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Be flexible about religious clothing

Union urges schools to seek compromise with parents over uniform. Jon Slater reports

Schools can prevent Islamic girls wearing clothes which cover their faces despite a recent court ruling backing the right of Muslims to wear religious dress, according to the National Union of Teachers.

Uniform policies which ban the burqa and the naqab can be justified on educational grounds because they stop teachers seeing children's facial expressions, an integral part of teaching and learning, it says.

The Court of Appeal ruled last year that Denbigh high school, Luton, had acted illegally by excluding Shabina Begum, 15, for wearing a jilbab, a long outer garment which leaves only the face, hands and sometimes the feet uncovered.

The NUT's guidance, published this week, urges schools to review their uniform policies in light of the ruling that any restrictions on the wearing of religious clothing must do all they can to accommodate pupils'

beliefs and be justifiable on educational or health and safety grounds.

Schools should consider replacing strict uniform rules with dress codes which require pupils to wear a particular colour and perhaps a compulsory item, such as a scarf or cardigan, bearing the school badge. "In principle, pupils have a right to dress in accordance with the requirements of their religious beliefs," it said.

Policies which override the beliefs of some Muslims while permitting others to follow the dress codes of their choice should be avoided unless they reduce health and safety risks or prevent damage to teaching and learning.

Concerns about health and safety should be discussed with parents in an attempt to find compromise solutions. Shorter jilbabs with tighter sleeves and smaller headscarves fastened with press studs are suggested as ways of reducing health and safety concerns without confrontation with the Muslim community.

A primary school in Sandwell, West Midlands, persuaded parents that girls should not wear headscarves at school because of the risk of playground injuries.

A compromise was reached where girls wore the scarves on religious days but they were held behind the ears rather than being tied under the chin or around the neck.

The NUT warns schools against a formal dress code for staff following concerns over the wearing of headscarves by teachers. It says teachers have the same right to dress according to their religious beliefs as pupils.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary, said: "Religious sensibilities need to be handled carefully. Britain has become a complex multi-racial society where individual rights have to be given due weight alongside the need to ensure the safety of young people."

The guidelines were published alongside the union's submission to an all-party Parliamentary inquiry into anti-semitism. It said schools have been slow to meet their legal requirements to tackle racism in schools and that government guidance fails to cover anti-Semitic behaviour. The NUT said Jewish teachers may be particularly vulnerable to racist incidents involving parents and pupils.

* jon.slater@tes.co.uk

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