Prayer Spaces in Schools
Categories: Latest News
Monday June 17 2019
The Islamophobia Response Unit (IRU) at MEND has witnessed a recent rise in reports from young Muslims across the country who are unable to access a prayer space at their schools.
These reports suggest that schools aren’t meeting the needs of their students, and they would benefit from guidelines on how best to accommodate religious rights in school. The right to prayer is protected under legislation, and so having guidelines from the Department for Education (DfE) on this matter would be beneficial for schools.
The right to prayer is protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and is embedded into UK legislation through the Human Rights Act 1998. This article states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Furthermore, Schedule 19 of the Equality Act 2010 designates schools as a ‘public authority’, meaning they should advance the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) as set out in Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010.
Most relevant to the issue of prayer spaces in schools, the PSED states public authorities must advance equality of opportunity. To ‘advance equality’, the legislation says several steps should be taken, including: removing or minimising disadvantages suffered by people with protected characteristics due to having that characteristic; taking steps to meet the needs of people with protected characteristics that are different from people who do not have that characteristic; and, encouraging protected groups to participate in public life and in any other activity where participation is disproportionately low.
The DfE’s own 2014 departmental advice for school leaders, school staff, governing bodies, and local authorities makes explicit mention of “enabling Muslim pupils to pray at prescribed times” as an example of how to advance equality. It is therefore surprising that, more than five years later, the IRU is still receiving reports of schoolchildren not being able to pray due to a lack of facilities, suggesting the DfE’s guidelines are not as robust or thorough enough to enable schools to make this important provision for Muslim children.
Moreover, the benefits of a multi-faith prayer space are not restricted to Muslim children, but also contribute towards the healthy religious identity formation for students of all faiths who may choose to access it.
Moreover, studies have repeatedly demonstrated the value of meditation, mindfulness, and contemplative practice for young people in combatting stress, improving social and academic skills, and generally promoting mental wellbeing. The University of Surrey, School of Psychology, found that participants who engaged in mindfulness showed a 58% reduction in anxiety and a 40% reduction in perceived stress.
The Muslim Council of Britain stated in a 2007 report that the markers of a good prayer room space are having arrangements for daily prayer, arrangements for the Friday congregational prayer, and ensuring washing facilities are available. Multi-faith prayer rooms which meet this criterion are not uncommon in the UK and are in places such as airports, hospitals, universities, and even shopping centres. Their prominence suggests that they are relatively innocuous, and do not infringe on the functionality or logistics of wherever they are present. Looking at the relative ease in which prayer spaces integrate into such public places, some of which may not even be under a PSED to make any such arrangements, there seems to be little justification for some schools continuing to fall short in providing them for their pupils.
An example of a school making provision for its pupils to pray is Atkinson Road Primary Academy, in Newcastle, which opened the first multi-faith prayer room in the North East. The idea for the room came from a Muslim pupil who needed to pray on the first day of school but was unsure as to which direction Makkah was. A consultation with various interest parties highlighted a demand for such a room, resulting in the school deciding to open one.
Similarly, Leytonstone School, in London, welcomes all students to use the prayer room for quiet reflection and operates a ‘prayer club’ for Muslim students to pray. Every Friday, a sermon is delivered by a member of staff, followed by Jummah prayer.
These examples illustrate the relative ease in which schools can service the demand of their pupils and uphold their duty under the Equality Act at the same time. The Equality Act is undoubtedly a great foundation from which to work towards eliminating discrimination. Nevertheless, the guidelines provided by bodies such as the Department for Education to public authorities under a duty to advance the provisions of the Equality Act lack precision and assertiveness. The vagueness and scope for subjectivity render the guidelines incapable of making a tangible difference to the lives of Muslim schoolchildren, and their continued inability to manifest their religion in the form of observing prayer is an example of this failure.
MEND urges the Department for Education to publish guidelines regarding the accommodation of religious rights in schools, including but not limited to the provision of prayer space, and freedom of religious dress. The DfE should provide this guidance through proactively engaging and consulting with representative and grassroots organisation within British Muslim communities in matters regarding educational policy development and implementation.