Ofsted, school uniform and niqabs: the Chief Inspector’s statement

HM Chief Inspector of Education, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has made a statement on wearing full face-veils in schools, as follows:

“The Prime Minister and Secretary of State are right to give their backing to schools and other institutions which insist on removing face coverings when it makes sense to do so.

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.”

Reactions from the teaching profession have been almost universally disapproving. The Guardian reported that Leora Cruddas of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents many secondary school heads, 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”, while Kevin Courtney, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, called the move a “punitive diktat”. Andrew Clapham, of Nottingham Trent University’s school of education, said that the proposal was not supported by research:

“There is no credible evidence base to suggest that wearing a piece of clothing on one’s head has an impact on intellectual or academic ability … Penalising an institution because of a piece of clothing raises a whole range of questions, which appear beyond the remit of the school inspectorate. If Ofsted is to pursue this initiative, then empirical evidence should be analysed prior to making such a policy decision.”

Comment

The right (or absence of it) to wear a niqab to school was litigated in X v Y School & Ors [2007] EWHC 298 (Admin), in which X,  the claimant, was a 12-year-old Muslim girl at a selective all-girls grammar school. On reaching puberty, in accordance with her religious belief she wished to wear the niqab at school while being taught by male teachers or if  she was likely to be seen by men. Her three older sisters had previously attended the school and had worn the niqab [2]. In dismissing her challenge to the decision of the headteacher of the school not to allow her to do so, Silber J made it clear at the outset that his judgment was fact-sensitive:

“[I]t does not concern or resolve the issue of whether the wearing of the niqab should be permitted in the schools of this country. That is not a question that a court could or should be asked to resolve. Nothing that appears in this judgment seeks to resolve or to throw any light on this problem or the circumstances in which a veil should be permitted to be worn in schools or any other arena in this country” [1].

It appears that the Chief Inspector is attempting by other means to settle an issue which the courts have dealt with solely on the facts of the individual case. While some organisations such as the National Secular Society have argued – with some justification –that the lack of central guidance from DfE “places an unreasonable pressure on schools and puts headteachers and school governors in an unenviable position”, the fact-sensitive nature of such cases has militated against the introduction of prescriptive restrictions. Or at least up till now.

For a longer (and more expert) analysis see Clive Sheldon QC: Wearing the veil in schools: the debate continues.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Ofsted, school uniform and niqabs: the Chief Inspector’s statement" in Law & Religion UK, 27 January 2016, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2016/01/27/ofsted-school-uniform-and-niqabs-the-chief-inspectors-statement/

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