Ofsted has sought to reassure faith leaders that Muslim pupils won’t be “singled out” during inspections, following a fierce backlash over guidance that advised inspectors to question younger girls who wear the hijab to school.
Instead, headscarves will be discussed with groups of children as a “theme”, as inspectors try to address concerns about schools that include head coverings as an optional or compulsory item in uniform policies.
The inspectorate will meet with representatives of the Association of Muslim Schools before issuing updated “final guidance” on the matter.
The Ofsted decision reduced the hijab to a symbol of sexualisation and ignores other interpretations ranging from a display of faith of a symbol of empowerment and resistance
Earlier this month, chief inspector Amanda Spielman told the Sunday Times that inspectors would “talk to girls who wear such garments to ascertain why they do so in the school”. She had met women who campaign against the hijab in schools, and who raised its inclusion in some uniform policies as a “matter of concern”.
She expressed particular concerns about the “sexualisation of young girls”, as most Islamic teaching only requires the hijab to be worn after girls reach puberty.
But Ofsted has faced fierce criticism over the move from campaigners, who claim it will cause individual Muslim children to be singled out.
In an open letter, 1,136 academics and faith leaders decried the guidance as “unacceptable”, “reductive” and “racist”, and demanded that Ofsted retract its recommendation. They argued that “no schoolchildren should be targeted for action on the basis of their race, religion on background”.
The letter accuses Ofsted of applying a harsher “level of scrutiny” to Muslim women and parents, and accuses it of being swayed by “partisan” groups and discriminating “on the basis of race, religion and gender”.
“The Ofsted decision reduced the hijab to a symbol of sexualisation and ignores other interpretations ranging from a display of faith of a symbol of empowerment and resistance,” they wrote.
“Constructing women and children who wear the hijab as being either sexualised or repressed is both reductive and racist in its reproduction of colonial and Orientalist tropes.”
The letter also warns that Ofsted risks “reinforcing an anti-Muslim political culture” and describes the decision as a “kneejerk, discriminatory and institutionally racist response that will violate civil liberties and create a climate of fear and mistrust in schools”.
A spokesperson for Ofsted said Spielman had issued the recommendation after identifying the issue of primary schools including the hijab in school uniform policies as a “matter of concern” to “a group of Muslim women”.
In a letter to The Times earlier this year, the women wrote that sanctioning the veiling of “Muslim girls as young as five” by including it in school uniform policies is “an affront to the historical fight for gender equality in our secular democracy and is creating a two-tiered form of non-equality for young Muslim girls”. The group later met with Spielman and other senior officials to discuss their concerns.
The inspectorate now intends to hold further discussions with inspectors, MPs, school leaders and Muslim groups, before publishing final guidance.
“We are aware that discussing the reasons why children wear certain garments related to their faith in school is uncomfortable for some, and that doing so would be controversial,” a spokesperson said.
“However, as an inspectorate we have a responsibility to take seriously concerns about pressures children face in schools, and to ensure there is no detriment either to their learning or to their preparation for life in modern Britain.”