The fight between Ofsted and Charedi schools will go to the wire

Simon Rocker analyses the battle of wills between the education watchdog and faith schools

July 10, 2018 09:41

Ofsted’s damning report into the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School in Hackney has only inflamed the  conflict between Charedi communities and the educational establishment.

Even before last month’s verdict on the school, rabbis were warning that strictly Orthodox Jews may be unable to remain in the UK unless there is a change in attitude towards their schools.

Behind the alarmist rhetoric, however, the question remains: is there scope for compromise?

The main flashpoint is the application of the “British values” agenda, which was introduced to counter religious extremism. According to official guidelines for independent schools, the required teaching of respect and tolerance for others must “pay regard” to the characteristics of people protected under equality law, such as race, religion, gender, disability, age and - controversially for the Charedi community - sexual orientation and gender reassignment.

While existing guidelines don’t spell out that pupils should learn about all the protected characteristics, that is certainly the way some Ofsted inspectors have interpreted them. On the other hand, quite a few Charedi independent schools - primarily outside Stamford Hill - have got through their Ofsteds without a problem.

Now the Department for Education is proposing to tighten the rules, making clear it expects all the protected characteristics to be covered, at least at secondary age -  leaving no wiggle-room for Charedi schools who argue that talking about same-sex relations is a no-go area for them.

It will be hard to persuade the DfE to amend the proposals since the government does not want to pick a fight with those who already think faith schools enjoy too easy a ride.

But Charedi schools may still try to lobby for the revising the guidelines, so that not all protected characteristics under equality law would have to be covered in the classroom. If Charedi schools were prepared to institute policies of training staff how to deal sensitively with LGBT issues, for instance, they may be spared the requirement of openly having to address these with children.

Advocates for Charedi schools would be in a stronger negotiating position if they also accepted the need to improve secular education within parts of the strictly Orthodox sector - a problem that mainly affects Stamford Hill (rather than Manchester or Gateshead). Some independent schools have already been forced to devote more time to basic subjects such as English or maths as a result of Ofsted pressure over the last two or three years.

If the rabbis were prepared to agree to the regulation of yeshivot - which teach little or no secular sub jects but which currently lie outside the reach of Ofsted - they may be better placed to win concessions from the authorities on other matters. But it is a big if.

Elements within Stamford Hill are ready to go to the wire to defend their education system as it is. They figure the government is unlikely to take the drastic step of closing down Charedi institutions and attempt to dragoon thousands of strictly Orthodox children into secular state schools.

July 10, 2018 09:41

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