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Questions on secret schools

    My four-year-old daughter starts primary school in September and the prospect of taking her to buy her first uniform fills me with anticipation. As, indeed, does the school itself. I know the teachers will provide her with an exciting education, in safe surroundings.

    If, however, she was to skip off to spend her first day in a rickety old warehouse or private home, to be fed a diet of rigid Jewish scripture while learning nothing of Britishculture or anything else at all, I would be aghast. Yet that, so we're told by the chief inspector of schools, is the choice a small number of ultra-religious parents in Britain are making for their children, today.

    According to Sir Michael Wilshaw, 100 such secret - or unregistered - schools have so far been identified by an Ofsted investigative taskforce as operating around Britain. In a letter to education secretary Nicky Morgan, he said some of these schools were teaching children "extremist sexist or partisan views", adding that they risked "undermining the government's efforts to ensure that all schools are promoting British values, including tolerance and respect for others". Sir Michael said that a minority of the schools are Jewish.

    Few could fail to be concerned by these pronouncements, particularly given what we know about the much-publicised Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham, where radical Muslim elements plotted to take over local schools. His investigation into extremism, Jewish, Muslim or otherwise, is a fight that any right minded person would support and encourage.

    Context, however, is everything, and crucial pieces of the jigsaw were missing. When the Ofsted chief made his announcement amid much fanfare last month, he also gave an interview to the Today programme where he was asked repeatedly to identify the institutions or give further details. Who was running them and what were they teaching? In what numbers? How many were Jewish? Sir Michael would not say and has published no further details.

    With so few facts to extrapolate from such a serious set of allegations, many of us felt the announcement seemed half-cooked. Why had Sir Michael not held off for a few months, waited for the investigation to make further progress and then delivered the true picture with all the information at his fingertips? You could reasonably contend that, by making its announcement so early and with so few specifics, Ofsted risked placing entire religious groups under suspicion.

    The answer to this question can be found in politics and Ofsted's fight for survival.

    For months, the watchdog has been in a state of crisis, with Department for Education officials contemplating whether to remodel it or even scrap it altogether. Head teachers had complained bitterly, and repeatedly, to the department about erratic and unpredictable judgments by visiting inspectors. Some schools have seen their rankings changed, in some cases from "outstanding" to "requires improvement", for seemingly arbitrary reasons, such as having overly talkative teachers. In the eyes of some in Ms Morgan's department, Ofsted was becoming a nuisance, with some inspectors terrifying teachers and, potentially, distorting the reputation of otherwise perfectly good schools.

    For Sir Michael, the mission was clear: to solidify Ofsted's position in the eyes of government before standing down this December. Catching radicalisation early has become a huge priority for the government.

    As The Times reported this week, more than 1,000 children have, in the last year alone, been referred by teachers for "deradicalisation" sessions under the controversial "Prevent" strategy. Now, by emphasising his own work on extremism and radicalisation, Sir Michael has placed Ofsted at the heart of the anti-extremism agenda.

    A few days after Sir Michael's announcement on unregistered Jewish schools, the government published its education white paper, designed to set out future department policy and priorities. Ofsted - in no small part thanks to this campaign - avoided the chop.

    In the coming months, we will no doubt discover the substance behind the premature headlines.

    If Jewish pupils are, indeed, being educated in secrecy in their thousands, it's best they are brought out of the shadows voluntarily, before we face the unedifying prospect of our community leaders being dragged before the courts.

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