Schools should be safe spaces – allowing outside authority figures to probe young girls’ choice of religious expression is precisely the wrong approach to take, argues Zubeda Limbada

Last week, Amanda Spielman recommended that Ofsted inspectors in England should question Muslim primary school girls who wear a headscarf. She wants to tackle situations in which the hijab could be “interpreted as the sexualisation” of very young girls, particularly since the Islamic religious obligation does not tend to begin until the age of puberty.

While some campaigners, including a small number of Muslim women, are supportive of the measure, the news has been received with concern from those wary of Ofsted’s intentions amidst a wider climate of Islamophobia and discrimination. This weekend over 1,000 signatories (and growing) from a range of backgrounds and institutions have shared an open letter to Ofsted, asking for a retraction.

I would argue that while the intention may be laudable, and in the age of #MeToo it no doubt is, the approach is misplaced.

First, there’s the question of what evidence exists for the claim that wearing the hijab might be “sexualising” young girls.  The rationale presumably stems from the Islamic requirement for modesty, which would be inappropriate at a young age unless the male gaze is indeed focused on very young girls.

The intention may be laudable but the approach is misplaced

I am not aware of any research into why young Muslim girls may wear the headscarf (or why boys may wear religious garments such as a turban or kippah) at primary school. A common reason, no doubt, is imitating the older members of one’s community. Most people would agree, however, that if young girls were being forced to wear the hijab then that is wrong. If it is an indication of sexualisation then that too is wrong.

But in those (rarer) cases, would Ofsted inspectors really be the right people to deal with it? Putting aside the question of how exactly to approach a five-year-old girl to quiz her about why she is wearing the headscarf and what criteria would be set for a satisfactory answer, this is very different from being questioned by peers and teachers in a familiar school environment.

Requiring young girls to open up to complete strangers is counter-productive and entirely inappropriate. In the best-case scenario, it may undermine children’s confidence in their choices and cultural heritage. In the worst, where the pupil truly is a cause for concern, it could undermine the attempts of trusted adults, such as teachers or school safeguarding officers, to find out what is going on.

Schools should be safe spaces where all young people go to learn, broaden their minds and learn the tools of argument through reason and discussion. If one objective of education is to ensure young girls are in a position to learn the value of critical questioning – thus allowing them to make informed choices as young women – then asking outside figures to probe what they are wearing is the wrong approach.

Finally, is it really for Ofsted to take a position on this when the DfE hasn’t banned religious garments? In theory, schools are equal and integrated spaces, but this creates distinctions between acceptable and non-acceptable religious garments, and singles out young girls. Not only is this very un-British, it is not the right way to go about building trust with those still concerned about the effects on Muslim communities from the Birmingham Trojan Horse case and the government’s extremism agenda.

It is important to be consistent when applying uniform policies, and no one ethnic, religious or gender segment should feel more targeted than any other.

The Ofsted mandate politicises a piece of cloth worn predominantly by females from minority groups and discourages Muslim parental participation by creating a cloud of suspicion. Trust and positive relationships ought to be built collaboratively in way that makes educational standards and safeguarding part of a shared goal between school, parents and Ofsted.

Zubeda Limbada is director of ConnectFutures