While I think that Jack Straw is wrong over his wishes for veiled Muslim women to remove their veils before speaking to him- it's his job to represent people as they are and not as he would like them to be- I am troubled by the latest issue with a woman being suspended for refusing to remove her veil in English language support classes in a primary school.
In her area, her knowledge of the local community languages may well be an asset, but her not allowing her mouth movements to be visible makes her a less useful teacher in many ways, as a lot can be learnt from watching the mouth movements of the speaker. Furthermore, the educational opportunities of hearing-impaired students would be seriously compromised as they depend more on visual clues than other students, as well as risking exposing the school to other legal challenges. I couldn't care less whether she wears a veil in the corridors and staffroom, but I cannot see how someone who conceals their mouth can teach pronunciation as well as someone who doesn't. I demonstrate pronunciation in class with my face, but she would be dependent on diagrams, which, certainly at primary level, would be less useful. I don't think that a minister should be calling for her to be sacked, which is just pandering to the whims of the more excitable sections of the press, but I do think that we should look at whether covering the mouth is an acceptable part of teaching language. I can't see that a veil would affect her ability to teach chemistry or history to students that are not hearing-impaired, but I do see an issue with pronunciation in the UK, where there are plenty of human resources available that would not choose to mask their pupils' ability to see how the face works when articulating sounds, most of all where a hearing-impared student would be greatly disadvantaged. Religion does not take priority over the rights of students with special needs, nor can it run the risk of reducing students' learning possibilities in a setting where it is not necessary. In a setting where the veil is standard the situation would, in my opinion, be very different, but where there are alternatives, I don't see covering your mouth as a positive in a language class, nor any class where hearing-impaired students are present.