School relents over boys’ beards

Two Muslim boys barred from classes because they would not shave off their beards will be allowed to return to school unshaven.

Both 14-year-olds had been placed in “isolation” from the start of the new term at Mount Carmel Roman Catholic high school in Accrington, Lancashire, and this week were sent home as the school maintained they had to be clean shaven.

But the school has now performed a U-turn to comply with the European Convention of Human Rights, it explained.

Governors have taken the decision to only allow Muslim boys permission to grow a beard as a sign of their faith as long as they have started the Hafiz programme at their local mosques, which entails daily prayers and learning the Koran in Arabic.

Headteacher Xavier Bowers had previously stressed the matter was not one of religion but about dress code. Last week Bowers told the Lancashire Telegraph that the decision to place the boys in isolation had not been taken lightly. Speaking to the newspaper, he said: “I have spent quite a lot of time researching the issue and speaking to Muslim elders. There is nothing specifically written in the Qur’an about wearing a beard. It is a choice those boys are making. However inclusive we are, we have standards to maintain.”

Tonight, in a statement, the school said: “Governors at Mount Carmel have decided that there will be no change to the school rule which requires boys to be clean shaven. However, following discussions with leaders of the local community, exemptions will be made in certain clearly-defined circumstances.

“As a voluntary aided Catholic school, governors are the employers and legitimately set their own rules regarding uniform and appearance. The rule regarding boys being clean shaven is reasonable and proportional and has been in place for some time. All parents and children are fully aware and accepting of school rules.

“The rule is part of the school standards agenda along with hair style, hair colour, jewellery and make up ensuring high expectations for all pupils and that their appearance is standardised.

“The school is advised that it is part of Muslim tradition and religious belief that a beard is a sign of commitment to the Islamic faith but it is ultimately down to personal belief.

“Having said all that as governors of voluntary aided schools We have to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, as do all schools. As part of this legislation all schools must make reasonable adjustments to school uniform on genuine religious grounds.”

Hafiz is an extensive programme that involves attending Mosque for 2-3 hours a day to pray and learn the Koran word by word in Arabic.

Welcoming the decision, county councillor Munsif Dad said: “I’m very glad that we are moving in the right direction and I’d like to thank the headteacher and governors for their understanding and co-operation. Mount Carmel is an excellent school in our local community – we have always supported it and will continue to do so.

“Understandably, this has aroused some interest, but we hope we can continue the dialogue and address the issues as they arise. Regards this issue, we hope the school can continue the important job of providing excellent education to its students.”

Press Association, 11 October 2013