Picture the scene. Let’s say it was becoming common for Labour party supporters to dress their children in Jeremy Corbyn T-shirts and pressure them to go without food or water for long periods of time as a political ritual. Growing numbers of those children then began wearing the T-shirts and taking part in the ritual at school.
The leaders of a school grew concerned that they were indoctrinating the children and marking them out as different. The ritual, they thought, was undermining their health and academic performance. They found no leadership from the government, so they banned the T-shirts for children younger than 8 and discouraged them from taking part in the ritual.
Then let’s imagine a vocal section of hardline Labour supporters reacted by setting up a petition against the decision, generating almost 20,000 signatures. The school received up to 500 emails per day, many of them threatening or abusive. Labour supporters who supported the restrictions faced abuse. The ban was lifted and the chair of governors resigned.
It wouldn’t be hard to see right and wrong. A school would have resisted the political labeling of children in an attempt to set an ethos of relative neutrality. It would not even have gone far enough because its restriction only applied to very young children. And the bullies would have won.
A question of religious identity
The same lessons should apply when we consider events at St Stephen’s school in Newham. Last week, the school reversed its policy of restricting hijab wearing and discouraging children from fasting.
Gender equality alone is a good enough reason not to incorporate veiling into school dress codes, at least until a school credibly judges a girl to be old enough to make an informed choice. If a school wouldn’t allow her to wear high heels, make-up or miniskirts, it shouldn’t let her wear a hijab. But events at St Stephen’s are also partly about the broader question of how our society raises children and the false assumption that any steps to defend their interests encroach on their rights.
The petitioners who called on St Stephen’s to reverse its decision, perhaps aware of their eager constituency of support on the hyper-individualist and multiculturalist left, leaned heavily on the language of individual rights. “The hijab represents a choice and to remove it is the very oppression which actors claim to prevent,” they argued. “We will regress towards a society which does not allow diversity, inclusion, and individuality.”
Several times they claimed to be resisting attempts to regulate personal choice. They said: “freedom of expression is a must regardless of age”. And they quoted extensively from Article 14 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Children.
Restrictions on children
After the decision, Zubaida Haque of the Runnymede Trust made similar points in Tes. She argued bans on headscarves would “constitute a contradiction” of the fundamental British values which schools are obliged to promote – including individual liberty. She cited “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”.
So apparently children should have the right to do what they want at school and everyone else should butt out. But this is an abdication of adult responsibility and a recipe for chaos. It is based on the same arguments children make when they demand to know why they can’t talk over a teacher or swear in the classroom.
We place plenty of restrictions on children’s freedoms that we would never place on adults. Children are not free to run away from home, join the army, have sex, smoke or drink alcohol. And we often restrict their ability to “express their identity” at school. We realise children need to be brought up, protected and educated. The question is simply about where to set the boundaries between the role of the state and the role of the parent.
And we are paying the price for giving in to parents too much in recent decades. Under the consumerist model of education, the state has told them, for example, it will fund schools which teach their children in accordance with their religious beliefs. They have been told they need not accept that wider society has a say over the way we spend our taxes or raise our future citizens. Perhaps this is why the St Stephen’s petitioners felt entitled enough to write the astonishing phrase: “It’s not a request or a plea, it’s demand”.
Values and expectations
But the state should not simply be a machine for recycling people’s money. It should uphold the contract between us, which must be based on a set of values and expectations. Schools should not be factories for the production of grades, places where adults babysit children while their parents are at work or ways of giving individual parents anything they want without passing judgement.
The state should aspire to provide spaces where children are prepared for the life ahead of them. This means adults must enforce clear rules which are in their best interests. Those interests include not going without food or water for long periods of time for no medical reason. They include being part of a collective and learning to follow the same rules as others. They include not being labelled with a religious identity and being able to make their own minds up about religion when they are intellectually mature.
True individualists would not tell children they are predestined to fulfill their parents’ cultural identities. They would not make the faux argument that treating children equally during school hours is an unreasonable infringement on their liberty. Instead, they would encourage children to develop something which will truly liberate them: the capacity to think for themselves.
Freedom is not the right to do what your parents say before you have reached puberty. It is the ability to decide for yourself whether what they’ve told you is right. Behind all the bluster, that is what religious authorities are terrified of.
Chris Sloggett is the communications officer at the National Secular Society and a former teacher