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11 March 2016

Is Ofsted scrutinising faith schools properly?

The recent case of an Orthodox Jewish school that went from Ofsted’s very highest ranking to its lowest within one inspection raises uncomfortable questions.

By Etan Smallman

Whether they graduate from the bog-standard comp or the playing fields of Eton, every child in Britain is entitled to enter adulthood equipped with a basic level of education. That is the theory, at least, but if said child happens to be born into an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish, or Charedi, family, things often don’t quite work out that way.

In that scenario, the parents are essentially compelled – by an insular community determined to make sure its next generation is denied knowledge and skills that threaten to broaden their horizons – to put the youngster in a private religious school that focuses almost exclusively on Torah study, with even the few secular lessons often taught in Yiddish. All the while, the authorities duty-bound to protect a child’s right to learn how to speak English, how to add up and how to fit into the society around them have too often chosen to simply look the other way.

Last month, there were several newspaper reports on Ofsted inspections of three Charedi independent schools – or yeshivahs – in London’s Stamford Hill that had, between them, removed images of women from textbooks, taught that a woman’s role was “to cook and clean”, crossed out the word “Christmas” and even refused to allow boys to speak to female inspectors.

What all of these papers failed to report was that one of the schools, Talmud Torah D’Chasidei Gur – which has just been deemed to be “inadequate” – was rated outstanding at its previous inspection. Astonishingly, it managed to make the journey from Ofsted’s very highest ranking to its lowest (on every single measure) within less than three years and just one inspection.

While the 2013 report offered only three minor points for improvement, the newest version gives no fewer than 59 bullet points, ranging from health and safety to several year groups not having any classes in English.

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So what changed? One obvious difference is that for the earlier visit, Ofsted had sent an inspector who was Ultra-Orthodox himself

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The pupils at the school could perhaps use the two reports for a classroom exercise in comparative literature. Rabbi Chanan Tomlin’s bizarre but official 2013 document runs to ten pages and yet manages not to give any detail on a single non-religious lesson. 

The teaching of maths is “highly effective”. Yet descriptions of anything approaching a numerical education are hazy. “The teacher took out the eight-branched menorah (candelabra) used during Chanukah and asked the pupils to compare it to the seven-branched menorah used in the Tabernacle.”

According to the inspector in 2013: “Pupils learn about other cultures through a focus on different cultural traditions within the Jewish fold… They learn about Arabs in connection to their studies about the forefathers, Greeks with regard to Chanukah and Persians with regard to Purim.”

For those not fully versed in these Biblical events, it is perhaps worth pointing out that the 2,500-year-old Chanukah story tells how the Jewish people were forced to worship Greek idols at pain of death, and the Persians “with regard to Purim” were engaged in a plan to exterminate all of the Jews in the kingdom. 

Precisely how these lessons are supposed to fulfil Ofsted’s direction that schools promote “mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” is not elucidated.

This is far from an isolated incident. In June last year, the British Humanist Association (BHA) published research showing that Charedi schools were rated as “good” or “outstanding” 71 per cent of the time when inspected by a member of the Charedi community, but only 22 per cent of the time when examined by a non-Charedi inspector. 

It is a story familiar to Adam (not his real name), a twenty-something graduate of another of these yeshivahs, who left the community to start his education virtually from scratch outside it. 

“I would diagnose it as wanting to be seen as politically correct and culturally sensitive,” he says. “I think Ofsted was approached early on by people who claimed that you can’t really understand a Charedi school unless you’re Charedi yourself and I think they sort of fell for that argument.”

On his lack of education, Adam feels angry and let down: “I got no English tuition to speak of, no maths, definitely no history, no geography, no science, no GCSEs, no sports, no music. The health and safety of the school was terrible and these failings were there to be seen if anyone could have been bothered to walk in.

“No one who taught there was remotely qualified. I mean, many of them didn’t even speak English and there was just absolutely no oversight as to who would spend time alone with children. And of course there was lots of physical abuse that went on as well because of that: a lot of hitting, a lot of caning, kids’ noses being broken by teachers, kids being thrown down the stairs, kids being locked out in the cold in the middle of winter, soap in children’s mouths, chalk in children’s mouths – you name it, they indulged in it. And there’s nothing to suggest that that isn’t happening today because the attitudes haven’t changed, so I can’t see, other than if the external pressure ramps up, why any of that would cease to be the case.”

Ofsted has shown a remarkable lack of curiosity in this matter. It insists that it holds no documents indicating any discussions on the impact of having Charedi inspectors inspecting Charedi schools. According to a Freedom of Information response, the topic has not cropped up in any of the body’s paperwork over the past five years – not even in the nine months since the BHA’s research was published.

Most puzzling of all is that when the two inspectors central to this analysis – including Rabbi Tomlin – were left off Ofsted’s official list in September 2015, the organisation “strongly rejected any suggestion that they had been dropped because they were thought to be too favourable to strictly Orthodox schools”. 

Ofsted says it stands by that statement. It adds that under a new system instituted in September, it simply needed fewer inspectors. As for the disparity at TTD Gur, a spokeswoman says: “The standards currently in force are more robust than those in place in 2013.”

Rabbi Tomlin told the New Statesman: “The grades that I awarded TTD Gur three years ago reflected the school as I inspected it. The question to ask is, ‘Why has the school been downgraded so drastically?’ – not why I awarded it outstanding.

“The Charedi community has achieved an outstanding reputation and track record – no violence, crime or terrorism, very little drugs, stable happy families. Why, all of a sudden, in 2015/2016, has Ofsted deemed Charedi education as inadequate? It is abundantly clear that inspections are far from transparent and always reflect Ofsted’s agenda at the time.”