• Saturday, March 02, 2024

HEADLINE STORY

Katharine Birbalsingh defends ‘prayer ban’ at school

Birbalsingh claims the prayer ban restored calm and order to the school

FILE PHOTO: Katharine Birbalsingh arrives at the BBC studios in central London on January 29, 2023. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

By: Pramod Thomas

THE headteacher of a London school, which has implemented a ban on prayers, emphasised that the decision was unrelated to any “disapproval of Islam.”

Katharine Birbalsingh, the headmistress of Michaela Community School in Wembley, northwest London, said the prayer ban restored calm and order to the school.

The school is facing a legal challenge in the High Court over allegations of implementing a “prayer ban.”

Michaela’s policy, introduced in March 2023, prompted a legal challenge from a Muslim student who argued that it violated her freedom of religion.

During an interview on Times Radio, Birbalsingh said that in addition to the school facing death threats and a bomb scare, one of her teachers was subjected to repeated racial slurs such as “a monkey,” the C-word, and the N-word, following the ban.

“You need to actively encourage the children to cross racial and religious divides. I do not want to divide children according to race and religion,” she was quoted as saying.

“Because of our building, the restrictions of the building, because of our ethos, I would necessarily have to divide them. So I’d have to send all the Muslim kids upstairs, and I’d have to send all the non-Muslim kids downstairs. I don’t want that.”

She pointed out that the number of Muslim students in the school has increased from 30 per cent in 2014 to 50 per cent now.

There was an incident where someone tried to break into one teacher’s home, and another teacher had her home window shattered. Additionally, bottles were thrown into the school yard, said Birbalsingh.

“People can pray in their head. We’re talking about prayer rituals. For eight years, nobody’s ever prayed and we haven’t had prayer rooms. We make that very clear to all of the families who come to the school,” she added.

Birbalsingh said she and her teaching staff are ‘nervous and hopeful’ regarding the results of the legal challenge against the school’s prohibition on prayer rituals.

Represented by Sarah Hannett KC, the student claimed in the court that the ban had fundamentally altered her experience as a Muslim in the country, likening it to feeling excluded. Hannett argued that the policy effectively prevented Muslim students from praying due to the ritualised nature of their prayers.

In response, Jason Coppel KC, representing the Michaela School Community Trust, argued that the headteacher’s decision to enforce the ban was an emergency response to escalating tensions within the school community.

Coppel added that the ban was justified and proportionate, considering threats and bomb hoaxes linked to religious observance on school premises.

The court heard that up to 30 students began praying in the schoolyard in March 2023, leading to concerns about a potential shift towards segregation and intimidation among religious groups.

The two-day hearing at the court, before Justice Linden, concluded last Wednesday (17) with the judge expressing his intention to deliver the ruling “as quickly as possible.”

Eastern Eye

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