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Common sense and respect for children in hijabs, please

Would it really affect anyone else in school if a child wears a hijab matching the uniform?

School uniform rules have a lot to answer for when it comes to the breakdown of good relationships between school staff, students and parents - as I have commented before.

The latest example is a school in South London which has told a Muslim family that their unnamed nine year old daughter may not wear a hijab – the traditional Muslim headscarf – in class. This has been widely reported because the parents have announced their intention of suing the school.

What a storm in a playtime beaker. The solution is obvious to anyone with an iota of common sense. But the trouble with common sense is, of course, that it isn’t actually very common.

I don’t know what the school uniform colour is at St Cyprian’s
Greek Orthodox Primary School, but the child should be allowed to wear a hijab provided it matches the uniform - navy, brown, maroon or whatever it is that the rest of the children are wearing. Compromise is supposed to be a British strength. So where is it in this case?  Entrenched attitudes and confrontation are rarely an effective way to solve problems.

A few years ago I drove past a school in Malaysia at the end of the day when the children were flooding out of the gates and strolling off home or being met by parents. It was clearly a very mixed community in terms of religion and ethnicity and there were at least five versions of the school uniform – some girls in gymslips in different lengths, some in shalwar kameez, some with hijabs, some boys in western blazers, some in Muslim tunics and so on. But they were all in, or partly in, the same shade of a rather pretty pale turquoise – so the gymslips, hijabs, ties, blazer badges and other items all matched. They looked, as a school, very striking and smart.

Few schools in Britain would need to go quite as far as that, but it was a memorably enlightened example of how you get round – or even celebrate – differences with wisdom while keeping everyone distinctively uniform so that they have their own identity to distinguish them from the school up the road which is what apologists for school uniform usually want.

St Cyprian’s is a voluntary-aided school. That means that it is part of Croydon local authority. It is a state school with a faith affiliation - exactly like the thousands of village schools across the country which are linked to the Church of England. State Catholic schools operate in the same way. It is simply that the Greek Orthodox link is more unusual and the school is very small with only 60 pupils.

As a maintained sector school St Cyprian’s is subject to government guidance which recommends that schools should ‘act reasonably’ in accommodating beliefs relating to hair, clothes and religious artefacts. Yes, I know it’s hard for those of us who didn’t grow up in strict Muslim families to understand why it’s a sin for a child of nine to be bare headed in front of male teachers, but would a uniform coloured headscarf really affect teaching and learning in the classrooms at St Cyprians? Wouldn’t some jaw-jaw be preferable to war-war in the High Court which is where the parents hope this matter will be heard?

Meanwhile, the most worrying thing about this case is the plight of the child at the heart of it. She has been withdrawn from school. She must surely know why. Children always suffer when the adults around them disagree vehemently and fail to provide a secure, united front.  You can also be absolutely sure that this issue, now in the public domain, is being discussed by the other children at the school and their parents and there will be a range of opinions. None of that will help the school or the teaching and learning there. I once taught in a school in which the head, very unwisely, locked herself and the school in a long running confrontation about one girl and a single ear stud. No one won. No one benefited and a great deal of damage was done both to the reputation of the school and to staff-student-parent relationships.

Multiculturalism is a wonderful thing. I welcome and love the diversity and richness of communities which have such a wide range of backgrounds and I am, for example, delighted that the town I live in is much more mixed than it was when I first came to live here. But it won’t work without give and take, mutual tolerance – and sometimes a sensitive, sensible compromise.