Schools which have uniform policies may have to re-assess the way they are enforced, following a court ruling.
By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website
The Court of Appeal held that a Muslim girl's human rights were violated by a school's insistence on its dress code.
The court called on the Department for Education and Skills to give schools more guidance on how to meet their obligations under the Human Rights Act.
The department says its guidance does take account of religious needs.
Shabina Begum, 15, had accused Denbigh High School in Luton, Bedfordshire, of denying her the "right to education and to manifest her religious beliefs" over her wish to wear a full-length jilbab gown.
The school, where most pupils are Muslim, had consulted Islamic scholars for advice, and had argued that Ms Begum had chosen a school with a uniform policy and, if she did not like it, could move to another school.
Ms Begum says her religion requires her to cover up
But Lord Justice Brooke, vice-president of the civil division of the Court of Appeal, ruled that her exclusion was unlawful.
The school had unlawfully denied her "the right to manifest her religion", he said.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) said: "Our school uniform guidance states that governors should bear in mind their responsibilities under sex and race discrimination legislation and the Human Rights Act, be sensitive to pupils' cultural and religious needs and differences and give high priority to cost considerations."
Currently in the UK there is no legislation that deals specifically with school uniforms, which are a matter for individual schools.
DfES guidelines say that where the governing body has decided that pupils should wear a school uniform, it is for the head teacher to enforce the policy as part of day-to-day discipline.
But the department "does not consider that exclusion from school would normally be appropriate where a pupil fails to comply with the school's rules on uniform".
This proviso applies where a pupil's non-compliance with the uniform policy "results from them having to adhere to a particular cultural, race or religious dress code".
The guidelines say schools must be "sensitive to the needs of different cultures, races and religions" and accommodate those needs within their general uniform policy.
"For example, allowing Muslim girls to wear appropriate dress and Sikh boys to wear traditional headdress."
The guidelines do not go into detail about what would constitute "appropriate" dress.
The Appeal Court judges said they had sympathy with the school, but it had gone about things wrongly.
It had "approached the issues in this case from an entirely wrong direction and did not attribute to the claimant's beliefs the weight they deserved".
But Lord Justice Brooke added: "Nothing in this judgment should be taken as meaning that it would be impossible for the school to justify its stance if it were to reconsider its uniform policy in the light of this judgement and were to determine not to alter it in any significant respect."
The sorts of matters schools needed to consider included:
In a statement, Denbigh High School said the case had been lost due to "a small technical breach" of the Human Rights Act.
- whether members of other religious groups might wish to wear clothing not permitted by the school's uniform policy, and the effect this might have on its inclusiveness
- whether it was appropriate to override the beliefs of very strict Muslims, when liberal Muslims had been permitted the dress code of their choice
- whether it was appropriate to take into account concerns about such things as other pupils' feeling intimidated or coerced by the presence of very strict Muslim garb
- whether the school could do more to reconcile its wish to retain its uniform policy with the beliefs of those who considered it exposed too much of their bodies.
"The judges accepted that the school is entitled to have a uniform policy and could see nothing wrong with it. The policy will be reviewed as it always is annually."
Its local education authority, Luton Borough Council, said it was pleased the court had upheld the school's uniform policy.
But in light of the judgement, it would developing guidance on school uniform and advising Luton schools' governing bodies to review their uniform policy, taking into account the religious and cultural needs of pupils.
The Secondary Heads Association said it was disappointed by the court's decision.
"The ruling is not at all clear in what will be expected of schools. It states that schools have a right to uniform policies but students also have a right to disregard them," said the deputy general secretary, Martin Ward.
"There are wider implications for school dress codes and school leaders will want to see clearer guidance on this in the near future."
A leading solicitor with a special interest in education, Jack Rabinowicz, said the judgement showed what a difficult balancing act schools had to perform.
If a pupil became increasingly religious, a school had to consider the child's views and see whether an exception should be made in its policy.
"And that has made it difficult for schools because the whole point is you have a strict regime which applies across the board," he said.
He mentioned the recent Ofsted report highlighting how behaviour in schools had declined in recent years.
"What this school did was to apply a policy without considering the individual child - and that's what the court says you cannot do."
It had re-emphasised the need for individual consideration of individual children.
"So to that extent it's a liberal judgement, at a time when most courts and government authorities and trying to ensure a more regulated attitude towards students and their behaviour in school."