The Education Select Committee this week summoned Amanda Spielman as part of its accountability hearings. It was a wide-ranging debate, during which Ms Spielman showed the extent of Ofsted’s confused double-think about its social engineering programme. It led Robert Halfon, the chair of the Committee, to comment more than once on the importance of ensuring that the innocent aren’t swept away with the guilty.
Some of the thinking is genuinely confused – an extensive discussion about inspecting out of school settings (which Ofsted is very keen to resurrect) demonstrated that nobody actually knows what needs inspecting and what doesn’t. Spielman talked rather vaguely about ‘8 hours’ of attendance, which would encompass just about every young swimmer in the country who puts in a couple of hours of intensive training before and after school every day. She talked about the need to regulate tutorial centres, even though they are already subject to safeguarding law. She disingenuously observed that it was unlikely that Sunday Schools would be affected, although madrasas would be. But it would, of course, affect all holiday clubs, residential trips, sleepovers and camps organised by churches.
When pressed on how she would ensure that only the guilty would be tracked, she resorted to Ofsted’s usual argument when it runs out of options – creating law is down to government, not Ofsted. It is not her job, she opined, to create policy on the hoof. So perhaps she should limit her comments to her actual remit and stick to the day job, rather than posturing for a power grab.
When questioned about the definition of ‘muscular liberalism’, members of the committee were assured that this was definitely not secularism in disguise; it’s about living Fundamental British Values, which means not allowing spaces to exist where intolerance is bred. Over the issue of faith schools causing segregation, the answer was revealing. Some faith schools, Ms Spielman stated, do excellent work that doesn’t lead to segregation. Indeed, they thoroughly prepare children for life in modern Britain – those she mentioned (Church of England and Catholic schools) are the ones who have welcomed Stonewall with open arms to create environments which normalise queer ideology. But there was a warning – not all faith schools have the same kind of positive outcomes for pupils. One such Christian school was recently told by an HMI to invite Stonewall in to advise staff on how to achieve these positive outcomes. That rather suggests that the involvement of Stonewall has become a key litmus test for Ofsted when it comes to categorisation of faith schools.
The key fact to emerge from the discussion is that these schools are not allowed to teach according to the tenets of their faith, regardless of the content of any guidance documents. Spielman made it clear, in the context of Orthodox Jewish schools, that Ofsted cannot disapply the law – she meant, specifically, the Equality Act 2010. She outlined the dilemma that Orthodox Jewish schools face, as they cannot, in accordance with their belief, teach about same sex relationships or transgender issues. Whilst as evangelical Christians we can talk about these issues with children and young people, we talk about them in relation to the biblical principles of being born male and female, and marriage being between one man and one woman. That is not inconsistent with also teaching our children to respect other people’s choices.
Current DfE guidance states quite clearly that ‘It is not necessary for schools or individuals to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with their own’. It goes on to say that it is not ‘acceptable for schools to promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background’. Ofsted seems to adopt the view that failing to ‘actively promote’ LGBT ideology, or teaching from a faith position is, in itself, discriminatory. There are copious examples of this interpretation – Vishnitz Girls’ School is the worst.
But Spielman was clear – the law will not be disapplied and the wishes of parents cannot take precedence over the law, however firmly held the beliefs are. The case of Al Hijrah was quoted – a key legal battle which she was very keen to win. It was important because it created the precedent to impose a liberal agenda on any faith school which can’t comply, because the law of the land (or at least the law as it is interpreted by Ofsted) conflicts with their understanding of the law of God.
It’s fine to say that we shouldn’t tolerate intolerance – everyone would agree with that. But the danger here, which was implicit in all that Spielman said, is the definition of ‘intolerance’. It should be defined by schools and settings which teach about terrorism, murder, beheadings and violence against women. But it was clear that for Ofsted it is defined by any faith which cannot comply with active promotion of LGBT ideology, or any person who refuses to remove their faith to the private sphere. That is, in itself, intolerant, and really does risk sweeping away the innocent with the guilty.