Michaela Community School has defended banning prayer rituals, saying it helped quell rising tensions which led to a “bomb hoax” and pupils and staff being “intimidated” amid an “unprecedented outbreak of poor behaviour”.
A two-day High Court judicial review hearing against the free school in Brent, west London, has been brought by one of its Muslim pupils, who cannot be named for legal reasons.
Her lawyers argue the ban breached equality laws and the pupil’s freedom of religion, claiming it disproportionately impacts Muslim students.
However, the school, often dubbed “Britain’s strictest”, contends the claim should be dismissed and argues the ban was needed to restore “calm and order” and promote cohesion.
Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, the former government social mobility commissioner, implemented a temporary ban in March last year.
It was made permanent with the backing of the school’s governing body the following month, the High Court heard.
It came after the school received threats, including a “bomb hoax”, in March last year after pupils were spotting praying in the playground, sparking an outcry.
The court heard that Birbalsingh said staff “were fearing for their lives”. In a statement, she added this included “violence, intimidation and appalling racial harassment of our teachers”.
‘Unacceptable segregation’ fears
On Wednesday, Jason Coppel KC, representing the school, said the number of pupils “praying (in the playground) grew very quickly from three children up to 30 children within a few days”.
He claimed staff grew concerned at alleged “peer pressure” on some Muslim pupils, said to have been “intimidated into greater observance” by their peers, and fears “unacceptable segregation or division” was occurring.
Pupils started praying in the playground over a six-day period in March 2023 and used blazers to kneel on after they were “prohibited” from using prayer mats, the court heard on Tuesday.
Copel claimed the playground prayers led to an “unprecedented outbreak of poor behaviour amongst the children”.
Detailing one such alleged incident, he said: “First of all prayer was permitted at this time. The teacher asked the pupils to put away their prayer mats because those had not been permitted. What would usually happen at this point is that they would comply.”
But he said the command “was met with what the teacher describes as entitled behaviour because they felt they were praying… they felt that prayer somehow overrode the regime at the school.”
‘Integration central to Michaela success’
Prayer rituals were not previously prohibited at the school, although no prayer room was provided. The school building “has limited space” and “narrow corridors”.
Birbalsingh feared “a large majority of Muslim pupils” would want to pray inside if permitted, leading to lots of pupils “trailing around the school at lunch time”, Copel added.
This would create “difficulties with supervision” because more teachers would be needed to staff the corridors at lunch time he said.
“The vast majority of them [pupils] are in the playground under constant supervision by teachers,” he said.
The lawyer said the school is in a “deprived and highly diverse area” and is committed to “maximising social cohesion between the children”.
Birbalsingh is intent on “aggressively promoting integration between different faiths, cultures and ethnic backgrounds” and regards this as “central to the success of the school”, he said.
The school’s ‘family lunch’ policy is one such way she “promotes integration between pupils”, alongside “guided socialisation and supervision in the school yard”, he explained.
This includes “pupils being given a particular topic that they are permitted to talk about, reciting poetry, standing up… and saying one or two things they’re particularly grateful for on that day, really unique practices”.
Lunch break ‘not free time’
Copel said it was “an important part of the school’s case” that lunch break is “not free time in the usual sense” but is instead “an integral part of the education regime”.
Birbalsingh said “teachers actively intervene in the socialising of the pupils to ensure that children are not left out and to encourage social integration” between different cultural groups, he told the court.
The headteacher said the “school’s community spirit is strengthened by guided socialisation and engagement between the children” during the lunch break, he added.
“For the school this part of the day is just as important as time spent in lessons or during family lunch,” Copel said.
“The claimant says that she regards herself as on a break during that period… that is not the school’s view.
“The schools opinion: this is not free time, whatever the claimant may say.”
Two suspensions given to the pupil are also being challenged. The court heard the pupil told another “if you tell anyone, I will stab you”. The pupil admits saying it, but their lawyer said it was “part of a jokey exchange”.
In a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter, on Wednesday Birbalsingh said “we are in court to defend the culture and ethos of Michaela”.
She added: “We have a large number of Muslim pupils. Their positive experiences have helped grow the number of Muslim pupils at the school by 50%. My own grandmother is Muslim.
‘We’re defending the Michaela ethos’
“But the governing body had to take the decision to stop prayer rituals when some pupils started them, against a backdrop of events including violence, intimidation and appealing racial harassment of our teachers”.
She said this decision “restored calm and order to the school” and that its “restrictive building combined with our strict ethos that does not allow children wander around the school unsupervised” means it “cannot have a prayer room”.
“We believe it is wrong to separate children according to religion or race, and that it is our duty to protect all of our children and provide them with an environment which is free from bullying, intimidation and harassment.”
On Tuesday, Sarah Hannett KC, for the claimant, said the prayer ban “has the particular affect of only preventing Muslims” from praying because their prayers have a “ritualistic quality” and at times required by their religion.
She said “the critical submission is no alternative, less intrusive means were considered” instead of the ban, such as “allowing prayer to be conducted subject to a strict behaviour policy”.
Hannett questioned why the school carried out “no investigation” into claims pupils were “intimidated” into greater religious observance, and said the way the girl was treated “fundamentally changed how she feels as a Muslim in this country”.
Michaela regularly tops the national league tables for exam results. It has been dubbed the strictest school in the country, with silent corridors and other controversial policies such as ditching SEND labels and giving detentions for failing to have a pen.
Former home secretary Suella Braverman was founding chair of the free school, which opened in 2014.
The judicial review is scheduled to conclude on Wednesday afternoon, with the judge’s decision expected to be handed down at a later date.