In her public support for St Stephen’s Primary School’s decision about its school uniform – specifically, banning hijabs – Amanda Spielman provides a small but important example of walking the walk. She has said that she thinks it is important that schools promote “a muscular liberalism”, and followed through by supporting a headteacher’s right to decide on their school’s uniform policy.
In the face of a petition of 19,000 signatures calling for the school to reverse their decision – and another petition calling for the head of governors to resign – Spielman’s response is a million times better than the mealy-mouthed response from the Department of Education, which could only state: “It is a matter for individual schools to decide how to accommodate children observing Ramadan and to set uniform policies, but we would expect them to consider the needs of their pupils – and to listen to the views of local parents.”
The DfE’s response is a good example of sitting on the fence, leaving the headteacher and the governors of a successful and popular school in the lurch.
The petitioners claimed they wanted girls to be allowed to wear the hijab in order to ensure that “that individuality, personal choice, heritage, culture and expression remain free and unregulated within the education system”.
This language is familiar in educational discourse and is reinforced through wider legislation. It sounds innocuous, but it isn’t. It is deeply corrosive of what a liberal education can – and should – offer all pupils.
If we want muscular, liberal values as part of a muscular, liberal education, let’s take look at one value or ideal that is very popular in educational circles: equality. Once in the not too distant past, this would have meant striving to ensure equality of access of all pupils to a good liberal education, based on a broad and balanced curriculum.
In practice, it never happened. Economic and political development were met with pragmatic responses from politicians and sections of the profession.
This meant that the distribution of high-quality educational continued to be uneven, despite introducing comprehensive schooling and a national examination system. But these failures in practice do not mean that the ideal is unsound or not worth pursuing.
Some more equal than others
Today, however, equality has been redefined as its opposite. The Equality Act of 2010, for example, entrenches a particular view of justice and tolerance, meaning that we treat pupils unequally.
In this Animal Farm-like world, educators are advised to abandon that lynchpin of liberal values – universalism. Instead of regarding all pupils as equals in the sense of being equal bearers of reason, imagination and moral sense – no matter how differentially manifested in actual cohorts – teachers are now advised to recognise that among their pupils, there are special groups who have “protected characteristics”.
These are defined as: sex, race, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, pregnancy or maternity, all of which, according to government advice to schools, require special treatment.
This kind of thinking is based on the assumptions of identity politics – and has become widely influential at many levels of educational policy and practice. It is a view that claims there are certain groups who suffer systematic discrimination in society – not only at the level of formal or employment rights, but also in the informal standards that shape the norms of public institutions.
Enormous attention is vested in symbolic aspects of cultural affiliation, of which the hijab is one of many examples besetting schools today. Very little credence is given to the universal aims of education that make it a liberal enterprise in the muscular, classical sense – rather than the weak, therapeutic sense of social justice.
Our elites have ignored what is needed for a liberal education for so long that it is unsurprising that there is a lot of confusion about what liberal values are, never mind what British liberal values are.
Perfectly reasonable decision
In truth, I doubt that girls wearing a hijab in schools represent a significant threat to Britain’s value system – but that is not the issue.
The issue is the right of an individual school to decide its uniform policy, serving the primary aim of educating its pupils.
In this case, a headteacher has decided that in her school she wanted to inculcate a greater sense of commonality through setting a particular uniform code. She should have been able to rely on support from politicians – even if the perfectly reasonable decision was unpopular with some parents.
In terms of education alone, school uniforms are a moot point: they neither educate nor repress individual pupils, as advocates and critics claim.
A far bigger problem for schools – and liberal education – is the consolidation of a cultural climate, where every decision is accepted as being open to challenge on vague notions of meeting demands of “personal choice”, “free cultural expression” or the divisive stipulation, backed by legal force, of ensuring that the “protected characteristics” of some pupils are respected over and above the needs of all.
It is the widespread influence of this last idea that probably underpins some of the protests against the St Stephens decision. I am pleased Amanda Spielman has publicly defended the school. I never thought I would praise anything or anyone related to Ofsted, but as a big fan of muscular liberal values, I’m open to changing my mind.
Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is an educator and independent researcher and writer on education. She teaches English for the educational charity, Civitas, is a school governor of an east London secondary free school and is co-editor of What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, Subjects and the Pursuit of Truth