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Primary school 'bullied' into reversing hijab ban, says Ofsted chief

Amanda Spielman says reversal of policy sets a dangerous precedent, despite headteacher's admission that ban was a 'huge error of judgment'
Amanda Spielman told MPs that St Stephen's school had been "bullied" by a national lobbying campaign (screengrab)

A London primary school was targeted by a national campaign and “bullied” into reversing a ban on young girls wearing Islamic headscarves, the head of the UK’s schools regulator said on Wednesday.

Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, told parliament’s education select committee that she believed the reversal of the policy had set a dangerous precedent.

“I don’t think that individual schools should be bullied by national lobbying campaigns. I think that is a very different thing from consulting parents and making reasonable efforts to find working arrangements that are acceptable to parents,” said Spielman.

Spielman also drew a comparison between the campaign against the ban and the so-called "Trojan Horse" affair in Birmingham in 2014 when local school leaders were accused of seeking to infiltrate and gain control of schools in order to run them according to Islamic principles.

Many of the schools were subsequently placed under special measures by Ofsted and taken over by new management. However, an inquiry by the education select committee subsequently concluded that no evidence of “a sustained plot” had been found.

Asked by William Wragg, a Conservative MP, whether lessons were still being learnt from "Trojan Horse", Spielman said: "Indeed they are".

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She added: "The case in Newham of the kind of influence that was exerted in that school was a useful reminder for many people that the pressure we found exerted in schools in Birmingham wasn’t a one off that has gone forever."

Spielman’s appearance in front of the education committee comes after Middle East Eye last month reported that Neena Lall, the head teacher at St Stephen’s primary school in Newham, East London, had admitted to parents in an open meeting that the decision to ban the wearing of the hijab by girls younger than eight had been a “huge error of judgment”.

But Spielman told the committee she was satisfied that the original decision had been properly made in consultation with parents.

'Complete fabrication'

The ban was enforced from September but gained widespread media coverage following a Sunday Times story about the school in December, which teachers subsequently distanced themselves from.

Teachers told parents at the meeting in January, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by MEE, that Sunday Times journalists had come to the school with an "agenda" to stir up debate about the hijab in schools.

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A parent at the school, whose identity MEE is not revealing in order to protect the anonymity of his child, told MEE: "It is a complete fabrication that the school reversed their policy because of Trojan Horse-type pressure. There was a meeting between 200-plus parents and the school in which Lall profusely apologised for not consulting parents."

Another parent told MEE: "As for the claim that the school was bullied into reversing its decision, I spoke to Neena myself, face to face, and she was very clear that this was not the case.

"The school was at fault for not consulting. They admitted, apologised and reversed the decision. To have done anything short of this would have been undemocratic."

Spielman also said on Wednesday the case raised questions about whether decisions about contentious issues in schools should be taken by headteachers, or taken at local authority or national government level.

“If we are going to end up with an asymmetry where people conscientiously running quite small schools can be effectively targeted and bullied in this way then I think we are in quite a worrying world,” said Spielman.

Local campaigners in Newham have criticised Spielman over her support for the hijab ban, which came after she announced in November that primary school girls who wear the headscarf would be questioned by inspectors.

Last month, Spielman also said in a speech that Lall and her leadership team had her “full support” and called on school leaders to promote a “muscular liberalism”.

“Schools must have the right to set school uniform policies as they see fit, in order to promote cohesion. It is a matter of deep regret that this outstanding school has been subject to a campaign of abuse by those who want to undermine the school’s position,” Spielman said.

Muslim girls 'stereotyped and interrogated'

Naila Naidoo, of Newham Muslim Women’s Association, said: “By singling out the headscarf, Amanda Spielman and others make it acceptable for Muslim girls in school to be stereotyped and interrogated. Women who are visibly Muslim are already subjected to Islamophobic attacks; these are becoming increasingly common.

“Statements that demonise the wearing of the headscarf put our children at risk and contribute to the marginalisation and othering of Muslims. Instead of building resilience and cohesion, such targeting tears communities apart.”

Local campaigners have also rejected accusations that their efforts to persuade the school to reverse the ban were coordinated by “extremists” and “outsiders” and amounted to bullying.

Local MP Stephen Timms had expressed support for the campaign, writing in the local Newham Recorder newspaper that by dropping the ban the school was "reflecting the wishes of local parents who are very supportive of the school and want the best for their children".

"Some have suggested that extremists have caused the policy U-turn. This is not the case - even though shocking abuse was directed at the school from people outside the area, who should be ashamed of themselves," Timms also wrote.

MEE has learnt that Timms and Spielman had a telephone conversation to discuss St. Stephen's School on 5 February.

Asked to comment on Spielman's evidence to the education committee, Timms told MEE: "I attended a meeting with a couple of hundred parents at the school on 22 January.  It was quite clear at the meeting that the parents were very supportive of the school, and of its Head, but that they were uncomfortable with the ban.

"This provided, to my mind, a very sound basis for lifting the ban. Amanda Spielman is, however, correct that an appalling level of abuse had been directed at the school on social media."

Ofsted inspectors visited St Stephen's after the ban was reversed and concluded that it remained an "outstanding school".

Statements that demonise the wearing of the headscarf put our children at risk and contribute to the marginalisation and othering of Muslims

- Naila Naidoo, Newham Muslim Women’s Association

"School leaders, and particularly the head teacher, have faced bullying and harassment, and there is evidence that this has been coordinated by some people outside the school community," a report of the visit obtained by MEE said.   

Arif Qawi, the former chairman of governors at St Stephen’s who resigned in January, has said that he and Lall were subjected to a campaign of abuse that forced his resignation and the reversal of the ban.

"The intimidation and manipulation of parents from across the country led to the school asking for my resignation on the afternoon of January 19th. And purely to stop the abuse and threats to the school community, I agreed to resign," he told MEE.

However, Lall told parents that Qawi was forced to resign over an email he had sent in which he described a local imam as “an unholy bastard” and mistakenly copied in the imam himself.

The parent said that he felt that Ofsted had let down children at the school by failing to protect them from a "secular crusade against religious freedoms".

"They failed to speak to parents and told the school their visit was to 'support staff'. They failed to properly investigate and hold leadership at the school to account," the parent said.

In a statement to MEE last month, an Ofsted spokesperson said: “We respect headteachers’ right to take tough decisions in the interests of their pupils, whether for reasons of community cohesion, health and safety or anything else. They should be able to do so without fear of intimidation or bullying.

“Inspectors did not visit this school to find out why the uniform policy was changed. They visited to look at the appropriateness of decision making - including the leadership team’s ability to make and implement decisions as they see fit, what support the school received, and the way the school communicates with parents."

- Amandla Thomas-Johnson contributed to this story.