Schools could become embroiled in expensive legal battles as a result of new guidelines allowing headteachers to ban the full Muslim veil.
The government guidance on school uniforms tells heads they can ban the niqab on grounds of safety, security and discipline.
The final decision will be left to individual schools, but the document says: "If a pupil's face is obscured for any reason, the teacher may not be able to judge their engagement with learning and to secure their participation in discussions and practical activities."
On other forms of religious dress such as the jilbab - a full-length garment including headscarf - the document is silent, saying simply that schools must consult over proposals and consider their obligation not to discriminate against pupils on grounds of race, religion or sex.
The guidelines, backed by Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, have been described as "simply shocking" by the Islamic Human Rights Foundation. Legal experts warned they may flounder as a result of new legislation - set to come into force next month as part of the 2006 Equality Act - which makes it unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against pupils on religious grounds.
"This could lead to schools spending thousands of pounds defending their actions in court," said Phillip Wood, a partner at Dawsons Solicitors.Reuse content