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In today’s diverse and multicultural society, the question of whether religion should be a part of the educational system continues to spark debates. The recent High Court challenge against Michaela Community School in Wembley, northwest London, sheds light on a contentious issue within the realm of education – the role of religion in schools. Founded by teacher and educational reformer Katharine Birbalsingh, the school is facing scrutiny over its policy of banning prayer rituals, with a student arguing that the ban disproportionately affects Muslim children and consequently taking the school to court. The case has invited a broader discussion on the implications of incorporating religious practices in schools and whether a more secular approach might be necessary for fostering a truly inclusive and tolerant educational environment.

Headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, the Government’s former Social Mobility Commissioner, implemented a temporary prayer ban at the Michaela Community School in March of last year as an element of its inclusive ethos. Birbalsingh said the school went to great lengths to make sure children from all backgrounds mix, but argued that allowing children to separate at lunchtime to pray impacted the ethos of the school.

As a result of the ban, a two-day High Court judicial review hearing against the school has been brought by one of its Muslim pupils, who cannot be named for legal reasons. Her lawyers argue the ban breached equality laws and the student’s freedom of religion.

Yet Birbalsingh has continued to robustly defend the school’s position, asserting that the claim should be dismissed. She argues that the ban was needed to restore “calm and order” after harassment and violence was directed at the school’s teachers, pointing out also that the school’s number of Muslim pupils has grown by 50%.

It is hard to disagree with Birbalsingh. Michaela Community School, based in Wembley, has been consistently awarded Ofsted’s highest rating. Following Ofsted’s latest inspection of the school in May 2023, inspectors found the expectations put on pupils are “exceptionally high,” meaning they “rise to the challenges” set by teachers and “take their education seriously.”

Despite the school’s successful record, Birbalsingh is being dragged through the courts and pilloried by commentators, with one Guardian journalist calling the ban “a dystopian, sinister vision of Britishness.”

To her credit, Gillian Keegan MP, the Secretary of State for Education, has posted a supportive tweet for Birbalsingh, but most MPs have stayed silent on the issue.

There is nothing radical about Birbalsingh’s stance. Other countries also emphasise the separation of religion and education as a fundamental principle. Religious symbols have been banned in French schools since 2004. In August 2023, Emmanuel Macron went further, barring children in public schools from wearing the abaya, a loose-fitting, full-length robe worn by some Muslim women.

In Germany, eight states have introduced so-called “neutrality laws,” which mean that religious symbols and prayer are banned in public schools. It is argued that this ban helps maintain a fair and unbiased learning environment, allowing students to form their own beliefs independently.

It is time that policymakers in the UK examined the role of religion in educational settings. As it stands, in the UK, a school’s rules must conform to the Human Rights Act and Equality Act, which protect characteristics associated with religion or belief, race, gender or ability. Whilst these rights can be assessed against other priorities, there are no blanket bans and pupils can dispute restrictions on a case-by-case basis.

While the idea of banning religion in schools may be met with resistance from those who value the importance of faith-based education, this should be outweighed by the need to create an inclusive, unbiased, and rational learning environment. Banning religion in schools helps safeguard students from potential indoctrination, allowing them the freedom to explore diverse ideas and form their own worldviews based on their experiences, knowledge and personal reflections. By fostering critical thinking, preserving the separation of church and state and promoting equal opportunities, a secular education system seeks to prepare students for the complexities of the modern world, encouraging them to navigate it with an open mind and a respect for diverse perspectives.

Britain’s rich tapestry of cultures and religions can be a source of strength, but it also carries the risk of potential divides and flashpoints. At Batley Grammar in Yorkshire, a religious studies teacher had to go into hiding in 2021 after showing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed to pupils. For days afterwards parents and activists protested at the school gates and the teacher received death threats. In 2023, it was reported that the teacher was still in hiding with his young family.

The incident had a lasting impact on schools, with a Policy Exchange-commissioned survey finding in November 2023 that one in six teachers had curtailed teachings on religion after the Batley furore. Policy Exchange said the findings showed that a “de facto blasphemy code” had been established in classrooms.

Schools are the foundation of a child’s integration into society and as such should be spaces that unite rather than divide. The call to ban religion in UK schools is not about stifling individual beliefs; it is about creating an environment that fosters diversity and encourages free thought. The shackles of religious dogma have no place in a modern, forward-thinking educational system.

Isabella Wallersteiner is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.