Heads must know, but not exceed, their powers when it comes to decisions on school dress, says Richard Bird, former headteacher and now legal consultant of the Association of School and College leaders (ASCL)

Faced with the flurry of legal cases and headline-grabbing stories about the rights of children to wear dress and symbols which are related to religion, headteachers might well ask: Why here? Why now? Why religious dress rather than other issues of uniform? And what do I do about it?

They do not have the protection that France gives its educators through national legislation. They are left in the British tradition to make a pragmatic decision as to what is best in their own context.

The Education and Inspections Act gives them a duty to promote community cohesion. Yet other voices say that multiculturalism demands acceptance of the customs of new Britons – that the shalwar kameez, for example, is acceptable for Muslim girls. Then a Muslim voice says it is just a folk costume and not-Islamic. And then the papers may suddenly fill up with headlines about someone forbidden to wear a cross to work or in school.

It is confusing and quite different from the usual teenage objection to being told what to wear. If one looks at the Islamic dress issue alone, we can see that it is related to an upsurge in Islamic consciousness. That has many sources but at root it is about young people born and raised in the UK who have looked to discover their own identity in a western society and to make choices not bound by particular religious customs.

For some of them a trans-national religious identity has become almost the only identity they aspire to. As young people will, they choose something without shades of grey and seek to enforce their views on others. Dress is one chosen battleground. In reaction, people whose Christian heritage has been deeply buried for generations, start to wonder whether a cross might be a symbol of identity for them and an obligation; not merely a decorative jewel.

Heads need to understand what is happening below the surface but they, or rather their governors, can, and must, make their own decisions on uniform.

The decision must be reasonable and not arbitrary. Governors must have reasons for the uniform they choose. Ability to identify pupils; building cohesion and not division in the school and promoting school values of tolerance and equal value have all been accepted by the courts as legitimate. They should consult, but not simply listen to, the most vehement. They should make their rules known.

And heads should know and not exceed their powers. But their duty is to the values of their school. That must include both cohesion and tolerance but also the core value of equal value of all pupils.

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