Ofsted inspectors will mark down schools as “inadequate” if they judge the wearing of a full face veil by pupils or staff is hindering learning, Sir Michael Wilshaw said today.
The chief inspector said he would give his full support to school and college leaders who decide to take a stand against the "inappropriate wearing of the veil".
The move has been heavily criticised by teachers unions as well as leaders from the Muslim community, who said it was Ofsted "flexing its muscles".
In a statement released today, Sir Michael said: “I am concerned that some heads and principals who are trying to restrict the wearing of the full veil in certain circumstances are coming under pressure from others to relax their policy. I want to assure these leaders that they can rely on my full backing for the stance they are taking.
“I have also made clear to my inspectors that where leaders are condoning the wearing of the face veil by staff members or by pupils when this is clearly hindering communication and effective teaching, they should give consideration to judging the school as inadequate.
“I am determined to ensure that discrimination, including on the grounds of gender, has no place in our classrooms. We want our schools, whether faith schools or non-faith schools, to prepare their pupils equally for life in 21st century Britain.
“We need to be confident our children’s education and future prospects are not being harmed in any way.”
His remarks come after comments by prime minister David Cameron and education secretary Nicky Morgan last week, when they said individual public organisations should be free to put in place sensible rules on the issue of face coverings.
Responding to Sir Michael's statement, the Department for Education (DfE) said it backed the chief inspector.
“We fully support Sir Michael’s statement today," a DfE spokesperson said. "We are pleased that heads and school leaders who choose to implement policies which restrict the wearing of the veil to support effective teaching and learning will receive Ofsted’s backing.
"It is also clearly right that if the wearing of the veil is interfering with education in schools that should trigger action from Ofsted.”
But the move was criticised by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which said the niqab need not be a "polarising issue".
An MCB spokesperson said: “We are a country that prides itself in accommodation and fair play. It is a shame that the niqab – the full face veil that a minority of Muslim women wear – has become a polarising issue when it need not be. Accommodation can also be made around the niqab and Ofsted need not have resorted to the megaphone of the media to show that it is flexing its muscles."
The NUT also opposed the decision, with deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney branding it as a "punitive diktat" used to threaten schools.
The Association for School and College Leaders said it was not the place for Ofsted to comment on dress codes.
Leora Cruddas, director of policy at ASCL, said: “We do not think that it is the role of Ofsted inspectors to judge schools on uniform policies and dress codes. Inspectors should focus on what schools achieve rather than what people wear."