More than 1,000 teachers and academics have signed an open letter that calls Ofsted's decision to question Muslim girls in primary schools who wear hijabs or headscarves "a kneejerk, discriminatory and institutionally racist response" that will "violate civil liberties and create a climate of fear and mistrust in schools". They say it raises serious concerns that the schools watchdog is discriminating on the basis of race, religion, and gender.
The lecturers, teachers, and campaigners, who are from across the country, urged Ofsted to immediately retract its instruction, and said: "We find the decision to single out Muslim children for questioning unacceptable, and insist that no school children be targeted for action on the basis of their race, religion or background."
The intervention by teaching professionals came after Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted and chief inspector of schools, announced that inspectors were to question Muslim girls in primary schools if they are wearing a hijab. She said the move was intended to tackle a situation in which the practice of girls as young as 4 or 5 wearing a hijab “could be interpreted as sexualisation”.
In the open letter, leading academics including Professor Frank Coffield, from the UCL Institute of Education, and Nadine El-Enany, a senior lecturer in law at Birkbeck Law School, said Ofsted had provided "no evidence" for the controversial announcement.
"Ofsted has provided no evidence that some children wearing the hijab creates an environment where ‘school children are expected to wear the hijab’, or that this ‘could be interpreted as the sexualisation of young girls’," they wrote.
They added: "While a wider conversation about the sexualisation of girls in Britain’s culture and economy is welcome, the singling out of Muslim children for investigation is unacceptable."
They said Ofsted's decision had sent a message to Muslim women that "the way they choose to dress and the decisions they make in raising their children are subject to a level of scrutiny different to that applied to non-Muslim parents".
The 1,073 signatories to the letter wrote that there was evidence to suggest stigmatising and targeting young people for heightened scrutiny enhances feelings of isolation, adding: "It is deeply concerning that those who will be most affected by this decision have not been consulted, and that Ofsted has allowed itself to be led by partisan interests."
They said it was a "kneejerk, discriminatory and institutionally racist response" and that the decision risked reinforcing an anti-Muslim political culture, adding that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism had been institutionalised in schools and across the public sector as a result of Prevent, the government's flagship extremism programme.
Ofsted, a nonministerial department of the government, said guidelines were being drawn up. The Department of Education said the questions were a matter for Ofsted and uniform was policy for schools.
Rukhsana Yaqoob, the president of the Muslim Association of Teachers, an organisation for Muslim teachers in UK state schools set up 38 years ago, said she was "shocked and surprised" by the announcement, which appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times, adding that representatives in her profession had not been consulted.
She said: "I would very much like to ask to Ofsted about the process of how this statement came about, and also looking at the role of Ofsted. Ofsted is about raising standards and improving achievement."
The announcement came a week after a meeting between Spielman and campaigners against the hijab in schools, including Amina Lone, codirector of the Social Action and Research Foundation.
"How does wearing a hijab or not wearing a hijab have any effect whatsoever in that child's attainment?" Yaqoob said.
Yaqoob, a teacher of 30 years who has worked for the Department of Education's National Strategies programme, which aimed to improve the quality of learning in schools across England, said there were numerous concerns with the policy announcement.
She asked: "Why are they singling out Muslims girls wearing a religious form of dress?
"What's the evidence that they have? What research has been done in terms of Muslim young girls?"
Dr Nadine El-Enany, a senior lecturer in law, said: "Muslim women and children have a lot to say and teach others, if only people and the state would listen to them rather than constantly silencing them, speaking for them, and deciding what is best for them."
Enany, who tweeted about the decision with the hashtag #HandsOffMuslimKids said: "The message from Ofsted with this decision is that Muslim parents and their children are not deserving of equal treatment by the state and its agencies."
The Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella body whose members include the UK's mosques and Islamic associations, published 100 responses from Muslim women to Ofsted about the proposal to quiz young children who wear the headscarf.
Pinkie Uddin, a speech and language therapist in London, said: “If Ofsted are looking to find out more about the hijab they are welcome to in a respectful manner; however, to take it upon themselves to specifically quiz young girls about the hijab can be seen as bullish and inappropriate."
Over the weekend, people used the hashtag #HandsOffMuslimKids to express their concern about the decision and impact it would have on children and the wider community.
Following publication of this story, an Ofsted spokesperson said in a statement that the chief inspector and colleagues had met with a group of Muslim women to discuss the increasing number of primary schools that are including the hijab as either a compulsory or optional item in their uniform policy.
"This was a matter of concern to the group given that, traditionally, the hijab is not worn until girls reach puberty, as a mark of modesty as they become young women," the spokesperson said.
The statement continued: “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. 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."
Inspectors would not be singling out individual children, the spokesperson said, adding that the inspectorate routinely talk to groups of children about a range of issues. "Exploring why primary age girls are wearing the hijab may be another theme they discuss along with other issues such as relationships, bullying and radicalisation," they said.
The spokesperson said Ofsted regularly meet a range of stakeholders, including those from different faith groups, in developing and clarifying inspection policies.
"We intend to hold further discussions with our inspector workforce and with groups such as the Association of Muslim Schools, school leaders and individual MPs as we develop our guidance for inspectors on this sensitive matter in a considered way," the spokesperson confirmed.
You can read the open letter to Ofsted below:
We, the undersigned, ask that Ofsted immediately retract its instruction to inspectors to question primary school children wearing the hijab. We find the decision to single out Muslim children for questioning unacceptable, and insist that no school children be targeted for action on the basis of their race, religion or background.
In taking this decision, Ofsted undermines the priorities it set for itself in 2017. First, Ofsted claims that ‘all of [its] work is evidence-led’. Ofsted has provided no evidence that some children wearing the hijab creates an environment where ‘school children are expected to wear the hijab’, or that this ‘could be interpreted as the sexualisation of young girls’, as Amanda Spielman states. While a wider conversation about the sexualisation of girls in Britain’s culture and economy is welcome, the singling out of Muslim children for investigation is unacceptable. The message the Ofsted decision sends to Muslim women is that the way they choose to dress and the decisions they make in raising their children are subject to a level of scrutiny different to that applied to non-Muslim parents. Further, the Ofsted decision reduces the hijab to a symbol of sexualisation and ignores other interpretations ranging from a display of faith to a symbol of empowerment and resistance. 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 about them.
Second, Ofsted claims its ‘frameworks are fair’. Yet the decision to single out Muslim children wearing the hijab raises serious concerns that Ofsted is itself discriminating on the basis of race, religion and gender.
Third, Ofsted states that it ‘target[s] [its] time and resources where they can lead directly to improvement’. Yet, Ofsted provides no evidence for the suggestion that by questioning Muslim children, such issues can be effectively addressed. Indeed, the evidence suggests that stigmatising and targeting young people for heightened scrutiny enhances feelings of isolation. Further, it is deeply concerning that those who will be most affected by this decision have not been consulted, and that Ofsted has allowed itself to be led by partisan interests.
Ofsted’s decision risks reinforcing an anti-Muslim political culture, in which Islamophobia/anti-Muslim racism has been institutionalised in schools and across the public sector as a result of Prevent. Moreover, the decision is dangerous in a climate in which street violence, abuse and attacks on Muslims are increasing and to which visibly Muslim women and children are particularly vulnerable. It is a kneejerk, discriminatory and institutionally racist response that will violate civil liberties and create a climate of fear and mistrust in schools and must be retracted immediately.