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Spielman playing dangerous games

23rd Feb 2018

For the second time in just over two months, Amanda Spielman has taken it upon herself to target the wearing of the hijab at primary schools. In November, her claim was that it could lead to the “sexualisation” of girls as young as four. Much more widely, the modest Islamic form of dress is now apparently susceptible to be used as part of a pretext of religious belief, “legal and illegal, to narrow young people’s horizons, to isolate and segregate, and in the worst cases to indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology.”

To underline what has become a crusade for Ofsted’s chief inspector, she has taken sides to express her support for the Head Teacher in controversially banning infant Muslim girls from wearing the hijab at a predominantly Muslim state school in east London. St Stephen’s in Newham was already one of the best performing primaries in the country, according to last year’s Sunday Times school league table. Chair of the school’s governing body, Arif Qawi, resigned after his Islamophobic email was threatened to be made public where he said: “Crucify the unholy b*stard about the local imam.

Head Teacher Neena Lall who had also supported the ban has not resigned. Since then she has said, “The article which came out in the Sunday Times was completely misleading. Some of the things that happened in that article were not things that have happened at this school and it just inflamed the situation,” Lall told parents at a meeting on 22 January in which she also described the decision to ban the hijab as a “huge error in judgment”.

The term ‘muscular liberalism’ was first coined by former Prime Minister, David Cameron, to describe his much harder stance towards multiculturalism. It was announced outside the country in Munich back in February 2011. Of all places, Spielman chose to advocate a similarly named policy directed against Muslim children in front of an audience of Anglican clerics and educators at a conference grounded theologically in the Church of England’s Vision for Education.

Ofsted’s chief inspector has no teaching experience and was given her job against the advice of the Parliamentary Education Select Committee, which cited failure to show “passion” and to show understanding of such a “complex role”. It is thus a total mystery why she has become embroiled in other sensitive issues relating to religious practice and so-called extremism.

Her campaign against the hijab is not based on any empirical evidence. It seems that Spielman is giving in to pressure groups like the Social Action and Research Foundation and the National Secular Society who clearly have their own vested interests. She has even started to challenge basic values such as ‘mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith’ which she preferred to call British rather than universal principles.

“Tolerance and respect does not mean that we should privilege all belief above criticism,” the chief inspector argued. “Freedom of belief in the private sphere is paramount,” she accepted but went on to say that “in our schools, it is our responsibility to tackle those who actively undermine fundamental British values or equalities law.” That did not just mean Ofsted, but “everyone involved in education.” Rather than adopting a passive liberalism that says ‘anything goes’ for fear of causing offence, “school leaders should be promoting a muscular liberalism.”

Occasionally, she told the Church of England conference that will mean taking uncomfortable decisions or having tough conversations. “It means not assuming that the most conservative voices in a particular faith speak for everyone – imagine if people thought the Christian Institute was the sole voice of Anglicanism. And it means schools must not be afraid to call out practices, whatever their justification, that limit young people’s experiences and learning in school.”

It is a highly dangerous mission which the Ofsted chief inspector has put herself on. Her position is not supposed to be political yet she appears to be trying to implement a policy which has already failed and been discredited. She is risking antagonising Muslim communities, choosing to do so in front of a Christian audience.

Furthermore, discrimination appears to be at the heart of Ofsted’s approach. There is no similar problem with Jewish boys wearing (or being forced to wear) the kippah or Sikhs wearing the patka, but Muslim girls wearing the hijab are being targeted.

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