A new departure from an old debate


This young lady smiles with her eyes. What does this picture communicate to you?

This young lady smiles with her eyes. What does this picture communicate to you?

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Mark Twain


Debates around school uniform, the appropriate appearance of students and the adoption of current fashion trends, have been a common feature of education for as long as I can remember. I recall that when I was a student at secondary school there were definite views about the acceptable length of hair that boys should be allowed to have, just as there were requirements that we should wear blazers, ties and charcoal grey trousers. I don’t think many of us openly rebelled against the clothing rules, though in the late 1960s being told that we should wear our hair short – remember that this was the era of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and numerous other long haired music groups –  did seem like a serious infringement of personal liberty.

Over the years it has been noticeable that school students have found various devices for flouting the rules regarding uniformity. It is amazing how many variations on wearing a tie have been achieved, and the ingenuity of individuals and groups of students in devising minute changes to uniforms is a tribute to their creativity. I suppose it was a simple device for girls at school to adjust the length of their skirts once off the school premises, simply to challenge the rules regarding how far beneath the knee the hem should appear whilst in school.

I suppose this cat and mouse game of habiliment challenge is as old as education itself, and I can imagine that in the past there may have been times when children were sent home for failure to arrive wearing a school cap, or carrying the wrong kind of satchel. In one respect I can see the purpose of school uniform and its function in establishing a whole school identify, I also recognise that it may have a levelling effect, which means that those who can afford “designer clothes” ( a term I have never fully understood) do not look down upon others from less affluent (or maybe more easily led) families. However, there is a significant part of me that believes that the donning of a school uniform probably has little, if any impact upon a school’s primary function of teaching and learning.

Whilst the discourse around uniforms has done little beyond raising a few hackles and confirming entrenched views for at least the past century, of late there has been a more complex issue added into the equation. This has been yet again highlighted by newspaper reports of a young Muslim student from a school in Camden, London, being refused access to lessons because she has chosen to wear a niqab which covers a significant part of her face. This is not a new story, but rather one that re-emerges in the press at regular intervals and provokes heated and thoroughly entrenched arguments about whether girls should or should not be entitled to wear the hijab or the niqab in school.

On the one side of the argument there are proponents of this form of dress, who suggest that a ban upon such divestment is an affront to the religious sensibilities of the individual. Some argue that opposition to such choice is Islamaphobic and demonstrates the prejudices of those who make the rules. On the opposite side of the argument sit those who suggest that the wearing of the niqab creates difficulties for teachers who are unable to communicate effectively, or pick up on the visual cues and expressions that they obtain from other students. Both arguments it seems to me are indicative of  a reluctance to move beyond the superficial nature of debate.

In a statement from the Camden school a representative of the governors states that:-

“teachers need to see a student’s whole face in order to read the visual cues it provides”.

The school argues that the niqab inhibits teacher student interactions and is therefore unacceptable.

This is far from a straightforward issue and it will undoubtedly continue to generate heat for some time to come. However, there are a couple of questions that continue to bother me with regards to some of the statements made. The first is what seems to me to be a spurious suggestion that an inability to see someone’s face leads to a breakdown in communication. Surely if this were the case the telephone as an invention would never have progressed much beyond the drawing board, and far fewer people would today be walking around the streets with their cell phones firmly attached to their ears. I recall some years ago observing a teacher at work who was completely blind. She had excellent classroom management skills, was greatly respected by her students and was a very effective communicator in lessons. Her inability to see the faces of her students may have had some disadvantages but certainly didn’t appear to be a major impediment to teaching.

I once visited a classroom in a college in Malaysia. Here it was noticeable that all female students, and the teacher, were wearing a head scarf. About fifty per cent of the female students in classes also wore the niqab. This being a largely Muslim country was seen as the norm and nobody questioned the situation. The classes I observed seemed to be efficient, orderly and full of lively interaction. The question of costume as a barrier to learning never emerged.

Perhaps the matter under debate here is not truly one of pedagogy or school rules, but simply an indication of the difficulties we have in coming to terms with the challenges of living in a multi-cultural society. Some teachers are undoubtedly confused by students who adopt a form of dress different from that with which they are familiar, just as they may be challenged by those for whom English is  a new language or others who may have a disability or learning difficulty.  I personally feel that having a debate about these factors is an important feature of living in a democracy. So long as the arguments put forward on both side are reasoned and constructed in a polite manner we may have an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and others within our society. But if we limit this debate to a suggestion that an inability to see a face means that we are unable to communicate, we are surely deluding ourselves and shying away from the real reasons why we feel uncomfortable when faced with individuality and difference.