Following a heated debate in the wake of comments by Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, the government has agreed that schools will be able to prohibit the wearing of religious full-face veils on security, safety or learning grounds.
The government stresses that all reasonable efforts should be made to accommodate religious clothing, but also emphasises the importance of teachers and pupils being able to make eye contact in lessons and the social aspects of the running of educational establishments.
The move will come under new uniforms guidance, and follows a court case involving a Muslim teacher at a Church of England voluntary aided school – and another one where, in February 2007, a 12-year-old girl failed in a High Court attempt to overturn her Buckinghamshire school's niqab ban.
It is the victory by the Buckinghamshire school, which cannot be named for legal reasons, that has prompted the updated guidance, says the BBC.
The school argued the veil made communication between teachers and pupils difficult and thus hampered learning. Teachers need to be able to tell if a pupil is enthusiastic, paying attention or even distressed. But full-face veils prevent this, it argued.
The Muslim Council of Britain has not yet responded to the guidance, but in a 72-page document released earlier this year the umbrella organisation stopped short of endorsing niqabs for girls – while urging schools to cater for Muslim pupils' needs to dress modestly and avoid tight-fitting or transparent garments.
Full-face veils are not a religious requirement in Islam, being backed only by hard-line minorities.
Commentators say that the government’s guidelines are a way of trying to forestall further legal cases.
Ayshah Ishmail, a teacher at a Muslim girls' school in Preston who wears the niqab away from the classroom, told the BBC that wearing the veil promotes equality because “you're judged for who you are and not what you are.”
But other women, Muslims and non-Muslims, view it as a symbol of oppression and female subjection to the requirements of a male-led hierarchy.
The DfES guidance also instructs schools to be sensitive to the cost implications of their choice of uniform, which it says should be available at high street shops. There have been accusations of profiteering and the Office of Fair Trading has been brought into the issue.