Moderate followers of Islam said yesterday that enforcement of the veil was a "dangerous precedent" and that children attending such schools were being "brainwashed".
The Sunday Telegraph has established that three UK institutions have introduced a compulsory veil policy when girls are walking to or from school. They are:
- Madani Girls' School in east London;
- Jamea Al Kauthar in Lancaster;
- Jameah Girls' Academy in Leicester.
All three are independent, fee-paying, single-sex schools for girls aged 11 to 18. Critics warned that the spectacle of burka-clad pupils entering and leaving the schools at the start and end of the day could damage relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
Ed Husain, co-director of Quilliam, the counter-extremist think-tank, said: "It is absurd that schools are enforcing this outdated ritual – one that which sends out a damaging message that Muslims do not want to fully partake in British society.
"Although it is not the government's job to dictate how its citizens dress, it should nonetheless ensure that such schools are not bankrolled or subsidised by the British taxpayer."
He added: "The enforcing of the niqab on young girls is not a mainstream Islamic practice – either in Britain or in most Muslim-majority countries.
"It is a desert practice which belongs to another century and another world."
Dr Taj Hargey, an imam and chairman of the Muslim Educational Trust of Oxford, said: "This is very disturbing and sets a dangerous precedent. It means that Muslim children are being brainwashed into thinking they must segregate and separate themselves from mainstream society. The use of taxpayers' money for such institutions should be absolutely opposed. The wearing of the burka or niqab is a tribal custom and these garments are not even mentioned in the Koran."
Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP who has attempted to bring in a Private Members' Bill to ban wearing of the burka in public, also condemned the schools' uniform policies.
"It is very sad in 21st century Britain that three schools are effectively forcing girls as young as 11 to hide their faces," he said.
"How on earth are these young ladies going to grow up as part of a fully integrated society if they are made to regard themselves as objects at such a young age?"
Conservative councillors have accused Labour-controlled Tower Hamlets council of subsidising Madani Girls' School by selling the school its current premises for £320,000 below market value.
In late 2008 the council agreed to sell the Victorian building, previously Grenfell Primary School, to Madani's trustees for £1.33 million even though a valuation at the time said it was worth £1.65 million.
At the time there were plans to turn Madani into a state-funded Muslim school, one of only a handful in Britain.
The sale of the site was presented to councillors as the "next significant step" towards the school obtaining voluntary aided status. These plans have now stalled, according to the council.
Councillors were advised to allow the sale at a loss because the price had been agreed in 2004 when it represented a fair market value.
The deal had been delayed by four years because the school needed to raise funds, but council chiefs wanted to honour the originally-agreed figure.
However, council minutes from December 2008 show that Tim Archer, a Tory councillor, warned that "a council asset was being sold below market value and public money was being used to subsidise the purchase".
He also suggested the school was in breach of the council's inclusiveness policy.
Madani, which has 260 pupils, charges fees of £1,900 a year. Its website states: "All payments should be made in cash. We do not accept cheques."
School uniform rules listed on the website have been deleted but an earlier version, seen by this newspaper, stated: "The present uniform conforms to the Islamic Code of dressing. Outside the school, this comprises of the black Burka and Niqab."
The admission application form warns girls will be "appropriately punished" for failing to wear the correct uniform, and its website adds: "If parents are approached by the Education Department regarding their child's education, they should not disclose any information without discussing it with the committee."
Madani Girls' School, which is a listed as a private limited company and was removed from the Charity Commission's records at the end of last year, was visited by Ofsted in 2008 but the inspectorate's report makes no mention of the strict uniform code.
It rated the school's overall performance as "satisfactory" but noted that "the history curriculum is limited to Islamic history in Key Stage 3". A number of aspects of school life were praised, including pupil behaviour.
Explaining the school's ethos, Madani's website says: "If we oppose the lifestyle of the west then it does not seem sensible that the teachers and the system, which represents that lifestyle, should educate our children."
Jamea Al Kauthar is a £2,500-a-year girls' boarding school, which accommodates 400 pupils in the grounds of Lancaster's former Royal Albert Hospital.
It states on its website: "Black Jubbah [smock-like outer garment] and dopatta [shawl] is compulsory as well as purdah (veil) when leaving and returning to Jamea. Scarves are strictly not permitted."
The website also lists a wide range of banned items, including family photographs, and warns: "Students must not cut their hair, nor remove hair from between their eyebrows. Doing so will lead to suspention (sic)."
Jamea Al Kauthar was rated "outstanding" by Ofsted earlier this year.
In Leicester, Jameah Girls Academy, which charges £1,750 a year for primary-age pupils and £1,850 for secondary, states in its rules: "Uniform, as set out in the pupil/parent handbook, which comprises of headscarf and habaya for all pupils, and niqab for girls attending the secondary years, to be worn during journeys to and from The Academy."
Anastasia de Waal, deputy director of think-tank Civitas, said: "We now have a scenario where schools such as these will be able to apply to become free schools, under the Government's policy, and therefore receive state funding. We need absolute clarity on what the position is going to be on such applications."
None of the schools responded to questions posed by The Sunday Telegraph.
A spokeswoman for Tower Hamlets said of Madani: "The local authority is not currently in talks with the school to enable it to become voluntary aided but we were in talks previously.
"With regards to sale of the site, it was agreed by Cabinet in 2004 to sell the freehold of the property to the Madani Girls School for £1.33m, which represented the market value at that time.
"The sale was delayed due to the need for the school to raise funds. The school managed to secure the money in 2008 where it was agreed at a Cabinet meeting in November 2008 the sale would be honoured at the previously agreed price of £1.33 million as the proposed sale would raise capital to invest in new projects and benefit the community.
"A local authority has the discretion to sell at an 'undervalue' of up to £2,000,000."