Karen Pence has come under fire for her job at a Christian school, because the school in question follows orthodox Christian views on sexual relations outside of wedlock. This has spurned a whole wave of online discussion lambasting such schools; while of course abuses and mismanagement in Christian schools ought to be brought to light and addressed, this is quite a different matter. Should private, religious institutions be allowed to dissent from secular worldviews? The question has become a heated one across the pond.
Amanda Spielman was an odd choice for England chief regulator of schools. Spielman, who comes from the private-equity world, was staunchly opposed by the Education Select Committee in Parliament. Its chairman, Conservative Neil Carmichael, described her responses as “particularly troubling,” leading the committee to “call on the secretary of state not to proceed with Ms. Spielman’s appointment.” Carmichael noted that such opposition is unusual but maintained that the “seriousness of [their] concerns” warranted a report. Nicky Morgan, education secretary in the Cameron government, confirmed her over their objections, and Spielman has served in the role at Ofsted (the Office of Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) since January 2017. Her performance since has confirmed the fears of committee members. She has waged a war against religious schools of all denominations for the past two years— and has justified that in the name of “British values.” The claim, and her behavior, require unpacking.
In 2014, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government in Britain published guidance directing all schools to “actively promote” the “British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” This seems innocuous enough and perhaps par for the course, but the word “promote” is key. Until that point, schools had been required to “respect” these values. What’s the difference?
Perhaps a good place to look for the root of this initiative would be the Lib Dems’ platform for the 2010 election. Nick Clegg held that faith schools must promote homosexual relationships. These, one assumes, fall under the umbrella of “different beliefs” enshrined in the British-value guidance. But there’s an immediate tension there, because toleration, properly understood, does not mean supporting every behavior or belief. To the contrary, it entails coming to terms with difference, respectfully. And, furthermore, the ability of religious groups to tailor the non-academic elements of their schooling to the ethical codes they follow is part of English liberty itself. The language of the guidance is quite broadly defined. By its very nature, this means that the regulator has considerable leeway for interpretation.
Spielman’s predecessor at Ofsted was Sir Michael Wilshaw, a lifelong educator. Wilshaw founded and led a high school in one of the most deprived parts of London, with a largely poor student body, and led the students to some of the highest academic performance in the nation. For this, he was widely hailed, and presumably it is why he was named the chief inspector at Ofsted in 2012. Under his tenure, even after the new guidance was issued, inspections proceeded in a normal manner. After all, he was an experienced hand at these things. But once Spielman took the reigns, the dangers of the government’s ill-defined education directive became obvious.
In summer 2017, the Vishnitz Girls School, a private Jewish institution in Hackney, failed a third Ofsted inspection in a row for its deficiency in teaching a “full understanding of fundamental British values.” If a school receives a grade from Ofsted that is less than “good,” it is subject to future inspections that will fail it if it does not “improve” in whichever criteria were cited. Vishnitz’s failing mark was despite the fact that in Ofsted’s own report, the school was described as having knowledgeable teachers, high-quality resources, and a school culture “focused on teaching pupils to respect everybody, regardless of beliefs and lifestyle.” To me, that sounds exactly like what a parent would want out of a school.
Which key element of British heritage did the school deny its students? Was it the Magna Carta? Ofsted states it outright in its report: The school did not teach pupils about gender reassignment and sexualities, thereby restricting “pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development” and rendering them unfit for “present-day society.” That is quite a claim, considering that the school is for girls under the age of eight. Apparently, such information is such a fundamental part of what it means to be British that prepubescent children have to be taught it. (It really makes me wonder how we got by all of these years, lacking component so crucial to Britishness.) Six other faith schools were hit with similar sanctions at about the same time. The move found an immediate and eager reception in Britain’s secular-humanist crowd, who called for “proper sanctions” on such schools.
At several Jewish, Christian, and Muslim schools, the building is effectively both a boys’ school and a girls’ school with shared facilities (though some schools are co-ed for primary-school students.) These also came under attack from Ofsted for, yet offending “British values”. Boys’ schools still exist in Britain, as do girls’ schools — yet when religious schools adopted a version of that system, they were engaging in subversion. The High Court had ruled that to be fine, but Spielman’s Ofsted appealed, citing the “Equalities Act” of 2010 (despite the fact that they had passed inspection after the Act, but before Spielman), and the ruling was overturned. Now these schools are faced with the choice of shutting down or finding the funding to split into two fully separate schools. This too met with glee by secular humanists, who called the schools’ arrangement “gender apartheid.”
Spielman’s language in her first annual report sounds more Soviet than British: “It is right that we use compulsory education to make sure children acquire a deep understanding of and respect for the British values” even if they are “in tension with parental wishes or with community norms.” The state, in Spielman’s view, emphatically knows more than the family when it comes to what’s best for children. Noting that “Ofsted has found schools that deliberately [resist] British values,” she gives examples of some of these horrors, such as school leaders’ “naïvely” asking conservative clergy for advice on accommodating their religious students. It is truly a wonder that education in England has survived all these centuries without Spielman’s arrival to save it.
Chaya Spitz described Spielman’s first year in power in the Jewish Chronicle:
During this difficult year, school after school has been called out for not teaching children about different sexual identities and for failing to give children the opportunity to explore different faiths. Schools may no longer run separate divisions for boys and girls. Schools are questioned about boys who are “made to” wear kippahs. Ofsted has been prepared to fight in the courts to override the deeply held beliefs of entire parent bodies.
At the parliamentary level, there are some promising signs. Spitz wrote last year of a visit by Sajid Javid, who was then the communities secretary and is now home secretary, to Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School, a high-performing Jewish school that had been a frequent target of Ofsted,. Students and staff alike described their harassment by Ofsted inspectors, with an eleventh-grader describing the questions as being similar to the bullying she experienced in childhood. Javid said to the students, “You embody British values. You are British values. This government will protect you.”
Javid’s statement is quite right, but Ofsted’s project of coercive secularism is still very much in effect. Its new proposals do very little to change its conflict with religious schools, which will continue to perform poorly in its inspections, even when they produce well-rounded and academically talented students. Ultimately, the only lasting solution to the problem is to remove the 2014 “guidance” entirely, which would have to be done at the government level. Its vaguely defined scope and forceful mandate have together allowed the school-inspection system to be whatever Ofsted’s chief inspector wants it to be, and when that inspector is someone like Amanda Spielman, it means a sustained attack on religious freedom in Britain. But for both the long and the short term, sacking Spielman and replacing her with someone like Sir Michael, whose career has been devoted to education from the ground level, would be a good start.