Katherine Birbalsingh, Indian-origin school principal, wins UK legal challenge over prayer ban

Indian-origin school principal Katherine Birbalsingh, often referred to as “Britain’s strictest headmistress”, yesterday welcomed a UK High Court ruling that upheld her ban on prayer rituals, after a Muslim pupil sought to legally challenge it as discriminatory.

UK school headmistress Katherine Birbalsingh
Headmistress Katherine Birbalsingh has said that the UK ruling is a victory for all schools, because no school should be forced to change its well-considered policy just because one student decides he or she does not like something. Photo courtesy: X/@BladeoftheS

Katherine Birbalsingh, who is of Indo-Guyanese heritage, had told the court that Michaela School — a “secular” secondary school for boys and girls in Wembley, north London — did not allow religious prayers in keeping with its ethos of promoting an “inclusive environment”.

While half of the pupils at the school are Muslims, it also has large numbers of Sikh, Hindu, and Christian pupils.

“As the Governing Body is aware, the School does not provide a prayer room for use by pupils, for various reasons. These reasons include that a prayer room would foster division amongst pupils, contrary to the School’s ethos, lack of available space and available staff to supervise pupils, and that pupils would miss important School activities, including during the lunch break if they were to spend time in a prayer room,” Birbalsingh told the court.

“Unacceptable segregation or division, contrary to the whole ethos of the School, was taking place as a result of permitting prayer. An intimidatory atmosphere was developing. Our strict disciplinary policies, on which the ethos and great success of (the) School is based, were at risk of being undermined,” she said.

Justice Thomas Linden, in an 80-page judgement following a hearing in January, ruled in the school’s favour.

“In my judgement, the starting point is that the School was right to take the view that the issue was whether to permit and facilitate ritual prayer indoors: in effect, to reverse its longstanding policy of not providing a prayer room,” it read.

“She (the unnamed pupil) 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… Her evidence has focussed on her preferences and what she supposes the position would be elsewhere,” noted the judgement.

In a statement following the ruling, Birbalsingh said that it was a “victory for all schools” and of the “robust yet respectful secularism” principles on which the school she founded in 2014 was run.

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.

Katherine Birbalsingh, founder and headmistress of Michaela School, Wembley, north London

The headteacher received the backing of the United Kingdom government. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan took to social media to state: “I have always been clear that headteachers are best placed to make decisions in their school. Michaela is an outstanding school, and I hope this judgement gives all school leaders the confidence to make the right decisions for their pupils.”

Birbalsingh put up a post on the social network X, issuing her statement after the court ruling. Explaining the ethos of her highly regarded school, she also pointed out the ludicrous wastage of public funds on this legal challenge.

She wrote: “If parents do not like what Michaela is, they do not need to send their children to us.

“Can it be right for a family to receive GBP 150,000 of taxpayer-funded legal aid to bring a case like this? 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.”

The High Court in London found that the prayer ritual ban was lawful under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and Section 19 of the Equality Act 2010.

The Muslim pupil, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had argued that the school’s ban “uniquely” affected her faith due to its ritualised nature. She has since said that while she lost, she felt she did the right thing and now wants to focus on her studies.