Modern Britain is a remarkably tolerant society: we have a long tradition of minding our own business, especially when it comes to people’s religious beliefs. Unlike some other countries – such as France – we do not seek to limit individuals’ choices when it comes to what clothing is worn in public.
However, we also have a responsibility to give authority to head teachers and school governors to ensure the well-being and safety of children in their care. This is why the latest warning of the dangers of radicalisation in schools by Amanda Spielman, the Head of Ofsted, should be taken very seriously.
Her comments about extremists seeking to “indoctrinate impressionable minds” follows the furore that followed a recent decision by the head teacher of St Stephen’s primary school in East London, Neena Lall, to ban girls under the age of eight from wearing the hijab in the classroom. It was a decision that had been supported by the chairman of the school’s governors, Arif Qawi. Unfortunately, vocal criticism from hardline campaigners – including some parents of pupils – has since forced Mr Qawi’s resignation, while the head teacher has backed down and reversed what was a sensible decision concerning school uniform.
There is no legitimate reason for any young girls to have to wear the hijab or any other form of overtly religious dress in British school classrooms. Even in hard line Iran the headscarf is not compulsory for girls under nine years of age. There is no religious tenet anywhere which requires an 8-year old to wear a hijab.
This fiasco sets a very dangerous precedent: head teachers and boards of school governors need to have the authority to determine what is best for children in the classroom without fear of a backlash from a minority of disgruntled parents. Evidence suggests that our children thrive best in schools with good discipline, clear rules and high standards, including policies on behaviour and the wearing of smart uniforms; uniforms which cross all social divides, promoting a sense of corporate belonging.
Educational standards and levels of academic attainment are highest in schools in countries such as South Korea, Finland, Singapore and Switzerland, where teachers enjoy a high level of respect within their local communities and where parents are fully supportive of head teachers and the rules of the schools which their children attend. In contrast, when parents and activists set about undermining the authority of head teachers, it leads to plummeting standards and failing schools. Here in the UK, where there are regular public protests and social media mobs undermining the running of our schools, we have slumped to 20th place according to the 2015 OECD report.
As someone who worked as a teacher for over 30 years, I am absolutely certain that one of the key reasons why there has been a serious deterioration in standards of behaviour amongst many pupils here in the UK, which continues to affect negatively on standards of basic numeracy and literacy, is the marked decline in the authority of teachers, made worse by a failure by some parents to back staff when they make decisions that may be necessary, even if these may be unpopular with children or their families.
Head teachers need to be empowered and supported whenever they make rules which keep all children safe. As a society we have a responsibility to keep extremism and divisive dogmas, of any kind, out of the classroom. Unfortunately, tolerance can easily be mistaken as weakness by extremists and young, impressionable children can be vulnerable to manipulation by hardline fanatics who are eager to peddle poisonous doctrines of separatism, hatred and division.