Our quest for “British Values” remains a hopeless muddle.

The great panic about extremism and the need to promote “British Values” is having some fascinating knock on effects in some unexpected places. One example is a series of unannounced inspections of Jewish secondary schools which have caused considerable comment in both Jewish and national media. Three out of twelve Jewish secondaries were inspected in this way leading to accusations of a concerted campaign against them.

The outcomes of the three inspections were that Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School in Hackney went from outstanding to good. The Jewish Free School in Brent went from outstanding to “requires improvement”. Beis Yaakov in Salford went from good to inadequate.

The inspection outcomes highlighted some issues that we should all be concerned about. This is most obviously true of Beis Yaakov. Its website states that “The School expects its pupils to have no access to any inappropriate media which means that parents have to ensure that their children do not have access to the internet or any other media not meeting the stringent moral criteria of the Charedi community” It also says that “Staff will NEVER send pupils to public libraries or other resource collections. Its GCSE options are Art, Textiles, History, French, Home Economics and Pitmans secretarial courses. It is of course a girls’ school.

Yesodev Hatorah is of course the school where science exam questions were censored by staff because they dealt with evolution. You may have thought that the exposure of this practice would have brought it to an end. But a year ago, the school wrote to parents saying “we have now come to an agreement with OCR to ensure that the school will retain its right to censor papers, under agreed conditions.” In March this year the Principal was quoted in the Telegraph as saying that “It is obvious that we do within the Jewish curriculum teach creationism. It is what we are there for and what we do.”

In the great scheme of things, these are a tiny minority of schools. But it does clearly show that there are schools that feel free to ignore the law and have a very strange understanding of “preparing students for life in modern Britain”.

But arguably even more important is what all this tells us about Ofsted and its hopelessly inconsistent and confused approach. In 2009 Beis Yaakov was a good and rapidly improving school. The report talked of inspirational leadership and found no issues of significance with the curriculum or the care of pupils. This judgement was confirmed in 2012 and the school went on to convert to academy status.

Then came the unannounced inspection of 2014. We now find safeguarding is inadequate, there are major gaps in spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, attendance is low, the curriculum is too narrow, there is little careers guidance and financial records lack transparency. Can this really be the same school?

This report is at least internally consistent and addresses important issues. The report on Yesodev Hatorah manages to completely ignore the issues of censoring exams. It says nothing about whether creationism is taught and ignores the fact that children are forbidden to use the internet – a clear breach of National Curriculum requirements. There is no comment of any kind on PSHE or sex and relationships education.

The report on JFS it would seem to have been prompted by parental complaints and is in most respects more straightforward although the judgment left the school furious. It focused on behaviour issues and was generally positive about preparing for life in modern Britain although it did offer the perhaps not entirely astonishing observation that “older students are better informed about homosexual and transgender bullying than students in Key Stage 3”.

Set these inspections alongside the anecdotal feedback from those in mainly Muslim schools in Birmingham and elsewhere and we start to get a pattern. On the one hand there is a clear history of Ofsted comprehensively failing in the past to notice issues that most people would feel have no place in a state funded school. On the other there is also a pattern of insensitive and inconsistent attempts to interpret the instruction to inspect British values – sometimes still missing issues but on other occasions seeking evidence in clumsy and inappropriate ways and taking an absurdly literal approach to the guidance. An example of this is the catholic school in Bury St Edmunds condemned as requiring improvement because “younger pupils show less awareness of the dangers of extremism and radicalisation”. At least in this case Ofsted had the sense to withdraw the report after it has been published.

Overall, we remain in a muddle about what we expect from schools in our diverse society. But we are also in a muddle because we have an inspection service that is hopelessly inconsistent, swayed by the political winds and too big and cumbersome to be managed effectively.

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3 Comments on “Our quest for “British Values” remains a hopeless muddle.”

  1. David Pavett says:

    What this tale of botched and insensitive reports tells us is that Ofsted is not fit for purpose. Plenty of comment to that effect comes in the recent Guardian inquiry into views about Ofsted (which includes one by SEA President Richard Pring).

    This is backed up by reports of Ofsted shenanigans over the baby P affair.

    The call for the teaching so-called “British values” is just another sign of the problem rather that a solution to it. Tory and Labour politicians alike are running around like headless chickens on the issue. If we want to education children for the modern world then the first thing we should know is that the values they need are not circumscribe by the boarders of the UK. Tolerance, reason, listening to others, showing respect etc., etc. are found all round the world. Their opposites are also found all round the world including in the UK. We should choose and promote the values that enable us to get the most out of life, and to put the most into it. There is nothing specifically “British” about that.

  2. Helen says:

    I regard the idea of “British Values” as just a way of expressing values that have come to seen as acceptable in this country over the years, and to our laws. No comparison needs to be made to the values of other countries, those are not relevant.
    Without religious or “faith” schools the problem of overseeing what we expect from our education system would not be so tricky, but since the Anglican church wants to continue to influence education and the government does not want to end this, then of course other religions must have that right too.
    Not sure if the Socialist Educational Association is against religion-based schools?
    There is also the unseen problem of those schools not recognised as “faith schools” such as Montessori and Steiner where a religious/spiritual “ethos” features strongly, but goes unmonitored.
    These inspection reports make a case for more unannounced inspections, and I am not sure why all inspections cannot take place in this way since much more accurate results seem to emerge.