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Banning religious rituals in schools and colleges: lessons from the High Court

To what extent can schools and colleges ban pupils from taking part in prayer rituals on their premises without breaching their convention rights or discriminating against them? The High Court in TTT v Michaela Community Schools Trust provides some useful legal guidance.


The school is a non-state secondary school in London. It's head, Katharine Birbalsingh has been dubbed the ‘strictest’ head teacher in the UK, not least because she runs her school like a military operation. Almost every part of the school day is prescribed including 25 of the 50 minute lunch break set which is set aside for ‘guided socialisation’. 

Around half of the school population are Muslims and there are large numbers of Sikh, Hindu and Christian pupils. The school ‘aggressively promotes’ integration between different faiths, cultures and ethnic backgrounds and its policies reinforce its approach. Children are allowed to wear some religious items and to adhere to some rituals - such as fasting during Ramadan - but the school doesn't accommodate any religious practice which undermined its ethos. 

Although there was no explicit policy in place, most of the pupils appear to have believed that they could not take part in prayer rituals during the school day. There is no prayer room. 

TTT had been a pupil for around three years. She is Muslim and became ‘deeply unhappy’ that she could not perform the lunchtime prayer because there were no rooms designed for this purpose. In March 2023 she and other pupils prayed in the outside yard. Over the next couple of days more pupil's joined in: some used their blazers as prayer mats, others brought in mats which could be folded away and put into their pockets in breach of school rules. A teacher asked them to stop. TTT and another student got into an argument with the teacher and were suspended from school for a short period.

An on-line petition was launched which attracted over 4,000 signatures. The school was accused of ‘disgusting Islamophobic behaviour’ and the head and other teachers received abusive and threatening messages. The school received a bomb threat, teacher's homes were targeted and part of the school was vandalised. 

The school decided to ban prayer rituals and implemented the policy after the Easter break without incident.

TTT brought proceedings against the school. She argued that the prayer ban was unlawful and 1) breached her freedom to manifest her religious beliefs contrary to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights; 2) indirectly discriminated against Muslim pupils; and 3) the school failed in its public sector equality duty to advance equality of opportunity and to foster good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.


The High Court rejected these claims for the following reasons:

1. Right to manifest a religion or belief

People have an absolute right to believe in a religion or belief, but only a qualified right to manifest their religion/belief at a time of their choice. Courts will, generally, not uphold claims of a breach of this right where:

  • the claimant has voluntarily accepted rules which limit the way they can observe their religious beliefs, or
  • there are ways to get around the limitation, or
  • they have a genuine choice about manifesting their beliefs elsewhere.

In this case, TTT knew the school was secular when she applied to join it, had previously caught up with lunchtime prayers later in the day and had made it clear that she was ‘determined to stay’ at the school even with these restrictions in place. It was also possible for her to go to another school which allowed her to pray at lunchtime. 

Even though that disposed of the issue, the court went on to consider whether the policy was justified. The school said the policy was necessary to 1) preserve the school's ethos; 2) promote compliance with its behaviour policy; 3) protect the school from threats and abuse; 4) avoid disruption within the school; and 5) avoid adversely impacting pupils' education and social cohesion. 

The Judge accepted that these were legitimate aims and there wasn't a less intrusive way of achieving these because of the school's ethos and the difficulties of creating space for all Muslims who wanted to pray. In respect of the latter point, the school building was formerly an office block and complex adjustments were already necessary to ensure that pupils were able to move around the building safely and their lessons were able to start on time.

2. Indirect discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination in the provision of services, including the provision of education. Schools are prohibited from discriminating against a pupil on a number of grounds including by subjecting them to a detriment. 

The ban on religious rituals amounted to a ‘provision, criterion or practice’ (PCP) and that it put TTT to a detriment because she was a Muslim who wished to pray at school. It was not necessary to show that all Muslim's wanted to pray during the school day. There was group disadvantage and TTT suffered the same disadvantage. 

It is possible for employers to justify their approach if they can demonstrate that the policy in question is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. The Judge found in favour of the school for the same reasons as set out under the human rights challenge.

3. Public sector equality duty (PSED)

Even though there was no specific reference to the PSED in relevant briefings and meeting notes, the school was not found to have failed to have due regard to the PSED because the governing body had considered relevant issues in substance and in the context of the school.

Implications for other schools and colleges

These cases are fact specific and this decision doesn't bind any other court or tribunal. However, it does provide a useful ‘checklist’ of the legal issues in play, the relevant caselaw and a clear example of how a court will decide whether a policy is proportionate. 

This case does not mean that all schools and colleges can introduce a prayer ban or otherwise to restrict how their pupils/students manifest their religious or other beliefs. This school's ethos and policies were relatively unusual in how strongly they promoted order and secularity and this meant that they could persuade the court that any disadvantage to the pupil was outweighed by the aims which it sought to promote in the interests of the school community as a whole. It's not clear how a court might consider a policy banning religious rituals in another case where the school or college has a different ethos.  

Schools and colleges can, however, take some comfort from the court's central finding that a pupil's Article 9 rights had not been interfered with because she knew it was a secular school when she enrolled and she could move to another school.

The claimant in this case did not present any evidence that this would cause undue hardship or inconvenience. And, although she argued that moving schools would disrupt her GCSE's the court said that she had enough time to find somewhere else given that she had only recently started year 10. That could be different for a pupil who was well into their GCSE years - particularly as they would need to find a school/college with the same syllabus and exam board. It's possible that that would amount to sufficient hardship or inconvenience. 

We suggest that you take advice before implementing a similar policy. You will need good written evidence to demonstrate how you reached your decision and the reasons for this. We have an excellent public law team, headed up by Yogi Amin who can help you introduce a new policy or defend an existing one. 

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Responding to the High Court judgment, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: "I have always been clear that head teachers are best placed to make decisions in their school.

"Michaela is an outstanding school and I hope this judgment gives all school leaders the confidence to make the right decisions for their pupils."”