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.
British valuesFaith schoolsOfstedSpielman
Late last year, I went to a meeting with Ofsted’s Director of Strategy. During that conversation, I discussed my concern that Christians who simply want to exercise their freedom to live by biblical principles and to teach their children accordingly, are being accused of indoctrination. That view extends to any but the most anodyne teaching, or expression, of the Christian faith in schools. A significant part of the problem, I explained, is that the media simply lumps Christianity, Judaism and Islam together, labelling them all as extremist. Language like ‘hate-filled’ and ‘toxic’ is a regular part of reporters’ rhetoric and Ofsted is playing a considerable role in encouraging this perspective. I was given an assurance by the person concerned, who happens to be Amanda Spielman’s speech writer, that care would be taken in future.
So, you can imagine my disgust when I read Spielman’s speech to the Church of England Foundation for Education Leadership last week. To be fair, it’s helpful in that it does lay out the full extent of her messianic mission, including her antipathy to all but the most warm and fluffy expressions of faith – the type that John Major evoked with his description of ‘warm beer, long sleepy afternoons watching cricket on the village green, and old maids cycling to Evensong’. The extent of her anger with any opponents of Sunday School inspection was also very evident, even though primary legislation is the concern of a democratically elected Parliament, not of Ofsted.
Her solution – ‘muscular liberalism’ – merits interrogation. Presumably she has to define it as muscular liberalism because, as Tim Farron recently pointed out, liberalism has eaten itself so the ideologues need something altogether, well, muscular. As is well documented, Spielman enjoyed a privileged education, which will have been balanced, diverse and pluralistic. It’s an education that afforded her ample opportunity to make up her own mind about what she believes and she’s clearly chosen secular feminism as her worldview – that’s fine. We live in a democratic country. She can believe whatever she wishes as a private individual. What she cannot do is abuse her role as Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills by imposing her views on society. To do so is to deny todays’ children and young people the right to understand, engage with and respond to any views other than her own.
When it comes to Christianity, she says that freedom of belief is acceptable in the ‘private sphere’ but not in the public square. The same, Ms Spielman, must therefore be true of your personal worldview. Fine for your private sphere – not acceptable in the public square. And most certainly not acceptable from a government employee heading up a department which purports to value freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law and adherence to the Equality Act 2010. Just in case you need reminding, Ms Spielman, faith is a protected characteristic. The motto of the organisation you represent is ‘Raising Standards, Improving Lives’. Lives are improved when people have the opportunity to determine their own beliefs, not have them inculcated by aggressive secular dogmatists. You’re on record about the inculcation strategy, by the way.
The problem was neatly defined by the Christian Institute – ‘Just because somebody is religious and has socially conservative views, that does not mean that they have their first foot on the escalator to violent extremism’. A spokesperson from Anglican Mainstream (which, unlike the Christian Institute, is actually Anglican, Ms Spielman, just to clarify) pointed out that extremism is ‘a violent response involving physical harm to people’ and to confuse that with work in defending marriage and sexuality is’ illiterate’. If you need some lessons in literacy, Ofsted, we are happy to oblige.
Other concerns were expressed by the Safe at School Campaign, who saw the implications of the speech as so sinister that they called for Spielman’s resignation. As their press release pointed out, Spielman was acting way beyond her remit by: •usurping parental rights in saying that she would back heads against parents • manipulating British values in limiting freedom to speak about belief, which is an essential part of a liberal democracy
•accusing schools which teach basic Christian principles on marriage, sexuality and the sanctity of life of ‘indoctrinat[ing] impressionable minds under the guise of religious belief’.