One of the UK’s leading state-funded schools which had hit the headlines as one of the first to impose a ban on the hijab for girls under eight has been forced to reverse its decision after widespread criticism. St Stephen’s School in Newham, east London, had been planning to extend the ban to girls under 11 later this year but has chosen to withdraw the plans.
“The school’s uniform policy is based on the health, safety and welfare of our children. The school has taken the decision to make changes to this policy with immediate effect and this follows on from conversations with our school community,” the school said in a statement. “We will work with our school community to continue to review this policy going forward in the best interests of our children,” it adds.
Arif Qawi, the chair of governors of the school who had recently called on the UK government to take a firm stand on young children wearing the hijab and fasting during Ramadan, resigned from his post on Friday. According to ‘The Sunday Times’, the resignation followed offensive messages posted on social media against him and the school’s Indian-origin principal Neena Lall.
“Now the head-teacher needs to go. Kick her out and force her to wear hijab. Let her see what forcing means,” one of the messages against Lall reads. Under the UK’s Department for Education guidelines, uniform policy is a matter for individual head-teachers and their governing bodies.
The school, with a majority of pupils from Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds, had urged the UK government to issue clear guidelines on the issue of hijab-wearing and religious fasting relating to very young pupils to prevent a backlash from parents. “The department should step up and take it out of our hands and tell every school this is how it [fasting] should be… The same for the hijab, it should not be our decision. It is unfair to teachers and very unfair to governors. We are unpaid. Why should we get the backlash,” Qawi had said.
Amina Lone, co-founder of the UK’s Social Action and Research Foundation who has campaigned for young girls not to have to wear the hijab, warned that after his resignation other schools in the country would find themselves under pressure if the Department for Education did not issue clear guidelines. “These issues are not going away,” she said.
The Department for Education said it is a matter for individual schools to decide how to “accommodate children observing Ramadan, and to set uniform policies”.
“But we would expect them to consider the needs of their pupils, and to listen to the views of local parents,” a spokesperson said. In November 2017, St Stephen’s School had topped a prestigious primary schools league table published by ‘The Sunday Times’ annually. It was listed as the best school in England in the ‘Schools Guide 2018’ for a strong teaching record.