No directive on hijabs in classroom to be issued


THE GOVERNMENT has decided not to issue a directive to schools on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in classrooms, Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe has confirmed.

In a statement issued jointly with Minister for Integration Conor Lenihan yesterday, he said the current policy of allowing State schools to decide their own uniform rules was "reasonable, works and should be maintained".

While insisting that no school uniform policy should exclude students of a particular religious background from seeking a place or continuing in a school, however, the statement did not recommend that clothing which obscures the face and acts as an "artificial barrier between pupil and teacher" be worn in class. "Such clothing hinders proper communication."

The recommendations urge schools to consult widely among their communities when drawing up a uniform policy and to take on board the obligations placed on them by the Equal Status Acts.

Mr Lenihan consulted widely on whether to issue a directive to State schools on the hijab after The Irish Times reported in May that a school principal in Gorey, Co Wexford, had called on the Department of Education to issue guidelines on the issue. This followed the department's refusal to offer advice to the school when a Muslim couple asked last September that their daughter be allowed to wear the hijab in class.

Yesterday Mr O'Keeffe said: "It seems clear that, where schools have permitted the wearing of the hijab in a colour similar to the school uniform, no problems have been encountered. The important consideration here is that all parties involved are clearly aware of the position."

All the main teacher unions welcomed the statement. The general secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland, Peter Mac Menamin, said the recommendations broadly reflected the union's own advice and "fully respect the various religious backgrounds of students in our schools while taking account of the legal position".

The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) described the recommendations as "sensible and practical" and said they reflected the policy of "reasonable accommodation" that primary schools had already adopted.

"In general terms, the wearing of religious symbols or religious clothing has not been problematic in Irish primary schools. Boards of management, irrespective of the ethos of the school, appear to have adopted a pragmatic approach," said general secretary John Carr.

"In addition, the INTO believes that clothing which acts as a barrier to regular school communication and appropriate interpersonal interaction associated with a school setting should not be accommodated," he added.

The general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, John White, said the statement recognised that second-level schools had been "tremendously successful in welcoming students from diverse backgrounds" into the classroom.

However, the Government's decision was criticised by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties, which said it appeared Ministers intended to "abrogate their own responsibilities to ensure that education is provided in a non-discriminatory way" by leaving the decision-making onus on school principals. Director Mark Kelly said: "This would appear to be a policy not to have a policy. Thanks to the good sense of school principals, reason has prevailed and no child has been excluded from school on the basis of their religious dress. However, there is a responsibility on the State to ensure that decisions on such a sensitive issue are taken on a firm lawful basis, and in a consistent way."