Comment: Ofsted – not the niqab – is impairing learning in schools

Since the implementation of the Prevent strategy, 400 Muslim children under the age of 10 have been referred to the ‘anti-radicalisation’ programme


Earlier this week, Ofsted head Michael Wilshaw confirmed that inspectors can downgrade schools if they feel that the wearing of the niqab – by either teachers or pupils – is impairing learning. Phrased like this, it seems a reasonable policy.

In reality, however, opening the door to penalising the wearing of Islamic dress in this way is deeply worrying.

For a start, it’s unclear exactly why the niqab might be an obstacle to learning. Muslims have been teaching, learning and otherwise communicating wearing the full-face veil for centuries in Islamic countries all around the world.

It’s also unclear why Wilshaw feels the need to single out the niqab: if inspectors feel that learning is being impaired in any way, by any item of dress or obstacle to communication, surely they are able to reflect that in their report without the niqab being specified as a potential reason for an ‘inadequate’ rating.

But this policy is particularly concerning given that it follows a trend in recent weeks and months that has seen the practise, expression or even discussion of Islam in schools as suspicious.

Since the implementation of the ‘Prevent’ strategy, 400 Muslim children under the age of 10 have been referred to the ‘anti-radicalisation’ programme, and new E-safety legislation is forcing schools to install software which tracks the use of words such as ‘Pakistan’, ‘Islam’ and ‘Quran’. 

Launching a new ‘Educate against Hate’ website this week which encourages teachers to look out for ‘warning signs’ of radicalisation such as rapid conversion to religion, Education secretary Nicky Morgan admitted that conversion to Christianity ‘of course’ doesn’t count as one such warning sign – showing the clear disparity between the treatment of Christians and Muslims in this country.

When we make young Muslim children feel monitored, isolated and demonised for practising their religion in our schools, we damage irreparably community cohesion, trust and mutual respect. We lose the potential for discussion of difficult but important topics – and opportunities for truly valuable learning. Children in this country are at risk of radicalisation – but we need to tackle this through education, not demonisation.

Indeed, if Michael Wilshaw wants to eliminate barriers to learning in schools, he should perhaps look to the overassessment, rigid focus on examinations and targets, and back-breaking teacher workload which now characterise our education system. Allowing both teachers and pupils to teach, learn – and wear – what they like would do children a world of good.

Sophie van der Ham is co-chair of the Young Greens

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