London: David Cameron on Thursday backed a college’s controversial decision to ban pupils wearing the full facial veil for security reasons.
All students, staff and visitors to Birmingham Metropolitan College were told they must have their faces visible at all times so they are ‘easily identifiable’.
But the move has been criticised by some students, one describing the policy as disgusting.
On Friday, a protest organised on Facebook — supported by the local Labour MP — is being held at the campus in central Birmingham.
More than 800 people claimed they planned to attend to stand up to what they said was an “Islamophobic” decision.
Cameron’s spokesman said the Prime Minister defended the right of educational institutions to be able to “set and enforce their own school uniform policies”.
But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he felt “uneasy” about a veil ban in a schools, although he could understand why it was needed to identify people at airport checkouts.
The college which has 44,000 students and is the third largest in the UK, say headwear poses a security risk and their policy “includes the removal of hoodies, hats, caps and veils so that faces are visible”.
This would stop female Muslim pupils from wearing the niqab, the full facial veil where only the woman’s eyes are visible, or the burqa where the eye area is covered in mesh.
Student Imaani Ali, 17, who studies applied sciences said: “We would happily show the men at security our faces so they could check them against our IDs, but they won’t let us. It’s a breach of my freedom and I feel discriminated against.” Another 17-year-old student, who was not named, said: “It’s disgusting.”
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “We back schools being able to set and enforce their own school uniform policies.”
Nick Clegg, asked about the decision on his LBC radio phone-in, told a caller he “set the bar very high to justify something like that”. He added: “I’ve always defended people’s right to wear what they want and that’s very much what I would apply here.”
The Education Department said it is up to the governing body of a school to decide whether there should be a school uniform or any other rules about appearance, and if so what they should be.
But Shabana Mahmood, the Labour MP for Ladywood, said she was shocked by the policy, and has written an open letter to the college’s principal calling for an urgent meeting. In the letter to Christine Braddock CBE, she expressed “deep concerns” that it would deter young women from her constituency from attending the college.
In a statement the principal said the policy, developed after consultation with students, “will mean everyone allowed on the premises can understand and know each other in a safe environment”.
The college provides A-level and vocational training for around 9,000 16 to 19-year-olds and 35,000 mature students.