Feature

IS OFSTED IN BREACH OF THE EQUALITY ACT?

‘Education has to be the values anchor in a stormy sea’ according to Amanda Spielman in an address to the Birmingham Education Partnership conference last week. The ground was carefully laid during the speech to make the argument appear irrefutable. Education challenges us and opens our minds to new concepts and ideas. It takes us on a ‘journey of enlightenment’ – spot the motivational rhetoric as the philosophical argument heads towards a moral precipice – a journey which is ‘far more difficult without democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law, and tolerance of different belief systems’. Well, nobody wants to send children off on a rocky, pot-holed road to ignorance, so obviously everyone is going to buy a ticket for this journey.

But the rhetoric belies embedded thinking within Ofsted that sends a much more sinister message. If you don’t embrace Ofsted’s interpretation of the Equality Act, you can’t absorb new ideas and you therefore, by implication, remain rooted in your own ignorance. If children aren’t being taught values at home or are being actively encourage to resist them, then schools must fill the gap and do so by ‘inculcating’ British values.

Education should establish moral codes in order to provide the values anchor that children need. And that goes straight to the heart of the argument. Who gets to decide what moral codes children are raised with? And who codes them: parents or the state? Amanda Spielman clearly has no doubts – where parents are deemed to be steering their children in the wrong direction, it’s the job of Ofsted to set them right. She even appears to rather regret the fact that children only spend one fifth of their lives in schools, thus severely limiting the amount of inculcating and moral anchoring that Ofsted can police.

The case of Vishnitz Girls School demonstrates the sharp barbs of this values anchor. Ofsted is adamant that inculcation is necessary in order to enforce the Equality Act 2010, because LGBT is a protected characteristic. Al Hijrah is another case in point. Accused of gender inequality, the school was failed by Ofsted. When it mounted a legal challenge (which it won on the grounds that segregation is not, of itself, discriminatory) Spielman found it deeply frustrating that a school used a legal challenge ‘to delay things that in our view urgently need to happen’. Her defence in court was short on empirical evidence and long on feminist ideology.

The word ‘inculcate’ was correctly chosen by Spielman: it means to ‘instil by persistent instruction’. An equally apposite word choice would have been ‘indoctrinate’. So there, beneath the beguiling tone of the speech, lies a deeper intention – to indoctrinate children with a liberal ideology and to deal with parents who choose not to buy a ticket for Ofsted’s journey to enlightenment.

Except, here’s the thing. Are Ofsted in breach of the very Equality Act which they so love to invoke? Because in the same week that Amanda Spielman was delivering this speech, the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education delivered its State of the Nation report. It showed that 28% of secondary schools gave no dedicated time to teaching RE – and that’s only the percentage of schools that owned up. More than a quarter of secondary schools are breaking the law, yet Ofsted simply looks the other way. They show missionary zeal in failing schools that don’t comply with their LGBT or feminist agendas, yet do nothing about schools that don’t comply with the law.

And this isn’t simply a case of schools breaking the law as defined in the 1944 Education Act. Schools are also failing to comply with the Equality Act 2010 by denying about 800,000 students each year of an opportunity to explore faith. Listen to the voices of young people in the Interim Report of the Commission on Religious Education to understand just how vital high quality RE teaching is in understanding belief. And if Ofsted think that such an understanding can be delivered through other routes, then they are guilty of doublethink of Orwellian proportions. If LGBT and feminism must be explicated in order to actively promote equality, then so must religion. Ofsted can’t pick and choose which protected characteristics it wants to police. If they are so ardent about equality, then the teaching of RE must be as vigorously enforced as all other aspects of the law.

It extends beyond the curriculum, too, because schools are failing to protect pupils of faith. The DfE is spending millions of pounds on stamping out homophobic bullying: the amount being spent on addressing religious bullying is zero. Schools are held to account if they don’t have a homophobic bullying policy in place: the accountability of schools for religious bullying is zero. Yet Ditch the Label, an organisation which collects data on teenagers’ views of bullying (rather than teachers’ perceptions) shows that the number of children bullied for their faith is the same as those being bullied for their sexuality. So where, DfE, is the money to stamp out religious bullying? And where, Ofsted, is the evidence of you holding schools to account?

The Bible uses the imagery of anchors, too. The letter to the Hebrews talks about our hope in God, saying that ‘We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure’ (Hebrews 6:19). Unlike British values, faith can never be inculcated – it’s a very personal decision made by people who want to live in relationship with God. Christian parents don’t need to indoctrinate their children so that they can cope with stormy seas – they know that hope in God will provides all the security we need through life, however stormy the sea gets.