Prayer ban victory highlights confusion over religious equality in schools

Image credit: Jonathan A Jones CC BY-SA 4.0

By Catherine Pepinster

The decision by the High Court to back a school that bans prayer rituals on the grounds of inclusivity has highlighted growing confusion over what constitutes religious equality in schools. Other schools create spaces for prayer and its rituals, and say this is to ensure inclusivity. Michaela School in north London has taken an opposite view.

On Tuesday the High Court ruled against a Muslim pupil at Michaela who had sought to challenge the veto on ritual. The child, known only to the court as TTT, said it was effectively a ban on prayer and was discriminatory, affecting her right to religious freedom. But Mr Justice Linden backed Katharine Birbalsingh, the school’s head teacher and founder, who said allowing Muslim pupils this would undermine inclusion at the school.

Michaela School, in the borough of Brent, is a secular school of 700 pupils, half of them Muslim. It is a free school, which means its policies are not laid down by the local authority. The High Court judgment will be interpreted by many as upholding the right of non-religious schools to make their own policies when it comes to providing physical space for prayer as well as space in the timetable.

However, other schools and local education authorities have taken an opposing view to Michaela. They cite a Department for Education (DfE) document on public sector equality duty, which says equality of opportunity should be advanced by taking steps to meet the needs of people with a particular characteristic — and the DfE used the example of enabling Muslim pupils to pray at prescribed times.

The prayer ban at Michaela was introduced by Ms Birbalsingh and later endorsed by the governing body in March 2023.

The head teacher, who served as the head of the government’s social mobility commissioner until January last year, said on Twitter/X, after the court hearing started, that Michaela was a happy school. “Multiculturalism can only succeed when we understand that every group must make sacrifices for the sake of the whole,” she added. “We allow our children freedoms of all sorts, as long as those freedoms do not threaten the happiness and success of the whole school community.”

But according to Azhar Qayum, chief executive of Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend), being unable to pray threatened Muslim children’s happiness. “Midday prayer means children are at school when they need to pray,” he said, “and it is hugely traumatic for them not to be able to pray. It makes them very sad.”

Mr Qayum explained that children who were past puberty were obliged to pray and “it is considered sinful” not to do so. He accused Ms Birbalsingh of “punishing” children. “This is culture wars,” he said.

The Muslim Council of Britain, in its guidance on prayer, points out that the observance of five daily prayers is obligatory in Islam for adults and for children from the age of puberty. One of the five prayers — Zuhr — takes place between midday and afternoon, so always during school hours, while another — Asr — between mid-afternoon and sunset, can take place in school hours during the winter. The prayers require the worshipper to adopt different body postures, such as standing, bowing and sitting, facing Mecca, as well as a ritual wash. On Fridays the special prayer of Jumu’ah replaces Zuhr and lasts up to half an hour.

Croydon Council offers guidance through its standing advisory council on religious education and advises that Muslim prayers times should be observed in schools and “during Ramadan schools are requested to set aside a prayer room, if possible, during lunchtime break for midday prayers, which can be observed anytime between 11.45 and 1.30pm”.

Lewisham Council, whose advice on fasting and prayer begins “May Allah look favourably upon your fasting and answer your prayers!”, says appropriate rooms need to be provided — separate ones for boys and girls if possible. Washing facilities should be made available, it says, and schools should “allow those wishing to pray to bring prayer mats, and if they wish to, slippers to wear after ablution. Sensitive storage for these items needs to be agreed with those concerned.”

Some schools have set up prayer spaces that can be used for pupils of different faiths. Among them is Atkinson Road Primary Academy in Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne, which has a prayer room for Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs. The room was partly inspired by a new pupil who on her first day at the school was upset because she did not know in which direction Mecca lay when she wanted to pray. A corner of the prayer room faces Mecca and has a screened off area with prayer mats. And at Leytonstone School, east London, pupils can also use a prayer room.

The pupil challenging Michaela School’s ban said the veto had affected her faith. “It’s like somebody saying I don’t properly belong here,” she said.

Other Muslim pupils previously told BBC London that they were distressed by the prayer ban. One, Selena, said: “Once I did find out about the prayer ban, I felt like the school had stripped me and other students of my Islamic identity.

“I felt belittled and that I had to somewhat change who I was in order to fit in because it’s like they made it seem that being overtly Muslim was non-British or toxic. So I could never really be true to myself.”

After the result, Ms Birbalsingh said families chose Michaela not just because of its excellent results. “They choose Michaela because they recognise that our traditional values create a school environment that is a joy to be in. Our children are happy and are friends with each other across racial and religious divides.”

She warned against a false narrative about Muslims being an oppressed minority at Michaela. “They are, in fact, the largest group,” she said. “Those who are most at risk are other minorities and Muslim children who are less observant. If parents do not like what Michaela is, they do not need to send their children to us.”

Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, said on Twitter/X: “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.”

Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, welcomed the ruling, saying that schools should not be left alone to cope with these issues. “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,” he said.


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