Primary school calls for stronger government guidance on religious fasting and dress

19 January 2018

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THE chairman of governors at St Stephen’s Primary School, Newham, in east London, has said that the Government should take faith-inclusion policies “out of their hands”, after parents criticised the school’s decision to ban girls under eight years old from wearing a hijab in the classroom.

Parents were told that the school would also be preventing Muslim children from fasting on school premises during the month of Ramadan, in the interests of health and safety. Both fasting and the wearing of the hijab are not traditional until puberty.

The chairman, Arif Qawi, told The Sunday Times this week that St Stephen’s had faced a backlash from parents over the move. Despite the name, St Stephen’s is not a church school.

“We did not ban fasting altogether, but we encouraged [the children] to fast in holidays, at weekends, and not on the school campus. Here, we are responsible for their health and safety if they pass out on campus. It is not fair to us.”

Mr Qawi asked for clearer national guidelines on fasting.

“The Department [for Education] should step up and take it out of our hands and tell every school this is how it should be,” he said. “The same for the hijab: it should not be our decision. It is unfair to teachers and very unfair to governors. We are unpaid. Why should we get the backlash?”

In a statement, the Department for Education pointed to its “clear guidance on uniform” under the Equality Act, but said that deciding how to accommodate pupils who observe Ramadan was a matter for individual schools.

The Church of England’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, said that having a blanket uniform policy might not be helpful, however. “We believe it is important to encourage local schools to set uniform policies, drawing on their own knowledge and experience of the cultural and religious sensitivities of the communities they serve, in balance with the well-being of their students.

“Research shows that there are many reasons why pupils wear the hijab in school, and we would question whether centralised guidance on this would be helpful.”

It comes after Ofsted announced last year that its inspectors would question Muslim primary-school girls on their wearing of a hijab in the classroom (News, 24 November).

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