Emma Honey
Posted on 20 Nov 2013

An Identity Crisis in Colleges and Courtrooms

The recent news that Birmingham Metropolitan College attempted to enforce a flat ban on religious veils from being worn in the classroom has divided opinion and sparked a huge media campaign, both in religious and political spheres. In our modern multicultural society, is a total ban of clothing that obscures the face such as the niqab or burkha acceptable? Does this allow individuals to exercise religious freedom or is this purely a political statement? The issue of identification and verification of individuals within schools and colleges is one of much debate and has called for both clarity of guidance and compromise in finding a solution.

The current Department for Education guidance is that education establishments should act reasonably in accommodating religious requirements whilst safeguarding the safety, security and effective teaching under the terms of the Human Rights Act. At the front line of this fine balancing act, Birmingham Metropolitan College subsequently reversed the ban and has since modified its stance on the issue after pressure from social media, student petitions and political opinion.

The issue of identity has also been raging in wider circles. This week a Muslim woman who had previously called for the right to stand trial in her niqab has been instructed by Judge Peter Murphy that she must remove it whilst giving evidence "to stop a coach and horses being driven through British Justice". The woman will now be able to give evidence from behind a screen to prevent her from being viewed by members of the public at Blackfriars Crown Court. The Judge held that it is "essential" for jurors to be able to see facial reactions when giving evidence, although the woman will be able to wear her veil for the remainder of the trial. As demonstrated here, there has to be cooperation on both sides and a "proportionate view" taken with such sensitive issues.

Sitting alongside the media explosion surrounding these topics is a possible alternative for the verification of the identity of students – the new age of biometrics. Could this be the solution that institutions are clearly in need of? Automatic fingerprint identification, hand geometry and voice recognition are just a few of the methods that schools and colleges are able to use not only for library and registration systems, but more importantly for the identification of students.

However, from 1st September, the new requirement for parental notification and consent for biometric data for children under 18 years of age came into force under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. This aims to maintain consistency and compliance across the education sector, although concerns surrounding the security of personal data on a biometric system are still present.

With the development in technology and diverse nature of our communities, issues of identity are likely to increasingly become front page news. In addition to this, the debate will undoubtedly continue until such a compromise or solution is established.