Schools given freedom to ‘ban’ veils

The government today confirmed schools can ‘ban’ pupils from wearing a full Islamic veil.

Guidelines published by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) state head teachers can ban pupils from wearing the niqab, which obscures the face apart from the eyes, on the grounds of security, safety and inclusion.

Education secretary Alan Johnson had promised the government would clarify its position, following the High Court’s decision in February to uphold a ban on the niqab. A 12-year-old pupil at the Buckinghamshire school had appealed against the ban, claiming it breached her freedom of “thought, consciousness and religion”, as granted under article nine of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Today’s guidelines have been issued to reassure schools they have the freedom to set their own uniform policies.

A ban on full face veils is justified as it maintains the importance of eye contact between pupils and staff. Teachers need to be able to identify individual pupils to teach and maintain discipline, the guidance notes.

Full veils also pose a security risk, it is argued, with intruders able to shield themselves from CCTV under full Islamic dress.

However, the DfES reminds schools they should accommodate religious difference. Many Muslim groups maintain that pupils can abide by Islamic dress without adopting the full veil.

Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said he was “dismayed” at the guidelines, which he said goes against Muslim communities.

“Successive ministers dealing with education issues have failed to give proper guidance when requested by human rights campaigners about schools’ obligations regarding religious dress, including the head scarf, and other service delivery under human rights laws and norms,” he said.

However, the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) has welcomed the guidance for providing much needed “support and clarity” for schools.

PAT general secretary Phillip Parkin said: “I am pleased that the guidance encourages schools to consult and be sensitive to issues of both culture and cost, while backing their right to have uniforms and, where necessary, discipline those who do not wear them.

“School uniforms can help to improve pupil behaviour by creating a sense of shared values and belonging within a school.

“A uniform can also remove peer pressure on pupils to conform to the latest fashion in clothes, enabling them to concentrate on their education.”

However, he stressed it is the decision of individual schools to decide on an appropriate uniform policy, noting the importance of schools working with local communities to find “acceptable solutions”.

The guidelines also maintain schools have the right to discipline pupils breaching uniform guidelines. However, it asks schools to “sensitively investigate” the reasons for this, noting hardship could be a factor.

Similarly, schools will be required to be sensitive to the cost of uniform and must ensure it is available at high street shops, not specialist outfitters.