NEW guidance from the Department of Education stresses uniforms must be reasonably priced and widely available. It also notes that the Human Rights Act of 1998 protects the right to “manifest one’s religion or beliefs” and schools should “act reasonably in accommodating religious requirements.” Prof Mark Halstead is head of the Department of Community and International Education at Huddersfield University. He spoke to the Examiner education writer HAZEL ETTIENNE about the religious clothing issue in schools.
A HUDDERSFIELD academic has spoken out on the row over what children should and should not wear in schools.
Prof Mark Halstead believes schools should accept and positively welcome symbolic clothing such as the hijab, which is worn by Muslim girls.
He says the debate is connected with the core values of freedom, equality and reason.
A ban on freedom of expression would offend both the principle of freedom of expression and the principle of freedom of religion which are endemic in British society.
“Children learn from this clothing about rights and freedoms,” said Prof Halstead.
“They learn about religious and cultural diversity in contemporary society. They learn to
respect people different from themselves. They learn tolerance. They learn about different kinds of identity and what makes different people tick. They have opportunities to talk about differences at first hand and to learn something about the commonalities that lie behind the differences.”
Prof Halstead said seeing diversity in schools helped people understand the broader issues of diversity and understand its values which are so central to contemporary society.
He said that regarding equality it was sometime argued, most recently in France, that banning all religious clothing was part of treating all children equally.
But he said this did not provide equality of treatment between believers and non-believers.
Believers may have to give up something which was central to their identity, whereas non-believers were not being asked to do so.
Schools should act reasonably. For Muslim girls, for example, modesty and decency is part of their beliefs and identity and it would be unreasonable to expect them to wear a knee-length skirt and have their legs uncovered.
Prof Halstead, who taught for 12 years in inner city Bradford before working in higher education, added that much of the controversy regarding symbolic clothing focussed on safety and criticism of Islamic beliefs and practices.
He said issues of safety had been blown out of all proportion and he had never read a report of a Muslim girls wearing traditional dress catching fire from a Bunsen burner in a chemistry laboratory.
He added that it was often implied that fathers or other male relatives or religious leaders forced Muslim girls to wear a veil or other clothing.
But his own experiences and research suggested that this was not the case. Muslim girls made an autonomous decision to wear the hijab, often against their parents’ wishes who may be concerned that it would affect their chances in the employment market.
“If diversity is enriching (and I believe it is), then diversity of clothing and religious symbolism is part of that enrichment,” he added.