Birmingham is in the news. The decision earlier this year by Birmingham Metropolitan College to change its policy and reverse the ban on students wearing the niqab has certainly attracted attention.
Are there professional and ethical issues related to the wearing of veils in schools?
My own view is that adults have a right to wear whatever they like in public – even things that cover their face – as long as doing so does not create a risk to personal safety or security. Women at the college were perfectly willing to show their faces when asked to identify themselves, so that satisfies concerns I would have had in that regard.
But only to some extent.
First, many of these women (as I understand it) are not yet adults – as the ones I saw interviewed and read about where 16 and 17 year-old girls. Secondly, schools, colleges and publicly funded education institutions – are not public places.
I do not instinctively like the idea of women wearing niqabs, though I defend their right to do so. As a western liberal I am torn between personal free-will and the idea that people are choosing to present themselves to society wearing clothes that will inevitably marginalize or exclude them from inclusive social discourse.
But people wear all kinds of things in public I hate looking at – though I try to be tolerant. I’m not a big fan of hoodies especially when I sense secretive motives in the wearer; I think baggy jeans that barely hang round the mid-riff of young men look ridiculous (Alexander McQueen – God-rest his soul – has a lot to answer for) and don’t get me started on obese men and women who think that wearing skimpy vests and tops in the summer looks like the height of fashion! (I can hear myself beginning to rant now…)
As a fully paid up member of the Guardian reading, metro-liberal chattering classes I am of course prepared to be tolerant of adults with deep religious affiliations who want to wear items of clothing that I might find curious, ridiculous or even offensive.
But as a teacher, I think we need to draw a line in a different place.
Schools are special communities. They are places where the educational, social and emotional needs of young people are being addressed and where identities are being nurtured as part of a cohesive, inclusive society.
Those needs depend on intimate relationships of trust. First, intimate peer-group relationships like friendship and fellowship between young people themselves; secondly intimate professional relationships between teachers and pupils.
We not only allow intimate professional relationships but we expect them – teachers must coach, instruct and inspire their pupils and much more. This educational and social interaction – this inter-face between teachers and young people necessarily involves and requires physical contact. The effectiveness of this process is enhanced by full eye contact, gesture and facial expression.
Schools are places we have created to pass on not only society’s most valued knowledge and skills but also its shared values. While we can quibble about the exact content of the national curriculum and we argue about personal values, we would – or should – agree that all children are entitled to a broad, balanced, inclusive education based on liberal values.
In my view, veiling one’s face runs counter to the effective achievement of that purpose. So for me, a veiled face should not be allowed in a school whether it’s worn either by a teacher or a pupil.
I may be wrong about this and I am willing to be dissuaded of my view – and please use this blog to try – but as a western liberal, I am genuinely disturbed by the desire of some Muslim women to relate to a society they have been born and brought up in in terms that purposely create a barrier to social discourse and integration.
However, as that same western liberal I am willing – reluctantly – to tolerate it from adults acting on their own free-will in a free society.
But as a teacher, I draw the line. Not in schools.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.