Derby free school raises wider questions which extend beyond hijabs and halal food

Janet Downs's picture
Allegations levelled at Al-Madinah free school, Derby, concerning dress codes, food eaten on the premises and seating arrangements raise wider questions:

1 Schools have the right to set a school uniform. But does this extend to the enforced wearing (or removal) of clothing worn for faith reasons? Most UK schools allow Muslim girls to wear a hijab (headscarf) but not the niqab (face veil) or burka (full body robe with slit for eyes). The dress code for Al-Madinah also does not allow the niqab or burka during working hours but does require all female staff to wear the hijab. So, how far can clothing worn for religious purposes be mandatory or prohibited?

2 It’s alleged Al-Madinah banned staff from bringing non-Halal food. This may or not be true - but it raises the question how far schools can dictate what lunchboxes contain. There’s been much concern about whether lunchboxes contain healthy food – headteachers have been urged to ban them and encourage pupils to eat school meals. But if lunchboxes are allowed, should schools be allowed to make faith dietary requirements mandatory? And should such prohibitions be extended to food brought in by staff members who are not of the faith?

3 Schools are entitled to have seating plans for pupils – teachers can decide where pupils sit. These seating plans are decided for educational or disciplinary reasons. But should seating arrangements be used just to separate the sexes at puberty*?

The situation at Al-Madinah also throws the spotlight on the free school programme and the possibility that faith groups could teach as fact views incompatible with science. Michael Gove’s said it’s 'crystal clear' that creationism is not science and will not be taught in free schools. However, free schools with alleged links to creationism, such as Grindon Hall Christian School, Sunderland, a former private school which has just moved into new premises, were allowed to open. It’s difficult to discover what is taught at Grindon Hall – its website has a lot of headings but no information.

This raises a supplementary question – is it acceptable that state schools have websites which contain virtually nothing? The Department for Education (DfE) says schools must publish “key information” but Grindon Hall is not adhering to this requirement.

Al-Madinah’s prospectus says:

“Sensitive, inaccurate and potentially blasphemous material with be censored or removed completely. If and when teachers are required by the curriculum to convey teachings that are totally against Islam, the Director of Islamic Studies will brief the relevant teachers and advise accordingly.”

There is a footnote attached to “against Islam”. It says, “Darwinism”.

Free schools must teach evolution as a "comprehensive and coherent scientific theory" or risk losing their funding. But it appears the DfE has approved a free school which publicly announces Darwinism will be subject to possible prohibition by the teacher in charge of faith instruction.

Ofsted is due to investigate Al-Madinah. But the wider questions remain. How far can schools dictate what pupils and staff do and do not wear? How far can schools extend dietary requirements? Is it acceptable that seating arrangements are used to segregate the sexes? What action should be taken against a state school that doesn’t publish the on-line information required?

How far is the DfE ensuring that free schools adhere to the requirement to teach evolution? How far is the DfE ensuring that free schools follow requirements expected of other state schools? Is the DfE monitoring whether free schools stick to their Funding Agreements?

And if any free school is not complying then will the DfE cease funding and close the school?


*see letter from Al-Madinah’s intermin principal downloadable here.

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