OFSTED should not ostracise children who choose to practise faith

Amanda Spielman the Head of Ofsted is right to promote social cohesion, but wrong to achieve that by ostracizing children who choose to wear a headscarf.  Demonising Islamic teachings about modest dress is not becoming of a regulator whose task is to broaden minds, not close them.

Ofsted is properly troubled that contrary to Islam and the best interests of children, some very young girls could be being forced to wear a hijab or fast during Ramadhan. The right way to deal with that is to challenge false notions about religion. The wrong way is to penalise innocent children’s right to free choice.

Islam does not require very young or primary aged girls to wear headscarves. If women choose Islam as their faith, the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad said that such coverings are only required in teenage years when full physical maturity is reached. Head scarves are not unique to Islam either; they are also found among orthodox Christians and Jews.

If a young Muslim girl freely chooses to wear a headscarf because she is inspired by her mother as a positive role model, she should be allowed that choice.  When a Muslim girl speaks with other children about her headscarf and the inspiration she gets from her mother, children develop social skills, empathy, vocabulary, cognitive skills and learn about decision making. These are core to educational development; skills that Ofsted should encourage.

Inappropriate questioning of young children about their religious beliefs by Ofsted Inspectors can be a source of confusion, stress and future mental health issues.  The Mental Health Foundation reports that having a sense of belonging in their family, school and community keeps young people mentally well.  It also reports that experiencing discrimination because of race or religion is a specific mental health risk factor.  Ofsted do engage with children on a one to one basis. When they do, it cannot be right for Ofsted Inspectors to challenge very young girls about why they wear a headscarf.  Questions directed at secondary school girls should be sensitive and should not make them feel isolated or discriminated against. Nothing should serve to make any Muslim child, or a child of any other belief or ethnicity, feel as though there is something wrong with their religion or culture.

Furthermore, Ofsted has a legal duty under the Education and Inspections Act 2006 to consider the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils in School. Sections 9 and 14 of the Education Act 1996 also require schools to have regard for parental preferences. Schools must be allowed to make independent choices about how best to develop their pupils.

Ofsted Inspectors should not penalise schools for ineffective leadership and management because they try to satisfy those legal obligations by respecting religious freedoms in a non-discriminatory manner. To do so harms the independence, predictability, proportionality, transparency and public participation which are essential characteristics of an effective Regulator.

Finally, Ofsted is not a Regulator of Religion. If it were, it would understand that the way to deal with misunderstandings and misinterpretations about religion is not to ban it but to teach it better. By doing so the togetherness and social responsibility that is central to properly practised religion becomes a value system that both the religious and non-religious can benefit from.

Our Party stands for human rights, civil liberties, personal freedoms and equal opportunities in a way that no other party does. As our political landscape becomes more nationalistic, xenophobic and divisive the Liberal Democrats must stand tall and stand strong for a more collective society and inclusive politics.   We do that by, among other things, manifesting our commitment to justice and honesty in robust challenges to any policy that has the object or effect of dividing our nation.  Whether in our out of government, that is a valuable leadership and an enduring service to our nation that we can and must continue to offer.

* Khalil Yousuf is a practising Solicitor and Managing Director of in-house legal services provider Flexible Lawyers. He was a Parliamentary Candidate in the 2019 General election and is Parliamentary Spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, Crawley. Khalil is also an active human rights advocate serving on a non-remunerated basis on number of Boards, charitable and not-for-profit organisations.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • The right way to deal with that is to challenge false notions about religion

    Are our schools really qualified to judge on which notions of religion are false or true? As you write, ‘Ofsted is not a Regulator of Religion’. Yet you seem to want it to rule on which interpretations of Islam are valid and which aren’t.

    the togetherness and social responsibility that is central to properly practised religion

    Again, I’m wondering who in this situation is qualified to judge whether someone is ‘properly practising’ their religion or not. I certainly wouldn’t feel confident to tell, say, a Sikh whether they were practising their religion properly. Is it Ofsted who’s going to be making these determinations about who’s practising properly and who isn’t? Or someone else?

    Nothing should serve to make any Muslim child, or a child of any other belief or ethnicity, feel as though there is something wrong with their religion or culture

    Does this include Christians of a more conservative theological position, too? Or are they going to be told they are not ‘properly practising’ their religion?

  • Chris Bertram 24th Apr '18 - 11:32am

    “Islam does not require very young or primary aged girls to wear headscarves.” Please come to Birmingham and tell the head teacher of Cromwell Primary School this. Drive past at lunchtime when the children are out playing, and almost every little girl is covered by hijab. And I doubt that this school is unique. Maybe it’s the parents who impose the scarf on their poor little girls, but the HT should have the guts to stand up to them and state that within the school precincts, they are in a safe environment and that hijab will be taken off at the start of the school day.

  • Martin Land 24th Apr '18 - 1:33pm

    So we are advocating free choice for children where they are inspired by their mothers? So the daughters of racist, islamophobic parents would be free to express those views or dress accordingly. Perhaps as Liberals a better approach might be the French one where schools are secular and where children can avoid being put into boxes and can make such choices as consenting adults.

  • Jonathan Linin 24th Apr '18 - 2:51pm

    Difficult. How do we tell if someone is inspired to wear a head by a positive role model or made to wear one as a mark of defiance. That, I guess is where school uniform rules can help in ensuring girls are dressed alike at certain ages. As the author says this can be a question for all religions but it will be perceived as an Islamic issue.
    I also worry that in a school where head coverings at an early age become the norm then children and their parents will feel pressured into conforming.
    Regarding Ofsted not being a regulator of religion I couldn’t agree more. Religion really shouldn’t come into schooling in any way, then we wouldn’t get problems with overt religious influence in schools, or schools not conforming to expected ways of teaching subjects. This would also help in integrating society better (particularly in Northern Ireland, where depressingly few children have friends in the “other” community).

  • Ruth Bright 24th Apr '18 - 8:19pm

    It is a little far-fetched to say that questioning by inspectors might lead later to mental health issues! One of the primary schools my children attended was mildly criticised by Ofsted for the pupils’ lack of awareness of diverse communities. I am sure the questioning of the children was gentle and age appropriate and the findings were well meant. The word ostracism is excessive. No-one has talked about banishing children who currently wear a headscarf. Support was given to a school where headscarves were not part of the uniform policy for under eights.

  • For myself I have no problem with the kids wearing the Hijab at school. However Offsted have signiificant concerns, see the Head of Offstead’s speech as reported in the Guardian and Times as follows:-:-

    “It is a matter of deep regret that this outstanding school has been subject to a campaign of abuse by some elements within the community. I want to be absolutely clear, Ofsted will always back heads who take tough decisions in the interests of their pupils.”

    In her speech Spielman will also call on school leaders to use “muscular liberalism” to defend decisions they make, rather than fear causing offence.

    “Ofsted inspectors are increasingly brought into contact with those who want to actively pervert the purpose of education,” Spielmann will say, according to remarks reported by the Times.

    “Under the pretext of religious belief, they use education institutions, legal and illegal, to narrow young people’s horizons, to isolate and segregate, and in the worst cases to indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology.”

    This may be a more difficult issue than at first appears and living in the Midlands there has been the the well known concerns raises concerning one or two Birmingham schools.

    Perhaps it was unfortunate the speech was made to an Anglican conference but there you go.

  • Rita Giannini 25th Apr '18 - 10:52am

    Are you seriously suggesting that we should allow very young girls to go to school with their head covered because they want to imitate their mum? Would you allow a six years old to go to school with full make up and heels because she wants to imitate mum? Covering your head for religious reason is a personal choice in our societies, not an obligation, and a choice should be made when you are capable of it. Otherwise it is an imposition, not a choice.

  • David Cooper 25th Apr '18 - 11:50am

    “Ofsted is properly troubled that contrary to Islam … some very young girls could be being forced to wear a hijab or fast during Ramadhan”

    I agree with the comments from “Dav” above. Ofstead should stick to its brief, which is assessing education, which it often fails to do competently. It is incredible that the head of Ofstead feels qualified to judge what is or is not contrary to various religions. The assumption seems to be that the judgments of a Cambridge graduate such as Spielman, who has no more than a casual interest in Islam, should trump the beliefs of those who live every day according to its maxims. This smacks of cultural arrogance, or worse, racism.

  • “Promoting social cohesion” is not a liberal value. Affirming the right of individuals, even children, to make their own choices (even when they are not the ones we would make) is a liberal value.

    If a child wears a headscarf at home and chooses not to do so at school, the school should defend that right. If a child does not wear a headscarf at home and chooses to do so at school, the school should defend that right too. If people are not allowed to exercise their rights at an early age they forget that they (and others) are entitled to have those rights.

  • Richard Fagence 25th Apr '18 - 2:25pm

    The author states: “If a young Muslim girl freely chooses to wear a headscarf…” The important word is “freely”. In many cases I believe that this “choice” is not made by the wearer, whether they be a young child or an older female. If a very young child is in a hijab at primary school, I have severe doubts that they have made a ‘free’ choice. I do not believe that organised religion should play any part in state education, whether in teaching or in more visible observance.

  • All children are born as atheists. Religions have to keep indoctrinating them to survive so they’ll fight any attempt to put the brakes on them.

  • Geoffrey Payne 26th Apr '18 - 12:42pm

    As a Liberal I believe in the freedom to choose and if a child wants to wear a headscarf then they should be allowed to do so.
    It is irrelevant in relation to whether education should be secular or not. From a secular point of view there is no reason to care whether someone wears a headscarf or not. Secularism should no more be imposed on people than any religious faith.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 29th Apr '18 - 4:56pm

    Ruth and Rita, get my support for sense and sensibility, would this be the Jayne Austen award ?!

    Maajid Nawaz , probably the best advocate for liberalism with religious traditions respected, believes it the necessity we have secular dress for primary children, to not impose on kids.

    My view entirely.

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