I want you to go back to primary school- anywhere between the ages of four and ten- and imagine a strange man coming up to you across the playground. He seems nice, and your teacher has told you there are some important people visiting the school today and you should answer all the questions carefully. You expect him to ask you about your literacy lessons or maybe the after school debating club you have joined but instead he asks you why you are wearing a headscarf. You are confused; inevitably you fluff it. He doesn’t ask anyone else about their clothes. Later, a boy tells you its because not everyone wears them and they want to check up on it. You think about your older sister and your mum and your cousin and the bus driver and you wonder if he will check up on them too.
Nope, you haven’t been transported to a strange dystopian world, you are simply a young Muslim girl experiencing an Ofsted inspection in 2018. Yesterday they released the bizarre recommendation that Inspectors should start questioning girls on their choice of head gear; a policy I hope will be quickly thrown into the dustbin along with all the other terrible ideas about the best use of state power. It seems to me that alongside the constant barrage of Islamophobia in the press, social media, and on the bus, the last thing Muslim girls need is questions from the people who are there to ensure their books are marked on time.
The thrust of this policy comes from the Social Action and Research Foundation whose founder wrote a Guardian article attacking the portrayal of young women wearing the hijab. The foundation itself aims “to address the stigmatisation of marginalised communities..” and does a lot of good work. Their action against TfL’s recent advertising campaign was a well-judged effort to battle against stereotyping of such groups. They are an important voice and express a powerful viewpoint on this question. Sadly, this latest lobbying effort is likely to undermine their efforts to reduce stigma. Here’s why.
- Firstly, I would like to point Ofsted to its own guidance to schools on promoting British values:
- “an acceptance that people having different faiths or beliefs to oneself (or having none) should be accepted and tolerated, and should not be the cause of prejudicial or discriminatory behaviour”
Inspectors should accept that their might be many reasons why someone wears a certain piece of clothing and unless we are going to start questioning all prepubescent children on their (largely) unconscious decision making this is a prejudicial behaviour targeted at a minority for no good reason. We should not start to be “suspicious” of certain choices just because there’s a debate going on about the exact implications of wearing a particular piece of clothing. Are we going to start using Ofsted to police appropriate clothing choices of other groups? Of course not: it would be an absurd invasion into private decisions that don’t have any bearing on a child’s education.
- Secondly, I’m not an expert on reasons for wearing the hijab and nor are most Ofsted inspectors. It is a decision that seems to have as many explanations for it as there are wearers of the hijab: I have reached puberty, I want to show respect (some women only wear it during prayer), it is part of my culture, my sister recently started wearing it, I don’t know I just want to- hang on, why on earth are you asking me when I’m at school??
- Thirdly, why on earth do Ofsted think this is part of their remit? If the justification is that this forms part of their safeguarding duty then the pretty straight-forwardly racist suggestion of this policy is that somehow a girl turning up in a hijab is potentially at risk. You might ask why Ofsted have come to this particular conclusion as a result, seemingly, of one meeting. Their stated claim is that this is in line with their other equalities assessments. Strange; their own assessment of progress on Equality Objectives talks about deficiencies in promotion of diversity in the classroom and whole-school, not in the parenting environment. How about we focus on the teachers then?
This is an important cultural debate in Islam and frankly I believe little girls should have their hair in a stylish man-bun anyway (mainly to reclaim the style; more next week), but Ofsted should not be officiating on such matters. The schools inspectorate should certainly not be perpetuating racist myths in the media which will be the overwhelming consequence of this knee-jerk policy. Ofsted needs to remember its job is to inspect schools, not little girls.