Schools have the right to ban students from wearing Muslim veils if teachers believe the garments affect safety or pupils' learning, the British government said Tuesday.
But educators should speak with parents before introducing such a ban, the Education Ministry said in updated guidelines that also addressed keeping uniforms affordable and spelling out disciplinary measures.
"Schools should consult parents and the wider community when setting uniform policy," Schools Minister Jim Knight said.
"And while they should make every effort to accommodate social, religious or medical requirements of individual pupils, the needs of safety, security and effective learning in the school must always take precedence," he said.
The ministry said head teachers always had the right to set their school's uniform policy. Schools had already been advised to accommodate different religions, but the new rules spelled out for the first time that concerns such as safety are valid reasons for exceptions.
The guidelines did not specify what the safety concerns might be. The Sun newspaper, citing an unnamed ministry official, said there were concerns that full face veils might make it difficult to identify students and that Bunsen burners could set fire to the garment in science classes.
All British schools are encouraged to have uniforms as a way of instilling discipline and helping pupils focus in class.
Britain's highest appeals court ruled a year ago that a school acted properly in refusing to allow a student to wear a jilbab — a long, flowing gown covering her entire body except her hands and face. The school said the clothing item was not permitted under school policy.
The issue of face-covering veils has stoked debate over religious tolerance and cultural assimilation in Britain, which is home to 1.6 million Muslims.
Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw provoked a stir in October when he said he requested — but did not insist — that Muslim women remove face-covering veils during one-on-one meetings. Prime Minister Tony Blair said at the time that veils were seen as a "mark of separation."