Blogger Ibrahim Khan argues that the Ofsted chief’s recent comments about marking down schools which tolerate the face veil or niqab are a red herring, and he would do better to focus on the real factors which hinder educational achievement.
In his guidance to Ofsted colleagues on Tuesday, Sir Michael Wilshaw instructed his inspectors to mark down schools where the wearing of the face veil (niqab) – by students or teachers – was adjudged to be “a barrier to learning.”
There are two things obviously wrong with this.
Firstly, it is clearly a politically and ideologically motivated move that is not rooted in facts. It follows Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s pronouncements that she supports the ban on the face veil in schools, and David Cameron’s comments in a similar vein.
The idea behind it seems to be to not expressly say “we don’t really like the veil, we think it’s backwards,” but instead to say ”we live in a free country where we ourselves won’t ban the veil, but if someone decides to ban the veil themselves, we totally back that.”
So that translates roughly to “we won’t do anything bigoted ourselves, but if someone else wants to, they’re more than welcome.”
It is also clearly a politically and ideologically motivated move because, instead of dealing with the well-documented and long-standing impact of socio-economic factors on educational achievement, the underfunding of our education system, and the under-representation of BME students in Britain’s top universities (real problems that affect millions of students), Wilshaw instead focuses on the vanishingly rare minority of Muslim niqabis. A group that is not going to realistically have an impact on education standards either way.
But just how small are we talking?
Muslims constitute around 7% of the population, of which half are women. So that’s 3.5%.
Now of that number how many work in schools? Well, we know there are 438,000 teachers in the UK and 3.5% of that is about 15,000. Of that, an estimated 2-5% might wear the veil.
So the numbers we are talking about are negligible: 0.0001% of the UK population; a few hundred teachers.
Incidentally, most of these teachers teach in highly multicultural schools or in faith schools where the students are perfectly comfortable interacting with someone with the veil. They may indeed have members of their own family who don the veil.
So for the vast majority of these kids, the veil is a non-issue, and in fact, being exposed to the veil is an important part of their education as the area they are likely to live in will have some such women living there.
The second major thing that is wrong with this pronouncement is that it is completely misguided.
Ameena Blake from the Muslim Association of Britain, an experienced teacher in both faith and mainstream schools, put forward a compelling argument on Radio 4 on Tuesday.
She explained that the way Ofsted inspections work is that they go in for two days and go into lessons, meet with teachers and senior staff and talk to pupils. They have a look at individual teacher performances according to established metrics in the education system – such as grades, feedback, and ratings. They will also observe lessons.
But at most a teacher will usually have about 20-30 minutes of her lesson observed. Given this short time-frame Ofsted inspectors simply do not have the time to make a judgement about why a certain teacher is underperforming in the established metrics. That is something for the school themselves to work out as they work with the teacher day in day out.
So let’s say a veiled teacher is underperforming. It is highly unlikely that her now taking off the veil is suddenly going to drastically improve her teaching ability, and it is certainly impossible for the Ofsted inspector to work out this pearl of wisdom in the 20 minutes he/she spends observing her lesson.
So the veil is really a red herring if Sir Michael is serious about improving educational standards. There are veiled teachers out there who are excellent teachers and there are veiled teachers who are bad teachers. It isn’t the veil that makes them good or bad.
I have been lucky enough in my life to meet two particularly inspiring examples of niqabis. The first was my boss at an educational charity, a cool-headed, well-respected Muslim woman getting on with her job without a problem. She was a teacher at a school where the children loved her and an articulate university graduate. The second is my sister who got accepted at Cambridge University.
Neither of these women had any difficulty in teaching or being taught, but thanks to Sir Michael’s comments, that may not be the case for very much longer. In a great twist of irony, his comments have actually made the educational experience of niqabis worse than before.