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.

FAITH AND FITBITS

At a church away day recently, the speaker talked about Fitbits. The point of a Fitbit is to track our movements, regardless of where we are, who we’re with or what we’re doing. It’s always there. It’s an integral part of everyday life and apparently, it’s changing our view of exercise. We no longer see keeping fit as a particular activity which needs a special place, such as a gym. It doesn’t demand time in a busy day, or require special clothing or equipment. It’s simply our state of living, moving and being – every step we take, every move we make. And that got me thinking about being a Christian in the classroom.

Our faith isn’t something for Sunday; something we need to juggle in a busy day, or something that requires a special place or particular words. We worship and serve ‘The God who made the world and everything in it’ and our Lord ‘is the Lord of heaven and earth’ (Acts 17:24-25). It means that God is with us wherever we are, whoever we’re with and whatever we’re doing. We take God into the classroom with us. Of course we know this in principle, but do we know it in practice?

Apply the Fitbit concept to faith in the workplace. Seeing your faith as your lived experience changes how you see your role as a teacher. Your subject is no longer just an academic discipline – it is one facet of the knowledge and truth which is God. You don’t simply transmit information to pass exams. You create a seedbed for knowledge formation; you’re the person who encourages a search for truth.

You see each of your students as uniquely created, each given life and breath by the Creator God you worship. You pray that your students ‘would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him’ (Acts 17:27). That shapes how you speak and act. It informs the way you foster your learning community. It moulds how you think.

In Cretia, his ode to Zeus, the Greek poet Epimenides wrote, ‘you live and abide forever, For in you we live and move and have our being’. It’s a phrase that Paul borrowed and related to God when he was talking to the people of Athens (Acts 17:28) and it sums up the Fitbit concept perfectly. We live and move and have our being in the God who created and sustains the world. Although we are exhorted to always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us (I Peter 3:15), most of our witness as Christian teachers will simply be because we’re alive – in Christ.

SEEING STUDENTS AS HONOURED GUESTS

The media was buzzing at the beginning of this week with the news that Nigel and Sally Rowe were considering legal action against their son’s school over a transgender issue. Plenty of air hours, column inches and social media posts have been devoted to discussion about it, but in all of the outrage on both sides of the debate, nobody has considered the role of a teacher when conflicting parental beliefs become an issue in the classroom. Can teachers create a class community which is based on genuine equality?

The answer, as has become very clear this week, is no, certainly not by mandate or statute. The Equality Act 2010 may be the legal bulwark for the government’s diversity agenda, but it doesn’t always work in practice, because it’s nothing more than a surface level fix for the complex problems of human relationships. It causes conflict where we need connectedness.

One answer lies in the concept of ‘shalom’. I’m told that the greeting ‘shalom’ doesn’t just mean blessing; it means peace, well being and wholeness. So seeking shalom in the classroom offers an opportunity to create genuine community – a place where each person is at peace in their relationship with the other, not simply a space in which the teacher is constantly juggling legal protections and mediating conflicted points of view.

Classroom community isn’t about friendship with likeminded people. It’s about groups of 30 strangers who will never become close friends, but who have to somehow work and learn effectively together. For everyone to flourish as people and as learners, the ethos has to foster tolerance and respect and those are characteristics that are nurtured through relationship, not forged by legislation. We must actively choose to recognise the inherent worth in each other, even those with whom we profoundly disagree.

Part of the problem rests with an education system that equates worth with grades and success with money, because it teaches children that they must compete. Part of the problem lies with a society that enshrines individualism – character education teaches children to develop certain personal behaviours for their own wellbeing, without any consideration of the common good. And part of the problem lies with successive governments that have obsessed about social mobility without understanding the basic human need for rootedness and a sense of belonging.

So seeking shalom in a cosmopolitan classroom is about creating space in which each child feels rooted, with the confidence to share ideas, knowing that they will be listened to and met with consideration and interest, not merely tolerance or courtesy. Students are encouraged to see difference in others as an opportunity to learn, not a reason to reject. Children can learn to think critically about the world around them, and pursue questions without being told the answer by a teacher anxious to meet targets. Each person’s story is treated with equal honour, as part of the bigger narrative of the class and school community.

Seeing students as honoured guests in our classrooms isn’t about pedagogy, it’s about a way of being. It requires open hearts, not gesture politics. Unlike respect, which is earned, honour is a gift, given freely without looking for return even when we are offended or hurt. Honouring our students allows us to rise above a constant need to mediate in order to keep peace; instead it creates a community in which each person cares as deeply about the peace and wellbeing of others as they do about their own.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul offered a definition of love which has become one of the most well known passages in the Bible. In a paragraph that begins: ‘Love is patient, love is kind’ he goes on to say that love ‘does not dishonour others’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). In honouring our students as guests in our classrooms, each uniquely made in the image of God, we can rise above the conflict of belief and ideology. We offer a place in which students can flourish as they pursue their search for truth.