Until recently, St Stephen’s Primary School in Newham, London, was renowned for being at the top of the Sunday Times top state primary schools league table, but on the second weekend of January 2018 the school became notable for other reasons, as it took the decision to ban the headscarf for Muslim children under the age of 8. This ban was enforced alongside another ban on young children fasting during the month of Ramadan.
The decision was a controversial one, mostly because parents from the multi-racial school complained that they had not been consulted about the ban, but also because it revived the extremely sensitive “integration debate” that was kick-started by Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, last November when she said: “Creating an environment where primary school children are expected to wear the hijab could be interpreted as sexualisation of young girls.”
Undoubtedly, the debate is convoluted. It raises many questions, both legitimate – about the health of children not eating for long hours during fasting – and unjustified, with regards to the isolation of the Muslim community. And thrown in for good measure there are broader issues in relation to gender equality, the right to practise religion and how we perceive and treat Muslim parents.
But as intricate as the debate is, it’s important to unpack the issues because there are reasons to question the basis on which Ms Spielman and the headteacher of St Stephen’s both felt confident that their “concerns” about safeguarding and welfare issues in relation to young Muslim girls had legitimate or widespread support.
'No evidence' that hijabs hold girls back
So far there is little evidence to suggest that either have undertaken a widespread consultation exercise with parents, governors, children and the wider community about the reasons why some young Muslim girls in primary schools are wearing headscarves, and how, if at all, this is linked to “safeguarding” and welfare issues.
We also cannot assume that there are wider issues around personal development or gender inequality here, since no evidence has been put forward to suggest that these young girls are deeply unhappy and held back in their personal and intellectual development. In fact, a response from over 100 Muslim women not only highlights the variety of reasons why Muslim girls and women wear the headscarf – for instance, “expressing identity” as a teenager or “wanting to look like mummy” as a child – but also demonstrates that you don’t promote female agency by removing the ability for girls to make a choice.
Secondly, there are specific issues with regards to how Muslim parents are treated and are viewed in this debate, as well as within the context of Prevent, the government’s counter-terrorism duty for specified authorities. The rights of parents within the school context include parents’ rights to raise their children according to their beliefs and cultural norms, yet neither Ms Spielman nor the head of St Stephen’s have reflected this understanding through their actions.
In fact, the proposed “interrogation” of young Muslim girls and Muslim parents about why their daughters wear headscarves sends the opposite message – that Muslim parents cannot be trusted with their children’s welfare and personal development, and that the relationships between Muslim parents and their children, and between Muslim parents and their schools, is not sacrosanct.
More importantly, the stigmatisation of Muslim parents needs to be understood within the wider context of the Prevent duty in schools, which has not only isolated and demonised Muslim children and parents and eroded the trust between parents and teachers, but has also tainted our understanding of what “safeguarding” is, and who it applies to, with regards to religious beliefs and identity, “radicalisation” and “threats” to British values.
“British values” was introduced into schools by the government in 2014, but has arguably become a priority for Ms Spielman, without any parental or public consensus on what those British values should be and where and how they should apply. But a greater irony is that any proposed guidance by Ofsted on wearing hijabs or other religious items of clothing in schools, or the banning of headscarves by particular headteachers, will constitute a contradiction of the very values that the chief inspector of Ofsted is trying to promote: individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs, democracy and the rule of law. And that’s ignoring the duties that both Ofsted and schools have under the Equality Act 2010, which makes it illegal for public bodies to discriminate on the basis of religion or belief.
Thirdly, there are broader concerns from the teaching community and race-equality and faith organisations about why Ofsted – an inspectorate and not a policy-making body – is focusing on developing guidance on religious items of clothing, while neglecting more widespread and urgent concerns around the substantial increase in sexual harassment and violence in schools and increase in racial bullying, as well as wider concerns around racial inequalities in attainment, exclusions, teacher representation and the curriculum in British primary, secondary and further education schools. If the chief inspector’s singling out of Muslim parents and Muslim faith schools is anything to go by, Ofsted appears to have less interest in monitoring and inspecting whether schools are promoting racial and gender equality for all children (something which the Runnymede Trust has been requesting for several years), and more in isolating and stigmatising particular communities.
On Friday 19 January, St Stephen’s Primary School admitted that it “now has a deeper understanding of the matter and has decided to reverse our position [on the hijab ban] with immediate effect”, and that “we will work with our school community to continue to review this policy going forward in the best interests of our children”. That is how it should have always been. But such is the political and media pressure to demonise Muslim communities, that their interests, including their children’s best interests, are the last to be considered.