By Samira Shackle
6 Feb 2018
St Stephen’s primary school in Newham, east London hit the headlines last month, after head teacher Neena Lall banned the wearing of Hijabs for girls under the age of eight. There was a backlash; 19,000 people signed a petition protesting against the decision and the school governors overturned the ban.
Then Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, made an unusual intervention, publicly supporting Lall. Speaking at a Church of England schools conference on Thursday, she said that head teachers should have the right to set rules on uniform. This was a fair comment – but from there on in, her comments deviated wildly from talking about the hijab for children.
“Ofsted inspectors are increasingly brought into contact with those who want to actively pervert the purpose of education,” Spielman said. “Under the pretext of religious belief, they use education institutions, legal and illegal, to narrow young people’s horizons, to isolate and segregate, and in the worst cases to indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology.”
Her words fall just short of referencing the Trojan horse affair, the scandal that hit Birmingham’s schools in 2014 after an allegation that Muslim parents, governors and teachers were conspiring to run schools along Islamic lines. But the subtext is clearly there. Since 2014, this has become shorthand for a broad and often vague range of anxieties about Muslims seeking “undue” influence in education. The Trojan horse affair led, more or less directly, to the new requirement for schools to promote British values – a vague term that suggests cultural conformity without being exactly clear on what these values are or why they are specifically British.
Spielman’s speech made a big leap from the debate about children wearing the hijab, to extremism. It is a leap that is made all too often by public officials, particularly when it comes to education. We see it time and time again: any policy question that relates to Muslims is immediately framed as an issue of terrorism, fundamentalism or a failure to integrate.
We see it repeatedly: any policy question that relates to Muslims is framed as an issue of terrorism, fundamentalism or a failure to integrate
Her comments come after a growing controversy over children wearing the hijab in schools: back in November, Spielman announced that Ofsted inspectors would quiz young girls wearing the item, and said that the garment – which is supposed to be worn after puberty – “sexualised” children. Within Britain’s diverse Muslim community there is an active discussion including divergent opinions about the appropriateness of young children wearing the hijab. But framing the question as an issue of extremism undermines the possibility for useful dialogue, immediately setting people on the defensive. Such framing certainly does not serve the women and girls supposedly being protected.
In her speech, Spielman warned of the dangers of “assuming that the most conservative voices in a particular faith speak for everyone” – but in the lazy elision of conservative Islam and “extremist ideology”, it is precisely those voices she empowers. Of course it is not inherently Islamophobic to set uniform policy – but nor is it evidence of extremism for parents to protest, even if that protest is aggressive.
It appears easier for public officials to shout about extremism than to engage with more complex discussions about how far the wishes of culturally conservative minorities should be accommodated in schools. This question is difficult to answer in an increasingly polarised age: it strikes to the very heart of multiculturalism, what kind of society we want to be, and how comfortable we are with cultural difference. This is a sensitive subject that requires difficult conversations with a kind of nuance sadly lacking in British public life.
This profound discomfort with cultural difference underpinned the Trojan horse affair in 2014. Although the story prompted a national panic about radicalisation and the Islamisation of schools, when it boiled down to it, both sides largely agreed on the facts: there was a concerted effort to encourage local people in these predominantly Muslim areas to become governors and teachers, and Islam was integrated into the school day in various ways. Those accused of wrongdoing maintain that this was done in the open and within the law, critics argue that it was a conspiracy to indoctrinate young minds.
Just as with the argument over Hijabs for children at St Stephen’s, there is a debate to be had about the role of religion in schools. But in both cases, it is difficult to see why these discussions should ever be framed in terms of national security or extremism. Like Park View, the school at the centre of the Trojan horse affair, St Stephen’s is one of the top-rated schools in the country. So where is the evidence that children are being disadvantaged? Or is the outrage based more on a non-specific sense of wrongness? It is certainly valid for head teachers to set rules on uniforms and which religious practices can be accommodated within school – but it is grossly reductive to suggest that those practices are, in and of themselves, indicators of extremism.
Schools are a particular battleground for a deep cultural anxiety about conservative Islam – partly because they are a place where local communities intersect with the public sphere in a very direct way, and partly because the lines between the religious and the secular in the British education system are not drawn clearly.
St Stephen’s has been described in numerous news reports as a “secular” school – but such a thing does not exist in Britain. We have a state school system where the law requires a daily act of collective worship, “broadly Christian in character” unless special permission is sought to change the designation. Spielman’s chosen audience, a group of Anglican educators, demonstrates how religion is woven through the very fabric of our schools.
The latest scandal is not at its heart about Muslims “indoctrinat[ing] impressionable minds”, as Spielman has it. It is about a confused culture that doesn’t know where “muscular liberalism” ends and bigotry begins.
Samira Shackle is assistant editor of the New Humanist magazine and regular contributor to the New Statesman.