining inclusion and social cohesion between pupils”.

Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, said: “In the absence of national guidance on religious practices in schools and of a serious national discussion about existing laws, cases like this will continue to be brought. Schools shouldn’t be left alone to deal with this. Today’s High Court judgment requires serious thinking from the government about how to protect the child’s freedom of religion or belief while also making sure our education system is fair and inclusive to all.

“We believe a first step should be to resolve the wider issue of mandatory collective worship in schools and replace it with an inclusive form of assembly that makes all pupils feel welcomed, while making reasonable accommodations for those who want to privately pray or worship where it doesn’t infringe the rights and freedoms of others. Without such holistic attention, resentment will continue to build within our school system.”

Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society, said the case “serves as a useful reminder that claims of religious freedom do not trump all other considerations. If a school wishes to uphold a secular ethos, it should be entitled to do so”.

“Schools should be environments where everyone feels welcomed and valued, but that doesn’t mean students have untrammelled religious freedom. Where the manifestation of religion is deemed divisive or disruptive, a balance must be struck. We’re pleased the school’s actions have been vindicated,” he added.

Dan Rosenberg, of the law firm Simpson Millar, who represented the pupil, said the judge had noted the case raised “issues of genuine public interest in circumstances where the school’s approach has come into conflict with the religious perspective of an important section of society”.

He added: “Obviously, the result was not a result that our client wanted but given the strength of her feelings, she did not feel it was right to merely accept the situation without seeking to challenge it. I respect our client’s mother for supporting her in this.”

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