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UK school in hijab row wins watchdog support

  • Published at 11:38 pm February 20th, 2018
UK school in hijab row wins watchdog support
An East London school with a large Bangladeshi origin student base that hit the headlines over its attempt to ban the hijab for very young girls has been judged outstanding in an inspection report. The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted), the UK’s independent schools’ inspectorate, carried out a special inspection visit at St Stephen’s School in East Ham following reports of bullying of the school’s staff, including headteacher Neena Lall. The inspection team published their report today. The report concluded that the headteacher's leadership and management of the school was effective and that the negative atmosphere around the school’s uniform policy was created by elements from outside the school community. “School leaders, and in particular the headteacher, have faced bullying and harassment, and there is evidence that this has been coordinated by some people outside the school community. Parents said that they just want the ‘noise’ from these people to stop so they can get back to being a great school community without distracting interference,” the Ofsted report said. The report follows an inspection visit to the school on January 31, a few days after the school was forced to reverse its hijab ban for girls under eight amid a community backlash. A complaint has since been registered with local police in Newham, East London, about abusive and threatening emails, Facebook posts and other social media messages received by Lall and Arif Qawi, the former chairman of the school's governing body. The school, with a majority of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin students, has received the backing of senior UK government ministers, including UK education secretary Damian Hinds and Lord Theodore Agnew, Britain’s minister for schools systems, faith and counter-extremism in education. Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman had specifically spoken out in support of Lall's decision-making, after it emerged that the headteacher had been likened to German dictator Adolf Hitler as part of social media attacks. “School leaders must have the right to set school uniform policies in a way that they see fit, in order to promote cohesion,” said Spielman. The latest inspection, which was initiated by her amid growing concerns for the school and its headteacher, found that the negative comments and abusive postings on social media about the school’s uniform policy and position on children fasting for religious observance are in complete contrast to the atmosphere within the school and appear to be largely instigated by people from outside the parental body. “It is worth noting that the decision to remove the hijab from the key stage 1 uniform [under-eight] was communicated to parents in June 2017 and implemented with little fuss in September 2017, following careful consideration by governors,” the report added. Among its recommendations, the watchdog called upon the school to ensure future communications around uniform policies are carefully managed to avoid misinterpretations and also directed the local Newham Council for more proactive support for the school. “The expected level of emotional care and public support for school staff from the local authority has been too limited and, as a result, ineffective,” Ofsted said. Newham Council refuted the allegation of lack of support for the school, which it said had received significant support in the face of the backlash. “With such a diverse community, that has more than 200 languages spoken, councils must play a role in ensuring mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs," a spokesperson said.