Family & Education

Ofsted Chief Amanda Spielman: we don’t want to make life difficult for Charedi community

Head of Ofsted defends the inspection service's policy which has posed problems for Strictly Orthodox schools


The head of Ofsted has made it clear that she is against exemptions which would enable Strictly Orthodox schools to avoid mentioning same-sex relations in class.

In an interview this week, Amanda Spielman, chief inspector since January 2017, defended an inspection policy that has placed Ofsted at odds with the Charedi community, explaining it was simply carrying out its duty under equality law.

“These are difficult and super-sensitive issues,” she said. “I completely understand there’s a great deal of emotion. 
But the last thing we want to do is to make life more difficult.”

Last week, senior Ofsted officials met representatives of Chinuch UK, the new Charedi educational campaign group, in an effort to resolve the differences between the inspection service and the Strictly Orthodox community. While comments from both sides suggested a conciliatory atmosphere, details of any practical solution have yet to emerge.

But Mrs Spielman remains firmly opposed to any “carve-outs” for faith groups from regulatory requirements for schools.

Everyone may find parts of the law which “we are uncomfortable with but we do nevertheless as responsible citizens have to accept and go along with,” she said.

The Charedi community’s main grievance has been with an element of the “British values” agenda for schools, which requires the teaching of tolerance and respect for others. Guidelines for independent schools say this should “pay particular regard to the protected characteristics” of groups covered by the 2010 Equality Act — which include sexual orientation and transgender status as well as race, religion, disability and age.

While the guidelines do not spell out that all “protected characteristics” should be addressed, Mrs Spielman insists this is what the law requires. 
“We obviously have taken advice,” she said. “We have our own legal team. It is not for us to impose our views on what’s right for children. We have to make sure we do what we are required to do without adding any layer of our own preferences.”

Nor was she in favour of rewriting the guidelines to allow schools to cover some, but not all, of the protected characteristics. “That would make me profoundly uncomfortable because that would be saying this is all right for one child — and not all right for another.”

Ofsted has supported new draft guidelines from the Department for Education — currently out for consultation — which would strengthen the regulations for independent schools by emphasising it is not enough for schools to teach the value of respecting other people in a general way without referring to groups protected under equality law.

And while the guidelines on British values for state schools make no mention of “protected characteristics”, she observed that state schools are required “to go further than independent schools” because of the equality obligations for public sector institutions.

“The Equality Act is a relatively new thing,” she said. “Like all significant pieces of legislation, it has taken time for the ramifications to be fully understood. And when you have got something designed to enforce a number of different rights, of course there are places where they can bump into each other.”

But it was important to recognise that no right has “absolute priority over any other and we have to find what is the compromise to be struck”.

There was “huge tension” around these issues, she acknowledged, because “we are quite a diverse country with people with different religious beliefs, a range of different values, and somehow we have to remain a nation as well. We have one legal system for the whole country.”

One option suggested for Charedi schools would be for staff to be trained in dealing with LGBT issues, without having to openly mention these in class. But this is not an alternative that Mrs Spielman finds acceptable, either.

Many faith schools, she pointed out, were meeting existing requirements, for example teaching that while same-sex marriages may not be in accord with the tenets of their faith, they are permitted by secular law.

The approach adopted by one Lubavitch school — that some families in Britain have two mums or two dads — is “absolutely sufficient” for primary schools, she agreed.

What inspections tested was “awareness of the existence of different kinds of family, different kinds of relationship,” she explained.

A significant number of Orthodox Jewish schools that were reluctant to “give children any significant exposure to the world outside”, she said, had still managed to find a balance between their religious ethos and demands of the law.

No Charedi school had failed an inspection just because of problems with protected characteristics, she said.

As for the fact that Charedi schools in Gateshead and Manchester have often been passing inspections, whereas those in Stamford Hill were failing, she did not believe this was because Northern inspectors were more sympathetic to the schools. “I am not convinced there is a pattern of a harsher line being taken in one place than another. I know we are having some discussions between regions to double-check but I don’t think that.”

She was also keen to dismiss allegations of inspectors putting inappropriate questions to children. “I hear a lot of stories that just don’t match up with reality. Number one, is that our inspectors go round asking children about sex. We do ask enough about relationships to find out whether there is some awareness of the protected characteristics but we absolutely do not talk to children about sex.”

She had called in an inspection team “that was supposed to have asked some really unpleasant questions and had them tell me exactly how the conversation went and it just wasn’t as reported. There’s a bit of an industry sometimes in misrepresenting what Ofsted inspectors have said.”

Ofsted, she said, had regularly met “a wide range of Jewish organisations to discuss the difficulties and tensions that can come up around inspection and I think we have approached it in a very constructive spirit and want to continue to do so. So the last thing in the world we want to do is to make life difficult for any school and we try to be as clear, honest and open as we can, where schools fall short, about what it is they need to do.”

Beyond schools, Ofsted has increasingly voiced frustration at its limited legal powers to deal with unregistered institutions — such as yeshivot in Hackney that teach little or no secular education to teenage boys but which argue they are not schools, under the current legal definition.

Next year’s Queen’s Speech, she hoped, would contain proposals to regulate them. “The last thing we want is to extend inspections to every little Saturday or Sunday school,” she said.

“But where children spend many hours a week in a space where nobody knows what really goes on… beside the children and the staff that work there, then those places should be subject to scrutiny.”

Earlier this year Mrs Spielman was subjected to antisemitic abuse online when she backed a headteacher of a state school that was against its youngest children wearing a hijab.

Her actual background is that she is a child of “a mixed marriage”— Anglican-Catholic. And her husband of more than 20 years is Jewish and has relatives who are synagogue members.

“Passover and New Year have been part of my life ever I since I married,” she said.

“Being part of a mixed marriage keeps you constantly focused on where there are differences… and how to face disagreements and tensions, but discuss them honestly and come to a compromise that everyone can live with."

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