Schools that allow pupils to wear face veils could be ruled "inadequate," according to the head of Ofsted. The chief inspector of schools in England, Sir Michael Wilshaw, wrote a letter on Tuesday to inspectors demanding they mark down institutions where they judge a veil acts as a "barrier to learning."
A ban for the veil already has support from Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who said previously Muslim pupils and teachers should not be allowed to wear the controversial garb. Wilshaw added on Tuesday: "I am concerned that some heads and principals who are trying to restrict the wearing of the full veil in certain circumstances are coming under pressure from others to relax their policy.”
"I want to assure these leaders that they can rely on my full backing for the stance they are taking,” he continued. “I have also made clear to my inspectors that where leaders are condoning the wearing of the face veil by staff members or by pupils when this is clearly hindering communication and effective teaching, they should give consideration to judging the school as inadequate."
Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw delivers his keynote speech at the Guildhall, London
However, the Ofsted’s chief comments were decried by the Muslim Council of Britain, which accused the Office for Standards in Education of resorting to "the megaphone of the media to show that it is flexing its muscles". A spokeswoman for the Council added: "We are a country that prides itself in accommodation and fair play. It is a shame that the niqab - the full face veil that a minority of Muslim women wear - has become a polarising issue when it need not be.”
The Ofsted chief justified his stance, saying he was determined to ensure "discrimination, including on the grounds of gender, has no place in our classrooms". He added: "We want our schools, whether faith schools or non-faith schools, to prepare their pupils equally for life in 21st century Britain. We need to be confident our children's education and future prospects are not being harmed in any way."
National Secular Society campaigns manager Stephen Evans welcomed Wilshaw's action, even though the group does not back a ban of the veil in public. He said: “Full face veils are obviously inappropriate in a classroom and inhibit communication between staff and pupils. There should be every expectation that pupils and staff can communicate and identify each-other easily in schools. School dress codes will not generally permit face coverings to be worn and no concessions should be made to those who wish to cover their faces on religious grounds."
However, the National Union of Teachers warned Wilshaw’s plan could leave pupils and teachers isolated. “Sir Michael Wilshaw once again has chosen to issue punitive diktats to threaten schools through the use of 'inadequate' Ofsted judgments, rather than enabling them to develop their own sensible and appropriate policies on the wearing of religious clothing at school,” said Kevin Courtney, the NUT's deputy general secretary. “Rather than assisting school leaders, this will have the effect of alienating many staff and pupils."
Prime Minister David Cameron has said he backs “sensible rules" over Muslim full-face veils, but would baulk at a French-style ban on the garment in public.