A SCHOOL is fighting to be allowed to ban pupils from wearing a full-face veil, arguing that it poses a security risk in the playground.
The high court in London is to decide this month whether the school in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, is allowed to ban a 12-year-old Muslim girl from wearing the niqab.
A school security consultant told The TES that it was unprecedented to justify such a ban on security grounds, and comparable only with the balaclava ban at the height of the Northern Ireland troubles.
Graham Cook, head of security for consultants Lambert Smith Hampton, said schools would need to be very sure of their legal position before imposing such a ban, adding: "This is a country founded on the principle of religious freedom."
The Muslim girl said she had been suffering headaches, sleeplessness and weight loss since the head teacher sent her home in October last year.
"I have a strong belief that my faith requires me to wear the niqab," she said. "Nobody has forced me to wear it. It is a decision I have made and is something I am very proud of."
The school's lawyers argue that staff and pupils are placed at risk, because they cannot tell who is beneath the veil.
While emphasising that he was not prejudging the case, Mr Justice Silber referred to the 1996 Dunblane massacre in which a lone gunman shot dead 16 pupils and their teacher. "Everyone knows these days how security-conscious headteachers have to be," he said. "They have to be able to look around and recognise who's there at a glance."
The headteacher of the High Wycombe school told the court that staff needed to be able to challenge strangers on the site: "If pupils wore the niqab, identifying those on site becomes difficult and it would not be beyond the realms of possibility for an unwelcome person, wishing to move incognito, to wear a niqab."
When the head first took the job, two of the girl's older sisters had still been at the school. The head had not taken action, she said, partly because they were due to leave at the end of the year - but also because she had thought they were the same person.
"I did not, in fact, realise that there was a second girl in the sixth form who dressed in an identical, full jiljab and niqab, because I never saw them together."
The girl's three older sisters, who all wore niqabs when they attended the High Wycombe school, had gained top A-levels and gone on to university, two of them to study medicine.
The other 120 Muslim girls at the school do not wear niqabs, and the Muslim community in High Wycombe has been loath to support the family.
Last year the town was drawn into the spotlight when police investigating an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights arrested five Muslim residents.
MUSLIM DRESS IN THE HEADLINES
January 2007: Aishah Azmi, a Muslim teaching assistant, appealed against an employment tribunal's decision that her Dewsbury school could suspend her for putting on a niqab when a man entered the room.
November 2006: A Stoke-on-Trent immigration tribunal hearing was halted after legal adviser Shabnam Mughal refused to remove her niqab.
October 2006: Cabinet minister Jack Straw said he asks women who visit his office to remove the veil so he can see their faces, calling the niqab a disturbing sign of the divisions in modern British society.
March 2006: The Law Lords upheld a Luton school's decision to bar Shabina Begum, 16, from wearing a jiljab (a long loose gown), saying the school had devised a uniform policy that respected Muslim beliefs.
December 2005: Mustuf Jama, wanted for the fatal shooting of policewoman Sharon Beshinivsky, skipped the country by donning his sister's niqab to fool airport security.
November 2005: Riots took place in French cities after the government banned the hijab (headscarf) and other conspicuous religious symbols from state schools.