The school at the centre of a row over its decision to ban younger pupils from wearing the hijab remains ‘outstanding’, according to Ofsted inspectors sent in to investigate concerns about leadership and management.
Inspectors said senior staff at St Stephen’s Primary School in east London continued to run an ‘outstanding’ school, but criticised the London Borough of Newham for its “ineffective” support during a row which saw “abusive correspondence and comments made by email and across social media”.
A report on the school published today found that although the council provided some support in managing correspondence over the hijab ban, that backing had been “perfunctory at best”, especially in the face of evidence the some correspondence “appears to have been coordinated”.
Instead, the expected level of “emotional care and public support for school staff” from the local authority has been “too limited and, as a result, ineffective”.
Ofsted made an impromptu visit to the school on January 31 after the leaders backed down on their decision to ban the headscarf for pupils aged eight and under in a change to its school uniform policy.
The climbdown was prompted after widespread complaints from the local community and claims of bullying and harassment of school leaders. The school’s headteacher, Neena Lall, was allegedly subject to such behaviour, and the chair of governors Arif Qawi also resigned over the issue.
In their report, inspectors said negative comments and “abusive postings” on social media about the hijab ban and position on religious fasting had been “in complete contrast” to the culture of trust which exists between parents and school staff.
“School leaders, and in particular the headteacher, have faced bullying and harassment, and there is evidence that this has been coordinated by some people outside the school community,” inspectors said. “Parents said that they just want the ‘noise’ from these people to stop so they can get back to being a great school community without distracting interference.”
Abusive behaviour “appears to be largely instigated by people from outside the parental body”, and the decision to remove the hijab from the key stage 1 uniform “was communicated to parents in June 2017 and implemented with little fuss in September 2017, following careful consideration by governors”.
Parents and carers “have regular opportunities” to ask questions and give their views to school leaders, including through question and answer sessions where leaders present ideas and take feedback from a “small group” of parents.
“Parents who spoke with inspectors said that the tone of a report in the national press upset them, but that school leaders have acted to reassure them and they continue to trust the headteacher and other leaders. With hindsight, the school recognises the need to consider communications more carefully, including those through local and national media.”
Teachers and leaders “have created a calm and purposeful school environment where children thrive in a culture of high expectation and positive affirmation”, while pupils are “extremely enthusiastic” about their learning and “overwhelmingly positive” about their school.
A Newham council spokesperson told the Evening Standard: “We refute Ofsted’s comments about a lack of support and have provided significant support to this school over a period of time, prior to the interview and after the media reporting.
“With such a diverse community, that has more than 200 languages spoken, councils must play a role in ensuring mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs.”