Family & Education

LGBT issues drive a wedge between Ofsted and Charedi schools


 I have lost count of the number of critical reports into Charedi schools published by Ofsted over the past three years.

Few of us, I imagine, would quibble with the inspection service’s attempts to ensure Yiddish-speaking schools give their children a basic grounding in English and maths.

But the government’s British values policy has resulted in a culture clash between the educational establishment and the strictly Orthodox community.

For Ofsted, learning about LGBT issues is an integral part of the government’s requirement that children understand the principles of tolerance and respect for others.

The Charedi rabbinate, however, considers transgender status and same-sex relations as religiously off-limits; and says their schools do not bring sex into the classroom, anyway. 

Orthodox schools which have tried to make improvements in their secular education are still failing to get the all-clear from Ofsted because of their difficulty in teaching “British values”.

Just recently, for example, Ofsted published a follow-up report into the Talmud Torah D’Chasidei Gur, an independent boys’ primary school in Stamford Hill run by one of the main Chasidic sects. 

Inspectors, returning to a school which had been rated inadequate a year-and-a-half before, found it had made progress. Children in the early years, for example, were now being given some lessons in English.

But inspectors reported that children were still not being taught explicitly about “sexual orientation”, hence the school was failing to promote “equality of opportunity in ways that take account of differing lifestyles”.

Ofsted does not always appear to be acting consistently because some Charedi schools receive good reports, even though their attitude towards LGBT issues is hardly likely to differ from schools which fall foul of the authorities. Either inspectors have discretion or the policy on British values is being applied too arbitrarily.

Yet it seems pointless to keep dispatching inspectors to schools which are meeting standards in every other respect than this one, knowing full well they are not going to comply with something they say is opposed to their core religious beliefs.

Religious groups already enjoy some exemption in equality law — synagogues, churches and mosques, are not compelled to perform same-sex marriages.

So compromise might be possible, whereby schools are allowed to teach the broad principle of respecting others whose lifestyles they might not agree with  without going into the specifics of what those lifestyles are.

If the problem isn’t sorted out by the Department of Education and Ofsted, it could spread to another area: the new sex and relationships education (SRE) curriculum.

Orthodox concerns have been assuaged by the government’s promise this will be “age appropriate” and take into account religious sensitivities. Parents will remain able to withdraw their children from classes about the “sex” component.

But, in a recent Lords’ debate on the new legislation, the government was pressed on the detail. Baroness Massey, a Labour peer, had wanted to insert a specific clause to ensure schools “provide education on LGBT issues”.

This is how Lord Nash, the Schools Minister, responded: “We believe it is right that the religious views of parents and children should be respected when teaching about these subjects. However, I reiterate that the religious background point does not allow schools to avoid teaching these subjects; it is about how they teach them. They can teach them in a way that is sensitive to religious background while being compliant with the Equality Act, which of course they must be.”

We will only know what this means in practice when the Department for Education drafts guidelines on SRE after the election.

The National Association of Orthodox Jewish Schools —which represents schools on the religious right but not the more conservative Chasidic sector — expects to be consulted on the guidelines by the DfE. It will be keeping a close eye on the small print. 

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