Eli Spitzer

Ofsted wants Charedi schools to stop being Charedi

Ofsted thinks the moral and cultural values of the community are illegitimate, writes headteacher Eli Spitzer

July 06, 2018 11:21

Any honest discussion of the standoff between Ofsted and Charedi schools must start with a frank acknowledgment that there are many Charedi schools, almost of all them for boys, where the standard of instruction in secular studies is below par and has been for decades.

It is for that reason that when Ofsted reversed their earlier position of indulgence in 2014. Some in the community, including myself, welcomed the change. While others saw echoes of past religious persecutions, I viewed an overhaul of the Charedi education sector as long overdue and hoped that Ofsted would serve as a critical friend to the Charedi community.

Since then we have been repeatedly disappointed by Ofsted’s inflexible and counter-productive approach when inspecting and reporting on Charedi schools but there was still some hope that Ofsted’s attitude was a result of not fully understanding the nature of the Charedi community and could be mitigated with time.

Last week, those hopes were dashed for good.

Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School is not just any school, it is a flagship for the Charedi community, proving that a school can maintain strict orthodox standards while providing an education to rival any state school in the country. Last week’s damning Ofsted report which recommended the school be placed under special measures has pulled the rug from under us.

The goal of Ofsted, it has been revealed, is not that our schools provide a first-class education it is, simply, that they cease to be Charedi.

This may sound hyperbolic, but the criticisms of the inspectors - that girls do not socialise with boys, that they are not taught how to use social media, or that there is no sex education – make it painfully clear that a Charedi school could only be rated inadequate.

What was particularly shocking about this report was the way that Yesodey Hatorah’s excellent academic record, high standards of behaviour, and pupil satisfaction were treated as a distraction from ‘important’ matters, such as whether pupils could look at Picasso’s nude paintings.

Up until this year, the main point of contention was Ofsted’s refusal to compromise on the demand that our schools teach pupils about homosexual and transgender people despite being aware of the fact that in our community discussion of any sexual matters is deferred until shortly before marriage.

Instead of compromising, however, Ofsted have expanded their critique, failing good schools simply on the grounds that they practise censorship and are too restrictive.

In reality, of course, every responsible parent practises some form of censorship. Schools routinely restrict access to pornography, as well as material promoting racism, sexism or homophobia, and, indeed, are required by law to do so. Ofsted’s real argument is simply that the moral and cultural values of the Charedi community are illegitimate and may not form the basis of school policy.

One of the criticisms aimed at Charedi schools is that they redact parts of texts, in the case of Yesodey Hatorah, references to romance or drug use in Sherlock Holmes.

What this actually shows is a school trying to expose children to stimulating literature without compromising the religious values of the community it serves. For Ofsted it seems less important that pupils explore Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s use of language or vivid portrayal of characters than that they are fully aware of the seedier aspects of Victorian London.

Tellingly, the report complains that the school would not allow a visit to the Tate Modern, concerned that Charedi women will grow up without broadening their horizons by gazing at a sawn-in half-cow, a pile of rocks, or a toilet.

Some in Britain believe that Charedi Judaism is an antiquated relic with no place in the 21st century and that, consequently, Charedi parents have no right to bring up children within their way of life.

They have the right to voice their views and even to participate openly and honestly in the democratic process in order to enforce them. What no one has the right to do, however, is to hijack an inspectorate whose job it is to enforce safety and educational standards, jeopardising the educational opportunities of thousands of pupils in whose name they claim to act.

Eli Spitzer is headteacher of Tiferes Shlomo Boys' School

July 06, 2018 11:21

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