A student sent home for flouting uniform code is not exactly a hard-hitting story. But in a case this week the newspapers were all over just such a story for the simple reason that the student was muslim and her transgression was the wearing of the niqab, a face-covering veil.
Reported first by the BBC, they explained that student was planning to attend sixth form at Camden Girl’s School but was sent home because wearing the full veil is against school rules. The school argued that not being able
to see the students’ face limited student-teacher interaction.
Papers variously labelled the admissions denial as the student being ‘barred’, ‘banned’ or ‘denied’ access to A-level study.
Most papers played the story ‘straight’, balancing views ‘for’ and ‘against’ veils in schools. Only one media outlet, Onislam.net, a leading Islamic content network reporting out of Cairo, labelled the move as “discriminatory” though it also noted that the Department for Education allows schools to ban attire for learning or security reasons.
As the story gained more traction, with national newspapers also covering the story, petitions began to appear online. One asked for the continued barring of veils. The other petitioning to keep it.
On the second day of reporting, the student broke rank and spoke directly to the Evening Standard, who didn’t name her but did state that she was so distressed she reportedly returned home in tears after the school turned her away.
The dramatic tensions of the story means it is gathering readership. After all, there’s a victim, there’s a thorny decision, and the group that have to make the decision are a very successful school, which makes people think it is okay to bash them for whatever decision they make.
But the part missed out in most of the articles is that a ruling has already been made on this very issue. Several similar cases were taken through the courts in the mid-2000s. A critical case reached the High Court in 2007 and rejected the right of a pupil to wear
the veil. If schools wish to ban attire, then they can.
Despite the hard ruling being on the side of schools, some have relented in the face of pressure. Last year, Birmingham Metropolitan College, overturn its ban on the veil after a petition of over 900 students demanded their right to wear the garment.
Unlike the question of religion and dress, however, the question of gender and dress is still outstanding.
Earlier this week Advocate.com ran the story of a trans gender student in Brazil fined for wearing a skirt. In support, several male classmates also wore skirts, leading the school to consider relaxing their dress code.
In 2010, Scotland’s Children’s Tsar pushed for schools to have gender-neutral uniforms, though no legislation was introduced to require it.
So far, in England, I am not aware of any attempts at all to raise this issue but I suspect it is only a matter of time until someone does.
Laura McInerney is now the Editor of Schools Week (formerly Academies Week)