Muscular liberalism: hijabs and schools
How far should schools go in promoting liberal values?
In autumn 2017 St Stephen’s Primary School in Newham banned the wearing of hijabs for girls in nursery and Key Stage 1 classes, in the name of integrating pupils into modern British society. In the face of intense media publicity and pressure from campaigners, the policy was reversed and the head of governors stood down. Yet, according to a recent Channel 4 Despatches programme, only one girl has worn the hijab at the school since.
HM Chief Inspector of Education, Amanda Spielman, supported the head’s decision on the basis that ‘a muscular liberalism’ needs to be lived and not just affirmed rhetorically. And tolerance is an important ideal in any version of liberalism.
The problem is that all sides in the St Stephen’s School example claimed the mantle of liberal tolerance: the mother who saw the uniform policy as an attack on her rights as a parent; the mother who felt her family were being tested for their allegiance to British liberal culture; the conservative Muslim activist who sees it as an attack on religious freedom; the progressive Muslim activist who sees the uniform policy as furthering the cause of gender equality; and the head who sees it as an attempt to ensure her pupils are not unduly singled out when in public.
The value of autonomy, another pillar of liberalism, is also at stake. As Spielman points out, schools have autonomy regarding school life, including uniforms. But is this getting close to abandonment? While heads face new cultural pressures, politicians seem to hide behind soundbites and policy. Do schools need some explicit direction, or even legislation, from the DfE even if it encroaches on their autonomy? Or is this too big a price to pay?
Listen to the opening remarks
Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
teacher, school governor and independent educational researcher; co-editor of What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines subjects and the pursuit of truth.
programme leader for education; senior lecturer in the Department of Education & Community Studies, University of Greenwich; fellow of the Muslim Institute.
languages teacher at City of London School; PhD candidate at the UCL Institute of Education.