Lord Theodore Agnew

A school headteacher, who was forced to withdraw a ban on wearing of hijab by young girls after vitriolic abuse on social media, has received crucial support of a minister who said bullying or intimidation of school staff was completely unacceptable.

Lord Theodore Agnew, Minister for schools systems, faith and counter-extremism in education, also said that schools in the country were completely within their right to make decisions on how to run their institutions in the best interests of their pupils.

Neena Lall, headteacher of the St Stephens Primary School in Newham, met with strong opposition, faced abuse on social media and even likened to German dictator Adolf Hitler for her decision to impose a ban on wearing of hijab by girls under eight last month.

Later, she withdrew the decision.

A governor at the school, Arif Qawi, resigned amid the stiff opposition and had urged the government to spell out school uniform policies more clearly.

The minister also threw his support behind schools in the country that want to impose a ban on wearing of hijab or religious fasting by very young pupils.

“They are completely within their right to make decisions on how to run their schools in the best interests of their pupils, in line with the law and in discussion with parents, of course, and we back their right to do so,” Agnew wrote in The Times in reference to Lall.

“St Stephens Primary School in east London has been at the centre of media attention after its ban on young pupils wearing the hijab and fasting during Ramadan. I have seen the vitriolic abuse on social media after this decision and read of the intimidation of staff, resulting in the resignation of the chairman of governors…I wanted to send out a clear message: bullying or intimidation of school staff is completely unacceptable,” he wrote.

The minister responsible for counter-extremism in the Department for Education said the government would not allow a “culture of fear and intimidation to pass through the school gates” and that any opposition to decisions by a school’s governing body should manifest itself in the form of sensible, informed discussion and not hateful online reaction.

Earlier this month, the UK’s independent schools watchdog, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), had also came out in support of the school’s right to set its own uniform policy.

“School leaders must have the right to set school uniform policies in a way that they see fit, in order to promote cohesion,” Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, had said.

Under the Department for Education guidelines, uniform policy is a matter for individual headteachers and their governing bodies. But Agnew offered the government’s support to individual schools that may find themselves in a bind.

“We want to do all we can to help schools on sensitive issues, such as those thrown up by this case, and we will be working closely with school leaders and sector organisations on how we can support them,” the minister said.

He also warned schools in the country against “promoting religious ideologies that undermine British values” and said the government was prepared to take action against any form of discrimination in the classroom.