Family & Education

Ofsted chief defends education watchdog’s standoff with faith schools

Amanda Spielman insists inspection service does not have 'secular agenda'


The chief inspector of Ofsted has defended its inspection of faith schools, saying hostility towards it by some was “regrettable”.

Amanda Spielman’s comments followed complaints of a “secularist plot” by the chairman of governors of the state-aided Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School in Hackney after Ofsted downgraded it from good to inadequate last month.

But in an address at the Policy Exchange think tank on Monday on teaching British values, Mrs Spielman insisted the education watchdog has “no anti-faith bias or secular agenda”.

She said it was “regrettable that we at Ofsted are experiencing increasing hostility from a few schools to law and policy that do not fit well with the preferences of the most conservative religious groups and to the parts of government that inspect and regulate.”

Without naming any group, she said some were “quick to allege bias or antagonism on the part of inspectors”.

Mrs Spielman said Ofsted had seen “worrying developments in a small number of state schools, as well in some independent schools and in unregistered provision”.

A few schools, she said, “set out to withhold from children the knowledge of aspects of science and society that fall squarely within the national curriculum… but that are deemed incompatible with the relevant faith. And here I am not talking about issues related to evolution, reproduction and sexual orientation.”

In a reference to the report on Yesodey Hatorah, she said a recent inspection had found “Elizabethan history, chunks of GCSE set text such as a Sherlock Holmes novel and most works of art were considered unsuitable for the girls to know about.”

The chief inspector also backed the Department for Education’s proposals to strengthen guidelines on regulating independent schools. These were “rightly clear that the requirement to promote the value of respect for others is not met by encouraging respect for other people in a general way, without any explanation of the protected characteristics [of equality law].”

Groups protected under equality law include those of same-sex orientation and transgender status.

Mrs Spielman said: “Schools are not required to promote social practices, opinions or lifestyles that they disagree with. Instead, the requirement is for them to convey that these differences exist among us, and are recognised and protected in British law.”

As with “so much of the messy British constitution, the law probably gets the balance about right,” she said. “If people have a problem with it, they should lobby MPs to change the law, not blame Ofsted for carrying out its duty to apply the law, as it stands.”

Mentioning collaboration with faith groups, she said Ofsted was working with Partnerships for Jewish Schools (the Jewish Leadership Council’s education division), to run information sessions for Jewish school leaders on “how they can comply with requirements around equalities and British values in a way that is in line with schools’ religious teachings”.

Almost all faith schools did “a good job” of explaining any tensions between their own faith and the framework of law and policy, she said.
Highlighting the positive example of another Jewish school, the [central Orthodox run] Simon Marks Jewish Primary in Stoke Newington, she quoted from its last Ofsted report: “No opportunity is missed to discuss and learn about key values, including the fundamental British values of tolerance, respect, democracy and the rule of law.”

The suggestion Ofsted had an anti-faith school bias was “simply not true,” she stressed. Muslim state-schools were nearly three times as likely to be good or outstanding than the national average, while Jewish and Christian state schools were more likely to be good or outstanding than secular ones.

* Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who met Mrs Spielman this week, tweeted: “It is essential that we make real progress in repairing the relationship between Ofsted and the Charedi community.”


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