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Aishah's dream is to teach

Aishah Azmi, the teaching assistant at the centre of the row about veils in schools, wants to be a full-time teacher.

Mrs Azmi was suspended earlier this year from her part-time job at Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, after refusing to remove her veil in the presence of male teachers. Claiming religious discrimination, she took her case to an employment tribunal in July. The verdict is not expected until later this month.

But Phil Woolas, minister for local government and community cohesion, has called for her to be sacked, triggering an angry response from Muslim groups and Mrs Azmi's lawyers.

Nick Whittingham, practice manager of Kirklees Law Centre, said Mrs Azmi did not think wearing a veil should stop her being a classroom teacher. "If she was teaching a class of young children she would not need to wear it,"

Mr Whittingham said. "She would only have to put it on if a male teacher came into the room."

Mr Whittingham said Mrs Azmi was doing a part-time English degree at Leeds university and hoped to complete a postgraduate certificate in education course before becoming a full-time teacher.

No child or parent had complained about her wearing the veil at Headfield school, where 92 per cent of children are Muslim. He said many parents also wore veils.

"Mrs Azmi believes that children do not rely on the same stereotypes as adults, and tend to accept people as they are."

Prime Minister Tony Blair joined the row on Tuesday by saying veils are a symbol of separation. He was asked if he thought veiled Muslims can be full members of society.

Mr Blair replied: "It is a mark of separation and that is why it makes people from outside the community feel uncomfortable. We need to confront this issue about how we intgrate people properly into our society."

A spokeswoman for Kirklees council said she could not comment on the case until the tribunal had given its verdict.

Mrs Azmi's case came to the fore following the maelstrom caused by remarks by Jack Straw, the leader of the House of Commons. He prompted nationwide debate when he admitted asking women in his Blackburn constituency if they minded removing their veils when they spoke to him.

Headfield school has been the subject of a "notice to improve" since February, after Ofsted inspectors described the school as inadequate and said its children were not progressing fast enough. The school's performance in national tests puts it in the bottom 5 per cent of primary schools.

However, inspectors added that despite "staffing difficulties" the school was heading in the right direction. When they return next year, inspectors can remove or renew the notice to improve, or put the school in special measures.

Kenny Frederick, head of George Green's secondary on the Isle of Dogs, London, said she had banned veils, both on the grounds of health and safety and because it was difficult for teachers to understand what pupils were saying.

She said: "Two girls in the sixth form wanted to wear veils a couple of years ago. We spoke to them, and they agreed not to. They had not told their parents anything about it."

Nick Brown, principal of Oldham sixth-form college, said one student had been allowed to wear a veil a few years ago, but only after agreeing to remove it during fire drills.

"There are times when a bit of flexibility and understanding can solve these things," he said. Both headteachers said parents coming to school wearing veils had never caused problems.

In a separate development, a leading Muslim academic sparked controversy this week by suggesting that all non-believers attending state-funded Islamic schools should be required to wear a headscarf.

Idris Mears, a member of the Muslim Council for Britain's education committee and former head of the Association of Muslim Schools, said pupils should only be granted a place if they abide by traditional Islamic dress-codes.

His comments follow a row over a state-funded Muslim school in Leicester, which said last week that all girls should cover their heads, irrespective of faith.

Governors at Leicester's Madani high school, a state school replacing the private Leicester Islamic Academy next September, later backtracked over the comments, saying there was "no question" of forcing non-Muslims to wear the headscarf or other symbols of the Islamic faith.

In an interview with The TES, Mr Mears, who now works as a fundraiser and consultant for the association, backed the original comments. Responding to calls by Alan Johnson, Education Secretary, to reserve a quarter of places at faith schools for non-believers, Mr Mears said he could see "no problem"

with other faiths attending Muslim schools. He denied that requiring all girls to wear a headscarf was contentious, saying opposition would only arise if they were asked to don a full hijab.

"A headscarf is simply part of the uniform in most Muslim schools," he said. "If parents want to send their child to a Muslim school but don't want to abide by the rules then obviously it is going to be a problem."

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