Lives “endangered” at school which restricted prayer rituals

Posted: Thu, 18th Jan 2024

NSS calls for government action after school subjected to death threats and bomb scares.

Jonathan A Jones, via Wikimedia Commons

The National Secular Society has said the government "must do more to protect and support" schools after teachers received death threats over a policy restricting prayer rituals.

Michaela community school in Wembley was subjected to death threats and bomb scares last year after a pupil broke school rules about praying in the playground.

The school's headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh said teachers' lives "are now endangered".

The pupil, known as "TTT", and her mother are taking legal action against the school, saying the restriction on prayer rituals is discriminatory and breaches their freedom of religion or belief.

Prayer rituals "catalyst for abuse and threats"

According to The Mail on Sunday, court documents reveal that a group of around 30 pupils intimidated other pupils who would not fast during Ramadan, pressured a girl into wearing a hijab, and coerced another girl into leaving the school choir by telling her it was forbidden in Islam.

The pupils also started holding prayer rituals in the playground, and put pressure on pupils who chose not pray.

The school said the prayer rituals created an "intimidatory and aggressive atmosphere" and "resulted in a division in the playground between the Muslim and the non-Muslim children which had never happened before".

Birbalsingh said the school's governing body decided to ban the prayer rituals after weighing up all other options because they had become a "catalyst for abuse and threats".

Email threatens: "you will be dealt with like the filthy dog that you are"

In March, TTT was suspended for two days after displaying "extreme rudeness" towards a teacher who objected to her bringing a prayer mat to the playground.

The suspension prompted "the most appalling abuse and threats" to teachers, including threatening phone calls and emails.

One email said: "If you carry on disrespecting our Muslim children you will be dealt with like the filthy dog that you are."

Another warned: "'We have planted several bombs in the building, many of which are hidden in toilets, hall rooms and classes on all floors. These are the consequences of your actions."

Individual staff members were also attacked. One teacher's home had a brick thrown through the window. A break-in was also attempted at a teacher's home. A black teacher was subjected to racist abuse, and other teachers received death threats.

Bottles were also thrown into the playground from the street.

Birbalsingh said the school has had to hire security for staff as their lives "are now endangered".

Headteacher: Michaela is "a happy and respectful secular school"

In a statement on X on Tuesday, Birbalsingh said the policy "restored calm and order to the school".

She said Michaela is "a happy and respectful secular school" which wants its "multi-cultural and multi-faith community to flourish".

She noted that the "positive experiences" of Muslim pupils had helped grow their number at the school by 50%. She added that the school has "always been clear" to prospective parents and pupils that the restrictive building and prohibition against pupils being left unsupervised means it "cannot have a prayer room".

She said those from all religions at the school "make sacrifices so that we can maintain a safe secular community" and that children are allowed "freedoms of all sorts, as long as those freedoms do not threaten the happiness and success of the whole school community".

She added: "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".

Several schools have been subjected to aggressive intimidation campaigns by Muslim fundamentalists in recent years:

  • In 2018 St Stephen's Primary School in East London was sent hundreds of emails, several allegedly threatening violence, after it objected to pupils as young as eight being sent to school wearing hijab or told to fast for Ramadan.
  • Several schools in Birmingham in 2019 were subjected to protests from fundamentalist Muslims, with some teachers being abused and threatened, for teaching about LGBT equality.
  • A teacher at Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire was forced into hiding after showing a picture of Muhammad during a religious education lesson in 2021.
  • Last year a pupil at Kettlethorpe High School in Wakefield received death threats after bringing a Quran into school where it was allegedly scuffed.
  • Also last year, Plashet School in London terminated a school equalities club following threatening complaints, prompted by an Islamic group.

Several groups, including the NSS, have urged the government to give support to schools facing religious intimidation.

NSS: Pursuit of inclusive, secular school ethos "understandable and laudable"

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: "Our schools should be places where teachers and students of all backgrounds feel safe, welcome and respected.

"Religion can clearly be a divisive force within schools. In such a context, the pursuit of an inclusive and secular school ethos is both understandable and laudable.

"The courts will determine the legality of the school's policy, but the rising tide of intimidation and threats involving schools should be universally condemned.

"Where religious fundamentalism is imposing itself on schools, whether through protests or intimidation, the government must do more to protect and support them."

Media mentions:
Times Radio (segment begins at 1:19:04)

What the NSS stands for

The Secular Charter outlines 10 principles that guide us as we campaign for a secular democracy which safeguards all citizens' rights to freedom of and from religion.

Tags: Collective worship, Extremism