Ofsted published proposed changes to the way it inspects schools on Wednesday. But do its plans offer any solution to the problems that many Charedi schools have experienced from the inspection service over the past few years? So far, I don’t see it.
The most talked-about general reform is that Ofsted wants to take more account of the overall “quality of education” in a school rather than performance judged by exams and tests.
Partnerships for Jewish Schools, the Jewish Leadership Council’s education division, sees some “positive initiatives” in the Ofsted scheme, in particular welcoming the division of “personal development” and “behaviours and attitudes” into two inspection categories rather than one as before. “This will be helpful in enabling schools to meet the requirements of teaching relationship and sex education, which should now be more clearly defined,” it says.
But Pajes believes some school leaders will regard some proposals as crossing a line between Ofsted’s proper role in ensuring that standards are met and dictating the methods schools use to meet them.
Since Ofsted’s plans have been put out as a consultation, both Pajes and other organisations will be busy scrutinising the small print before deciding whether to suggest amendments.
On first glance, the Board of Deputies commented, “For mainstream Jewish schools, the slight strengthening of elements around equality and diversity, as well as relationships and sex education will pose little difficulty.
Charedi schools will likely continue to be discomfited by the direction of travel
“Charedi schools will likely continue to be discomfited by the direction of travel but most of those are independent schools and the independent school standards have not yet changed.”
Let’s start with some potentially positive news for Charedi schools. Ofsted’s draft guidelines for independent school inspection say that if a school offers a specialist, for example a strongly faith-based, curriculum, it will look at whether this contributes more broadly to children’s education.
While independent schools will still be expected to offer a “broad, rich” curriculum, Charedi Jewish schools should enjoy a little more scope in being able to show that Jewish studies can help provide general skills and knowledge.
But on the main area of conflict between Ofsted and the Charedi community, the teaching of British values, the proposals do not suggest an obvious way forward.
According to the Department for Education guidelines for independent schools, when they teach “British values” of respect and tolerance for others, they should pay attention to the “protected characteristics” set out in the 2010 Equality Act. These characteristics include sexual orientation and gender reassignment as well as age, race, religion, disability and gender.
Charedi advocates argue that there is no legal requirement to have to cover every protected characteristic and their schools should not be penalised for avoiding talking about same-sex relations.
But Ofsted maintains otherwise. And in its new proposals, it appears to be digging in its heels. Schools should prepare pupils for life in modern Britain and that includes “promoting respect for the different protected characteristics as defined in law”.
This requirement is reinforced in the specific proposals for independent schools. For a school to be judged good, inspectors should examine pupils’ understanding “of the protected characteristics and how equality is promoted”.
The proposals also spell out that in order to do this, inspectors will need to speak to pupils. “If it is not possible to speak to pupils, it is unlikely that the school will be able to provide inspectors with the evidence they need” to assess the school’s compliance with British values.
Which is potentially problematic because parents in some Charedi schools, in protest at Ofsted policy, have refused to allow inspectors to speak to children.
There was another, possible way out of the impasse for Ofsted and Charedi schools, which has been floated by some in Jewish education circles; and it was this. If a Charedi school were generally meeting inspection standards, but fell short only in refusing to talk about issues of sexuality, then Ofsted could take a more lenient approach to the school than it has shown in recent years.
But the Ofsted proposals do not hint at any flexibility. Those who own independent schools, it makes clear, are responsible “for ensuring that the school meets all paragraphs in all parts of the independent school standards”.
To be rated as good by Ofsted - the second best of the four grades - all of the independent school standards have to be met.
It could be that Charedi schools which fail to meet the standard in one area, because of their refusal to discuss sexuality, are rated as “requiring improvement” rather than receiving the lowest grade, “inadequate”.
Perhaps both Ofsted and some Charedi schools could live with that.
But schools that “require improvement” in any area are supposed to take steps to put it right – and be liable to further inspections until they do.