Adam Wagner

Ofsted's approach to Charedi schools has changed - for good reason

Freedom of religion is not an absolute right, argues Adam Wagner

July 06, 2018 12:17

How separate should religious communities be from the rest of society? There is no easy answer.

Most people would agree that it is important to protect religious practices but that shouldn’t become a licence to operate with impunity. Where we draw that line has become one of the most urgent questions of our times.

It is against this background that a stand-off has developed between Ofsted and the Charedi community. This is “about freedom of religion”, wrote community spokesperson Chaya Spitz in last week’s JC, “and it needs to be brought to an end”.

Spitz was referring to the recent inspection by Ofsted of Yesodey Hatorah, a school of 300 girls aged 11 to 16 which was downgraded from “good” to “inadequate”.

She praises the “confident, respectful and articulate pupils” and the “stunning” facilities. But she contrasts this with the experience of being inspected, which one pupil reported as like “being cornered and threatened” and which apparently reduced one headteacher to tears.

Ofsted’s report makes for interesting reading. Inspectors found that textbooks and other literature had been extensively redacted, including any reference to human or animal reproduction, images of women’s bare skin (ankles, wrists and necks) and references to the Queen’s supremacy in Elizabethan England.

Most worryingly, the school restricted access to guidance about how to keep safe in the world, including blacking out the telephone numbers of safeguarding helplines.

Freedom of religion is protected in law and rightly so. Those who created human rights laws in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including Jewish jurists, had direct experience of the Nazi abuse of religious communities. Many of the protected rights – such as the right to family life, to property and freedom of religion – were designed to prevent state-sanctioned discrimination exemplified by the Nuremberg Laws.

Human rights can be an effective shield for religious communities, as seen in the recent “cab rank” coroner case, where a successful human rights challenge to a coroner led to her having to change a policy which was discriminating against Jews and Muslims.

But freedom of religion is only one in a set of protected rights. And that’s where Spitz gets it wrong. A human rights-based society is not about building unbreakable walls around communities. It is about creating a fair balance between competing rights.

That’s why the right to freedom of religion isn’t absolute – it can be interfered with if that inference is proportionate and has a legitimate aim, such as the protection of the rights of children.

Ofsted’s approach has shifted for a good reason. Recent scandals over child abuse, in the Catholic Church, over Jimmy Saville and indeed within the Orthodox community, have meant that communities which have avoided external scrutiny are being more closely monitored. This isn’t just about religion. Anyone who works with children will know how important safeguarding has become.

It is worrying that a senior representative of the Charedi community sees Ofsted’s work as unfair victimisation, in the context of a school where children were being deliberately prevented from accessing external child protection services. Who are the real victims here?

The reality is that no community is an island. The Charedim engage with the state through state-funded institutions such as Yesodeh Hatorah. And the community is not monolithic in its approach. Ofsted report that the senior staff are keen to provide the girls with better advice and guidance but they are being thwarted by pressure from governors and parents.

There are important issues at stake here, over the extent to which religious communities should educate children in a way which enables them to leave, should they wish to, and also how to not make raising educational standards seem like an attack on religion itself.

Ultimately, we should aim to interfere with religious rights as little as possible whilst ensuring that the rights of children are protected. Achieving that fair balance should be a joint priority of both Ofsted and the Charedi community.

Adam Wagner is a barrister and the founder of

July 06, 2018 12:17

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