In less than a year, no fewer than seven Jewish schools have been rated as inadequate by Ofsted — the lowest of the four inspection grades. All but one of the schools is Charedi and most are independent.
While Ofsted has rebutted claims that it is gunning for religious schools, it appears that, in the wake of last summer’s Trojan Horse investigation into Islamic extremism, the inspection service has begun to show more teeth.
Ofsted wants to ensure that schools teach a broad enough secular curriculum and enforce the government’s “British values” agenda. But it is also leaving some schools confused about its approach.
Take the example of the latest Jewish school to receive an Ofsted caning, the Talmud Torah Tiferes Shlomo, a Chasidic school in Golders Green with 219 boys aged from three to 15 on its roll. Inspectors said that the curriculum was too narrow, that too much time was spent on Jewish studies and the boys – who speak Yiddish as a first language – fell behind national expectations in maths and literacy.
The inspectors also noted that pupils do study for recognised qualifications, including GCSEs, albeit limited to English, maths and business studies.
But there have been Charedi institutions which teach no GCSEs that have received a good report from Ofsted. At the same time, some Muslim schools rapped by the inspectors appear to teach a broader curriculum than some of the Jewish schools. An awful lot seems to be left to individual inspectors.
‘Sex education is unlikely to be on their rabbis’ agenda’
Independent schools do not have to teach the national curriculum, and the regulations governing their quality of education are general – too general perhaps for today’s environment.
If all schools were required to teach up to GCSE, or an equivalent, in at least a few core subjects such as English, maths and science, that would give inspectors some objective yardstick. It might involve sacrificing some of the freedom enjoyed by independent schools but it would provide more consistency and clarity.
What is meant by British values is also open to interpretation. Boys at Tiferet Shlomoh, according to the inspection report, were not prepared for “life in modern Britain”.
For example, they did not show enough understanding about “other faiths and cultures”. But since the government has stated that faith schools were not required to teach about other religions, it was strange for the inspectors specifically to mention “faiths”.
The report went on to say that pupils were not taught about cyber-bullying or the internet and were not “provided with drugs or sex and relationships education, or able to discuss issues around homophobic bullying”.
Surely inspectors would have been aware that pupils from Yiddish-speaking Chasidic homes would be largely discouraged from using social media anyway — and sex education is unlikely to be on their rabbis’ agenda.
I doubt whether many, if any, of the students would have been familiar with the term “homophobic bullying”. It might be reasonable to expect children to learn not to abuse others with a different lifestyle. Faith schools have been assured that they do not have to present same-sex relationships as a valid option to traditional marriage if it conflicts with their religious outlook. But what they are supposed to teach about homosexuality is unclear.
Ofsted has been talking to organisations such as the National Association of Orthodox Jewish Schools in an attempt to iron out the problems. But the report on Tiferet Shlomoh shows there is still some way to go.