Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector of schools, claimed that the Government’s fear of being politically incorrect has stopped it from providing guidance to schools.
His comments on BBC Radio 5 live came after a headteacher of a London primary school was forced to reverse a ban on girls under eight wearing hijabs following backlash from the community.
“The Government needs to step in. It can no longer say it’s up to the headteachers,” Sir Michael said. “That head might be faced with an opposition which says, ‘well hang on, you made this decision, but there’s a school half a mile away which does allow (wearing hijabs for primary aged children)’.
“It now needs the Department for Education to think of this and come up with policies. Ofsted don’t make policies, headteachers don’t make policies either. There’s been little guidance.”
Asked if a fear of being politically incorrect was creating a reticence to act, he said: “Yes absolutely. There is a reticence, and it’s leaving headteachers alone, isolated and vulnerable.”
His comments come after minister Lord Agnew, who is responsible for faith and counter-extremism in schools, said the Government would back schools who faced opposition in light of hijab bans.
Writing in The Times over the weekend, Lord Agnew said teachers, school leaders and governors were “completely within their right to make decisions on how to run their schools in the best interests of their pupils… and we back their right to do so.”
But Sir Michael argues that leaving the decisions around hijabs up to individual schools was not enough.
“It needs more than advice. It needs guidance, official guidance. There has been none. I’m calling on the Department for Education to think clearly now about what teachers need,” he said.
The former Ofsted boss added: “It’s really up to the Department for Education to say this is now an ongoing issue that is affecting more than a few schools. You need to come up with some policies, and if not polices, guidance to heads about how they should react.”
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Last month, Arif Qawi, the former head of governors at St Stephen’s primary school in Newham, called for official Government guidance on the issue after they banned the hijab.
The “outstanding” school, which eventually reversed the ban following a community outcry, was recently visited by Ofsted inspectors – despite not being due a routine inspection.
She said: “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.”