Schools that receive a backlash from parents, activists and the local community for banning the hijab and fasting will be supported by the Government, the schools minister has said.
Lord Agnew of Oulton said he would assist head teachers make “sensitive” decisions if they faced opposition and would “not allow a culture of fear and intimidation to pass through the school gates”.
Writing in The Times on Saturday, Lord Agnew said school governors and teachers were “completely within their right to make decisions on how to run their schools in the best interests of their pupils […] and we back their right to do so.”
His statements comes after St Stephens Primary School in the London borough of Newham banned Muslim girls under the age of eight from wearing the hijab, and told parents their children should not fast during the school day in the month of Ramadan.
The school’s head of governors, Arif Qawi, announced his resignation after a leaked email revealed his use of derogatory language when he referred to the local imam as an “unholy bastard”.
Lord Agnew gave his personal backing to Neena Lall, the head of St Stephen’s, following last month’s incident, saying she had suffered alleged “abuse” from “opponents” to the hijab and fasting ban.
However, in a meeting of staff and parents on 22 January, Ms Lall criticised The Sunday Times article written by Iram Ramzan and Sian Griffiths, and said that she was misled into believing the paper was interested in reporting on St Stephen’s school’s strong academic record.
Ms Lall has since reversed the hijab ban after widespread opposition from Muslim parents.
“The article which came out in the Sunday Times was completely misleading. Some of the things that happened in that article were not things that have happened at this school and it just inflamed the situation,” Ms Lall told parents at the in which she also described the decision to ban the hijab as a “huge error in judgement”.
Deputy Head Adam Bennett also delivered a damning assessment of the Sunday Times’s story, suggesting the paper had set out to create a “big debate” around the issue of the hijab.
“They took a lot of footage, they chopped it up, they used it how they wanted, they had their agenda and they put stuff forward to create this big debate and unfortunately our school was left in the middle of this debate,” he said.
In very strong words, Lord Agnew said the Government would “not hesitate to take action” if there were allegations of schools promoting “religious ideologies” that undermine “British values” – terms which remain very ambiguous and politicised.
The head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, recently urged schools to adopt a “muscular liberalism” and not cave into “conservative or zealous voices” in a community when setting school policy.