UK’s Ofsted chief inspector backs teacher who sought hijab ban for girls under 8

The issue of the hijab and school uniforms is back into UK headlines.
Thursday 01/02/2018
A Muslim girl pushes her friend on a swing after finishing a GCSE exam near their school in Hackney in east London. (Reuters)
Back into the spotlight. A Muslim girl pushes her friend on a swing after finishing a GCSE exam near their school in Hackney in east London. (Reuters)

LONDON - Amanda Spielman, a senior member of the UK’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) has backed a teacher who sought to ban the hijab for children under eight, warning that religion is being used to “actively pervert” the purpose of education.
Speaking to a Church of England schools conference on February 1, Spielman, who is Ofsted’s chief inspector, referenced an ongoing dispute over a teacher who received pushback from some parents and community members after attempting to ban the hijab for girls under eight.
“School leaders must have the right to set school uniform policies in a way that they see fit, in order to promote cohesion,” Spielman said.
“It is a matter of deep regret that this outstanding school has been subject to a campaign of abuse by some elements within the community. I want to be absolutely clear, Ofsted will always back heads who take tough decisions in the interests of their pupils,” she added.
The teacher in question is Neena Lall of the St Stephen’s primary school in Newham, East London. She became the subject of local controversy after attempting to ban the hijab for girls under the age of eight at the predominantly Muslim state school. More than 19,000 people signed a petition opposing the move, and it was overturned by the school’s governors one week later.
Spielman, in response to the controversy, said British schools must do more to “tackle those who actively undermine fundamental British values” and that “schools must not, in their entirely correct goal of promoting tolerance, shy away from challenging fundamentalist practice where it appears in their schools or communities.”
“Similarly schools must not allow pressure from certain elements of school communities to dictate school policy, nor should we allow vocal parental minorities to pressure other parties and children to act or dress against their wishes. Giving way to the loudest voices is the opposite of tolerance,” she added.
The controversial policy, which Lall said was grounded in the fact that Islamic teaching does not require girls to wear the headscarf until reaching puberty, faced criticism from some conservative Muslims in the UK, including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an umbrella body of over 500 British mosques, charities and schools.
“As Ms Spielman continues to issue a disproportionate number of public statements about Muslims and apparent links to extremism, we hope she will consult before issuing further unjustifiable policies,” said an MCB spokesman.
Last year, MCB Secretary-General Harun Khan wrote an open letter to the Ofsted chief inspector calling for further engagement.
“There are legitimate discussions amongst parents about whether young children should wear a headscarf at school (given there is no Islamic obligation for pre-pubescent girls), how much real choice young children truly have and what is appropriate in terms of school uniform policy. However, we fear that Ofsted’s approach and the language used, will give the impression that you do not understand the communities which are being targeted,” the open letter said.
Spielman’s speech brings the issue of the hijab and school uniforms back into the headlines, with many now calling on the government to take a firmer line and clarify its stance.
The current guidelines issued by the UK’s Department of Education state that uniform policies are a matter for individual schools and explicitly calls for a “reasonable” accommodation of religious views.