Eli Spitzer’s podcast interview with HMCI, Amanda Spielman, proved to be another insight into the agenda-led thinking of Ofsted. The difficulties between Ofsted and the Orthodox Jewish community have been well publicised over the last few years and this was an opportunity for Ms Spielman to sit down with a presenter who is both Orthodox and has teaching credentials.
However, Ms Spielman decided against a constructive approach and instead doubled-down on her oft stated accusation that Orthodox Jewish schools have sought a “group opt-out from the law.” Ms Spielman has been well media trained and came over as very amicable. However, her claims do not stand up to scrutiny.
At present Ofsted justifies their approach to Orthodox Jewish schools by portraying themselves as the innocent bystander in a deep-rooted ideological argument that is not theirs. Ofsted’s argument goes a bit like this:
Our hands are tied by the law; we apply the law; we are not the lawmakers. So, what can we do? There are many laws we might not like but have to comply with. For example, we might not like a speed limit of 70mph on the motorway, but that is the law; so we need to accept it.
But that’s not accurate.
Regarding the main areas of contention between Ofsted and Orthodox schools, Ms Spielman is well aware that the law can be interpreted in multiple ways. Neither the Equality Act 2010 nor School Standards regulations demand that each individual protected characteristic must be analysed in detail in a manner that parents and communities do not consider age-appropriate. In fact, statutory guidance to schools emphasises the vital importance of flexibility on this point, as views on age-appropriateness will vary significantly between communities.
Despite this, Ms Spielman has chosen to follow the legal opinion that is least helpful to Orthodox Jewish schools. In recent months, many Orthodox primary schools have failed Ofsted inspections for not teaching about intimate topics to children as young as five. It is only because of urgent Government intervention, that Ofsted have been instructed to stop this. This highlights that Ofsted’s decision to enforce their own views of age-appropriateness on faith schools is a deliberate policy decision, which has major implications. Senior Government officials and decision makers continue to make clear that Ms Spielman’s position is not the Government’s position; but the strident and overpowered quango that is Ofsted, carries on regardless.
So perhaps what Ms Spielman meant was, the Orthodox Jewish community want an opt out from my view of the law. That would be truthful even if less impactful.
Ms Spielman’s personal opinions on how schools should operate are well known. In a speech at the Church of England Foundation for Education Leadership, Amanda Spielman told school heads that Ofsted have a responsibility to promote “a muscular liberalism.” Under the guise of anti-extremism, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Orthodox Jewish schools, Ms Spielman has kowtowed to small but very successful lobbying organisations who stridently push their own agendas.
As the Policy Exchange think tank said in its report on this subject earlier this year, “Where the Department for Education has clearly and explicitly set out a set of parameters within which schools can have flexibility on a matter, it is not for Ofsted to then restrict the flexibility of schools beyond those parameters.”
Yet they do.
How we have got to this point is certainly up for debate, but there can be no doubt that Ofsted have been allowed to railroad teachers, inappropriately quiz students and disproportionately focus on one area of school life. The Equality Act 2010 lists nine protected characteristics, but I am yet to find one Ofsted inspector who has ever mentioned for example disability upon arriving at a school. Ofsted has created a hierarchy of rights. This is not a matter of law, but a policy decision taken by an unaccountable Government Agency. There is no Minister for Ofsted who is answerable to the House of Commons.
I did not expect Eli Spitzer, in his first podcast, to challenge Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, but I do think that it is sad, to the point of being disingenuous, for Ms Spielman to again pedal out these lines and expect them to be accepted without question. Just because opinion is stated as fact, doesn’t make it true.
At the beginning of March, we all accepted that the Government was following the science. Now it is clear that it has been guided by the science in order to make political decisions. In a similar way, Ofsted can say they are applying the law, but the truth is they have chosen one opinion of the law and operate in a political and ideological way.
The one relief was that Ms Spielman was clear on this point – her organisation will follow the Government’s instruction. From the Orthodox Jewish perspective, Ofsted are unaccountable rogue traders who desperately need the Government’s guidance. The Government is listening, has accepted that Orthodox Jewish schools are not part of the anti-extremism agenda, that “age-appropriate” is not a one size fits all for every community and that parents have the right to choose. Change is afoot.
- Shimon Cohen represents the Torah Education Committee