Why British values could be a headache for schools


The fallout from the Trojan Horse inquiry into allegations of Islamic extremism in summer continued this week as the head of the inspection service Ofsted underlined the importance of promoting British values in schools.

The tougher inspection regime that has followed as a result of fears about religious radicalism has had an immediate impact on Jewish schools and undoubtedly will have more to come.

Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw told Education Secretary Nicky Morgan that he is to meet education leaders from different faiths to discuss Ofsted guidelines. Her department, he said, should continue to reinforce the requirement on all schools to teach a broad and balanced curriculum and promote British values, including “tolerance and mutual understanding”.

In a statement this week, Ofsted pledged its determination to be “even-handed” – meaning that it was not just targeting Muslim schools or faith schools generally. “It’s about being fair to every school we inspect,” Sir Michael said.

Most Jewish schools would have no trouble with the emphasis on “British values”. But a state-aided Charedi girls high school, Beis Yaakov, in Salford was recently placed into special measures after inspectors found that it did not “promote adequately students’ awareness and tolerance of other communities which are different to their own”.

Beis Yaakov was one of 35 state-aided schools which received no-notice visits from Ofsted in the weeks following the Trojan Horse report. But the National Association of Orthodox Jewish Schools, whose representatives met Ofsted earlier this month, protested that girls had been asked inappropriate questions by inspectors about gay marriage and social media.

And here is the problem. Draft guidelines on British values tell schools that they should respect the provisions of the 2010 Equality Act, which outlaws discrimination of gay people, among other things. It appears that religious schools will remain free to teach that their faith does not accept same-sex relationships, but would they be expected to makes students aware of gay weddings?

Neither the government nor the inspection service has clarified the boundaries and some inspectors seem to be deciding for themselves.

Senior vice-president of the Board Laura Marks said that it welcomed "the opportunity to meet with the head of the Inspection service to explain the legitimate challenges which some schools face as a result of some inspectors' interpretations of the requirement and to make the case for inspectors to take a cultural sensitive approach.”

There is a second issue, too. Last week, Ofsted published critical reports into six independent Muslim schools in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, two attached to the influential East London Mosque. Repeatedly, they criticised the narrowness of the curriculum and outlook.

In one case, students “only learned about Islam” with some telling inspectors that it would be wrong to learn about other religions. In another, Ofsted found no evidence to show pupils learned about other faiths and cultures.

Over the past year, a number of Yiddish-speaking strictly Orthodox schools have also been found to be wanting, with one and possibly a second facing the threat of closure.

But some Charedi institutions are not even officially in the independent system. Over the past year, the Department for Education has been trying to get a number of yeshivot which teach boys from 13 to 16 to register with it, as they are legally required to by law.

How they will pass Ofsted inspections in the current climate is anyone’s guess since their heavy diet of talmudic studies appears to be even narrower than some of the Muslim schools censured last week. Some of the Muslim pupils do take GCSEs – which is more that can be said in the case of the yeshivot.

No one thinks that Charedi institutions in England are breeding-grounds for militant Judaism, even if the anti-Zionism of some of them would be unpalatable to most Jews. But their rabbis may have to compromise to meet the demands of the state.

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