The UK’s largest teaching union today warned against pressuring schools into banning hijab for very young girls for fear of increasing backlash from the local communities. The National Education Union (NEU), which is debating the issue at a meeting in Brighton over the weekend, criticised the country’s schools watchdog for interfering in the matter. The chief of the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) Amanda Spielman has spoken out about her concerns over Muslim girls as young as five wearing the headscarf and suggested that school inspectors explore why they are doing so. “I think it is a problem that Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s chief inspector [of schools], speaks out on this in a way which I think is frankly very political,” said Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the NEU, at the opening of the NEU’s annual conference yesterday.
“People feeling so much pressure from Ofsted, our worry is that instead of consultation we will find schools saying: we are going to ban the hijab. And we think that would be very damaging to community relations. It’s not a sensible place to go, so our guidance will be about how you have dialogue, respectful dialogue and dialogue based on love for one another,” he said. Courtney said that new guidance from the union would be issued to schools on developing uniform policies, making clear that headteachers should not take the decision but needed to reach an agreement with the local community. The comments come in the wake of controversy around St Stephen’s School in east London’s attempt to ban the hijab for very young girls. It led to complaints of bullying of the school’s staff, including Indian-origin principal Neena Lall, and Spielman came out in support of Lall.
But after heavy opposition from community leaders and abusive comments on social media, Lall was forced to withdraw the ban earlier this year. Spielman had earlier announced that Ofsted inspectors would ask young pupils themselves why they wore the hijab in an attempt to build a wider picture. “That individual Ofsted inspectors would ask individual Muslim girls why they were wearing the hijab, and then to imply that they were wearing the hijab because they had been sexualised, indicates somebody who isn’t in touch with Muslim communities at all,” Courtney said, as he tabled a motion to be debated by the NEU.
The motion states that Spielman’s statements “have ramifications beyond the school gates and must be seen in the context of increased attacks on the Muslim community and particular stereotypes about Muslim girls and Muslim women”. Ofsted branded the NEU’s comments “disappointing”. “There’s nothing political about ensuring that schools and parents aren’t being subject to undue pressure by national or community campaign groups. “Headteachers need to be able to take uniform decisions on the basis of safeguarding or community cohesion concerns, and Ofsted will always support them in doing that,” a spokesperson said.