Won’t somebody please think of the children? Because if recent evidence is anything to go by, it won’t be Ofsted.
Their handling of the schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse affair has reduced them to a laughing stock. Five of the 21 Birmingham schools at the centre of it had recently been rated good or outstanding, only to be put into special measures months later.
In the run up to Ofsted’s report this week the media had been preoccupied with the Michael Gove-Theresa May spat. After publication, attention turned to the Schools’ Inspectorate and its woefully inadequate system for inspection.
In March, the think tank Policy Exchange branded the judgement of inspectors so unreliable that ‘you would be better off flipping a coin.’
The shocking findings in Birmingham have somewhat diluted the criticisms Ofsted should be facing. They now acknowledge things must change.
And then you open up this morning’s Times (£), and a story that Ofsted has ordered its inspectors not to criticise segregation amongst boys and girls in Muslim schools. It states that segregation does not amount to discrimination but is line with Islamic requirements. Girls having to wear the hijab do so as part of their identity. Music and art may be restricted, the paper says.
Quoting Ofsted advice when inspecting Muslim schools, The Times reports that:
“Boys and girls may well be taught or seated separately according to the specific context, particularly during collective acts of worship. This should not be taken as a sign of inequality between genders.”
“Girls will cover their head with the ‘hijab’ or scarf. On occasions this is not a requirement of the school but at the pupil’s own request. Inspectors should be mindful to not misinterpret this as a sign of repression but instead to understand that Muslim females see this as a part of their identity and a commitment to their beliefs within Islam.”
The Times adds that learning music may occur in a religious context:
“Inspectors may find evidence of music being taught through religious worship sessions: the tajweed (recitation of the Koran), the singing of Arabic songs (nasheed), the playing of the duff (drums) and the call to prayer (adhan). Pupils are taught these from an early age.”
The findings from Trojan Horse focused entirely on non-faith based schools, but ones with predominantly Muslim pupils. Cue a wave of comment pieces attacking faith schools on the grounds that the narrow faith-based ideology being practiced at certain secular schools in Birmingham is what’s currently legitimised at actual faith schools.
There is something profoundly depressing and disturbing in equal measure at the contents of today’s Times piece. Rather than challenging values and beliefs that are anathema to British society, Ofsted are now complicit in them.
The usual derision was heaped upon the government when it announced that schools would now be forced to teach British values. Whilst it may not be obvious to say what these values are, it’s certainly a lot more obvious to identity what they’re not: the very things Ofsted instructs its inspectors to turn a blind eye to.
According to its warped mindset, it is not the responsibility of the body charged with overseeing our schools to pick up on instances of misogyny. So who’s looking out for the girls told from a very young age that it’s their duty to cover up? Who’s helping to counteract the damaging assertion that girls as young as five be forced to view themselves as sexual objects?
You’d think they’d get protection from this sort of nonsense at school. Instead they’re coming to school to have this reaffirmed.
None of this is remotely surprising in a Muslim school. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is exactly the type of behaviour condemned by the Trojan Horse findings.
Until last week, I’d always been rather reluctant to support the abolition of faith schools, partly on the grounds that so many get such excellent results, but also partly because they give parents an additional option when their nearest comp isn’t good enough. And I went to a Jewish school so would feel rather hypocritical disowning the education I was privileged to have received.
But, today’s story is the final straw. It’s inevitable that dividing children according to religion will create divisions, intended or not. Whether this is more of an issue in Muslim schools is very hard to know. Why should we be shocked when a faith school tells its pupils that its set of values trumps all others?
The encroaching influence of hardliners can only be a bad thing for our children. And yes, these are our children we’re talking about. Muslim children are as British as any other children, and yet people like Ofsted are happy for them to be at the mercy of distinctly non-British values.
When we think of gender segregation we think of standard practice in Islamist states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. This sort of behaviour should not be tolerated in British schools. And yet this is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect in a faith school.
Children go to school to be enlightened. To learn to think for themselves and to learn about other cultures. To mix with children from diverse backgrounds. Faith schools or the newly created faith-based free schools are taking us backwards.
Ofsted may think it’s not doing any harm with its non-judgemental approach. It is doing the very opposite.
It is failing to protect our most vulnerable: our children. Cultural relativism is misguided at best, and pernicious at worst. Not for the first time in recent months, those at the top have let down those who most need our help.
This comment piece was first published on Speaker's Chair on Thursday 12th June 2014