Ofsted’s mission to tackle extremism in British schools criticised for unfairly targeting the Muslim community

An article in The Economist describes the question of whether young girls should be able to wear the hijab in school as “one of the most bitterly divisive issues in debates over the limits of cultural freedom” in the UK[1]. This was demonstrated at the end of January when the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, backed a London head teacher who tried to ban girls under the age of eight from wearing he hijab[2]. Spielman implied that Ofsted backs the measure because it is designed to “promote cohesion”[3].

Spielman and the organisation were criticised at the end of last year for saying they would question primary school girls who were wearing the hijab[4] (see our article on this here: https://www.euro-islam.info/2018/01/09/ofsted-criticised-decision-question-primary-school-girls-wearing-hijab/).

Around the same time, the National Secular Society (NSS), which campaigns to oppose religious privilege, expressed concern over their findings that some British schools mandate the wearing of the hijab, and some mandate the wearing of a full-body or face covering[5]. As a result, a letter was written to the Education Secretary demanding that these conservative dress codes should not be enforced[6].

In response, Muslim campaign groups have expressed their concerns that Ofsted’s involvement in these matters potentially impedes the rights of parents and their children to dress how they want to, the measures even being labelled as Islamophobic[7]. In the Huffington Post, Dr Siema Iqbal writes that Ofsted is interfering with the fundamental rights of parents and girls’ fundamental right to religious freedom. She points out that Jewish boys are allowed to wear the skull cap, and Sikh boys the turban, and questions why the same right should not be given to Muslim girls. She also suggests it is hypocritical for Ofsted to focus on this issue when schools are also facing serious crises, such as large amounts of child-on-child sexual abuse and pupils distributing explicit photos of themselves and of others[8].

The issue has perhaps become so explosive because young girls wearing the hijab has been portrayed as an indicator of ‘extremism’, which is thought by some to be increasingly defined by actions which are interpreted as running contrary to so-called ‘British values’[9]. The presence of extremism in schools is an issue Ofsted has become focused on in recent months and Spielman has called for a “muscular liberalism” in order to tackle this[10]. Critics have said that, as a result, Muslims are being singled out and are subject to enforced “cultural conformity” in public institutions, such as schools, in a way that many other religious communities are not[11]. In addition, as Allen points out, there is a lack of evidence that extremism is a pervasive problem within British schools, which would make the actions of Ofsted unfounded[12]

The article in The Economist concludes that the varying arguments surrounding issues of supposed extremism in schools, like young girls wearing the hijab, are down to the vast cultural and ethical differences between different communities in the UK. It writes, “[t]heir understandings of “rights” are so utterly different that there seems little point in attempting to reconcile them. What one camp would consider parental freedom, another would see as infringing the rights and welfare of a child”[13]. Perhaps this signals that sectarian divisions are being promoted through the discussion of religious freedoms in the UK[14].

[1] ERASMUS, 2018.

[2] ERASMUS, 2018.

[3] ERASMUS, 2018.

[4] Researcher, 2018.

[5] ERASMUS, 2018.

[6] ERASMUS, 2018.

[7] ERASMUS, 2018; Allen, 2018.

[8] Iqbal, 2017.

[9] Oborne, 2018.

[10] Oborne, 2018; Allen, 2018.

[11] Oborne, 2018.

[12] Allen, 2018.

[13] ERASMUS, 2018.

[14] Oborne, 2018.

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ERASMUS. (2018) ‘In British schools, the wearing of the hijab by young girls is an explosive issue’. [online] 2 February. https://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2018/02/cloth-contention. [Accessed 13 February 2018].

Iqbal, S. (2017) ‘Ofsted and Parents’ Rights’. [online] 21 November. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/ofsted-and-parents-rights_uk_5a136ca6e4b08b00ba67332d. [Accessed 13 February 2018].

Oborne, P. (2018) ‘How the UK government’s ‘extremism’ strategy targets Muslims’. [online] 13 February. http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/how-uk-government-s-extremism-strategy-targets-muslims-1155578885. [Accessed 13 February 2018].

Researcher. (2018) ‘Ofsted criticised for decision to question primary school girls wearing the hijab’. [online] 9 January. http://www.euro-islam.info/2018/01/09/ofsted-criticised-decision-question-primary-school-girls-wearing-hijab/. [Accessed 13 February 2018].