Experts divided over implications of prayer ban ruling at London school

The ruling on a prayer ban at a top London school has created a “classic English policy muddle” that has divided school leaders over its implications, with some experts predicting that more schools could ban organised prayers as a result.

The warning came after a high court judge upheld the ban at Michaela community school in Brent, north-west London, dismissing a challenge by a Muslim pupil who claimed it was discriminatory and breached her right to religious freedom.


The Muslim Council of Britain, commenting for the first time, called on the school to reconsider the policy, warning that it “sets a dangerous precedent for religious freedom in this country as it does for the future of inclusivity in our educational institutions”.

Colin Diamond, a professor of educational leadership at Birmingham University, said: “I think we are in a classic English education policy muddle now and it will take some thinking through, not least at the Department for Education.”

He said he was surprised by the ruling as there was “no such thing as a secular school” in England, with state schools still legally required to provide a daily act of collective worship that is “broadly Christian”.

Prakash Shah, a reader in culture and law at Queen Mary, University of London, said the judgment could encourage other schools to introduce a similar ban. He said it was significant that the judge ruled the prayer ban did not interfere with the pupil’s freedom to manifest her religious beliefs.

“The court could have easily said that there was an interference but that it was justified,” Prakash said. “This judgment sets a somewhat higher bar to future claimants who would have to establish both that there was interference and that it was not justified. So some reading the judgment might well conclude that a prayer ban is more likely to be within the law. This could therefore encourage headteachers and/or governing bodies to decide to effect such a prayer ban.”

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, disagreed. “This judgment was on a very particular set of circumstances and turned on the school’s existing policies and ethos, its physical environment, and its community, so it is very hard to see that other schools would be in comparable circumstances,” Cruddas said.

“Schools and trusts will have existing policies on their approach to prayer that reflect their settings and we believe it is unlikely they would change these as a direct result of this case.”

The Church of England’s chief education officer, Nigel Genders, agreed that the case related to the day-to-day decisions of a particular school in its own circumstances. “We do not believe this judgment challenges the principle of freedom of religion or belief, or indeed collective worship in schools, which we strongly support,” he said.

Reza Gholami, a professor of sociology of education at the University of Birmingham, said the prayer ban was part of a political pattern of education policymakers and leaders using ideas of Muslim extremism as a “shock tactic” to make Muslim pupils seem “alien and segregationist”.

“There may well be legitimate concerns about the specific ways in which certain groups want to practise their religion or culture, but schools – as key institutions in a liberal democracy – should enter into deliberation and negotiation with the communities they represent … and not issue blanket bans citing fears of Muslim extremism and a greater allegiance to ‘our country’,” he said.

The DfE’s behaviour adviser, Tom Bennett, said the “unique history” of religion and schools in the UK had resulted in “an often ambiguous set of principles and laws guiding how religion is taught and expressed in schools”.

He said: “So I welcome – and think heads will welcome – any clarity on this area, and the precedent this provides to guide the way they want to build their school cultures, with or without provision for the multiple ways in which faith can be expressed.”

A recent report by Ofsted found that religious education in schools in England was often “limited and of a poor quality”, leaving many pupils with only a superficial or misleading understanding. In one example given by Ofsted, “when asked to give three reasons why God sent Jesus into the world, one pupil wrote: ‘To be king, be kind and pick up litter.’”

Ofsted’s report concluded that the government “should urgently update guidance for schools about its statutory expectations for RE”.


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