Odd though it may seem, I spend quite a lot of time reading Ofsted reports. It started last year with the British values debacle and in the intervening year, I’ve become proficient in Ofsted speak and in reading subtext. I can usually see the agenda embedded in the rhetoric.
On 30 September 2015, the Bridge Schools Inspectorate was closed – an Ofsted decision that was proclaimed as tidings of great joy by the National Secular Society. Ofsted declared its intention to re-inspect a range of BSI schools and last week the first tranche of reports was published. As I read the outcomes for the 7 Christian schools involved, several questions came into my mind.
Just to set the scene, these schools are all independent schools, but they are far from the standard indie school model. Fees are often minimal, or based on contribution from parents and the supporting church. Staff often work voluntarily or, in many cases, for minimum or low wages in order to offer the Christian education that they feel called to provide. As a result of the limitations this creates, most of the schools inspected have been criticised for lack of curriculum breadth under that pejorative catch-all ‘failing to prepare children for life in modern Britain’.
So here are the questions that the reports raised. Firstly, who determines what failure looks like? Is Ofsted the sole arbiter of this, or are there other measures that can be applied in making a judgment – like human flourishing; like character; like nurturing secure, happy learners? I ask this because every single report noted that the children are happy. The parents are happy. All students know right from wrong. They play and learn well together, trusting each other and the adults who work with them. Bullying is virtually non-existent and when things go wrong, all children know who to ask for help. They are proud of their schools and their achievements. Who wouldn’t want that for their child?
This isn’t, of course, an issue restricted to Christian schools. Earlier this week, head teacher Colin Harris wrote about happiness in his school. I used to teach in Colin’s school so I know that what he writes is true. It’s a happy school despite the high deprivation and disadvantage of most of the pupils. It’s happy because Colin has created it to be that way. As he also pointed out the previous week, we fail to prioritise pupil well-being at our peril.
The second question is this: exactly when did Ofsted assume the authority to tell parents what is best for their children? Not all the parents of these schools are themselves Christians – most of the schools welcome children of all faiths and none. Parents choose these schools for very specific reasons – because the values of the schools support their values as parents. They do so knowing the limitations. So by what right does Ofsted impose its own narrow definition of success on parents who have largely taken a look at that definition and decided that it isn’t what they want for their children?
It’s a question that relates not just to Christian schools, but also to Orthodox Jewish schools. They are being criticised for failing to prepare their children for life in modern Britain, yet these are children whose schools have permanent guards, whose websites are subject to cyber attacks and who face anti-Semitic abuse in the street as they leave school. It all depends on the aspect of ‘modern Britain’ for which you’re preparing your children.
There is also a presumption by Ofsted that its understanding of life in modern Britain is definitive. It’s a modern Britain in which children have to be taught to deal with abuse; child sexual exploitation; unplanned or early pregnancy; violence against women; exploration of gender identity and a panoply of sexual identities; physical, emotional and cyber bullying; broken and transient personal relationships; a tsunami of mental illness; stress, and the relentless pressure to achieve academic and financial success.
If you aren’t preparing your children for this future, you’re failing, even if you’re raising trusting, honest and respectful children in a home which models love, stability, trust and security. Ofsted wilfully ignores that fact as it exercises a relentless missionary zeal in reducing society to its one-dimensional model. That, I suppose, makes it so much easier exercise power and control.
And the exercise of that power is also about to extend to state faith schools. The Education and Adoption Bill which is currently making its way through parliament will allow the DfE to take over faith schools which it deems to be ‘failing’, in the process conducting a land grab from the churches that own the land and buildings. Henry VIII was the last one to try that, and it didn’t end well.
So, are Christian parents going to lose their right to choose the education they want for their children, even when they are providing it themselves? Is our Catholic Education Service, which was educating children long before the state grudgingly joined the party, going to have to conform or close? Are Orthodox Jewish families no longer going to be allowed to decide what is best for their children, just because their communities don’t endorse a singular social orthodoxy?
So as Ofsted presses on with its mission to value only those things which it can measure, is this the beginning of the end of distinctive faith schooling?