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Fair play in regulating faith sector

David Bell doesn't speak for everyone at Ofsted in his view of Muslim schools, writes HM Inspector Christopher Schenk

When David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, raised his concern that independent Muslim schools might pose a challenge to our coherence as a nation he was expressing his personal views and not speaking on behalf of those of us who inspect these schools on a regular basis.

As an HMI I have often been in the frustrating position of hearing ministers (or even previous chief inspectors) putting words into Ofsted's mouth and not being able to signal my disagreement publicly. On this occasion I am happy to say that I can do so because I know that David Bell is committed to freedom of speech and encourages employees of Ofsted to speak their mind without fear of reprisal.

The headlines were an inaccurate summary of what he actually said in his speech to the Hansard Society. Unfortunately, the soundbites that followed were also open to misunderstanding. Anyone listening to David Bell on BBC 2's Newsnight might be forgiven for thinking that Ofsted makes the regulations and that he personally has the power to close schools if they do not meet them. In fact, of course, the regulations that govern independent schools are laid before parliament in accordance with the provisions of the 2002 Education Act.

Quite properly, the powers to enforce them, including requiring schools to close under certain circumstances, belong to the democratically elected Secretary of State rather than to the chief inspector.

Under the aggressive questioning of Jeremy Paxman, he did not have the opportunity to explain the finer details or to point out that the evidence base for his remarks arose from inspection visits to a particular group of relatively new schools in the "transitional phase".

The advisory nature of these visits has not been properly appreciated or understood. Sadly, this was evident in the TES's lead story last week. The independent sector is in any case widely misunderstood. Members of the public often think mainly in terms of Eton, Harrow and Winchester and assume that all independent schools have high fees, fine buildings and extensive grounds.

Even in the pages of the TES the assumption is sometimes made that all independent schools belong to the Independent Schools Council (ISC). In fact, only half of them do, although 80 per cent of the pupils in the sector attend ISC schools. The schools outside the ISC are very diverse.

Many of them rely mainly on charitable donation, charge very low fees and pay a pittance to teachers who work in them out of commitment.

In a democratic society the right of communities to set up schools that reflect their deeply held beliefs is an important freedom that should be jealously guarded. The state has a duty to ensure that pupils in these schools are taught efficiently and are looked after and kept safe but not to dictate precisely what is taught.

For nearly 60 years the requirements for independent schools were expressed very generally in terms of the 1944 Education Act. New schools could open without any prior checks being made to ensure that the premises were suitable or that the curriculum had been properly planned. When a school started it was provisionally registered until it was inspected, by HMI and by a fire officer, and judged to meet requirements. New schools frequently remained provisionally registered for two or three years while they improved and reached an acceptable standard.

Under the new regulations that came into force in September 2003, schools have to demonstrate that they meet basic requirements before they are allowed to open. The old category of "provisionally registered" no longer exists. More than one hundred schools, that had previously been provisionally registered, were allowed to continue to operate under transitional arrangements.

The transitional phase lasts until the end of August, and schools are required to meet the new regulations by then. During the two years of the transitional phase most schools will receive two advisory visits from inspectors to point out what must be done to meet requirements.

It is true that a high proportion of schools in the transitional phase are Muslim, but that is hardly surprising because a large number of Muslim schools have opened recently. It is also true that among the 90-odd regulations are the requirements to teach about public institutions and services in Britain and to promote tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions.

On the first transitional phase visit, some Muslim schools, as well as some evangelical Christian schools, were advised to pay particular attention to these regulations and on the second transitional phase visits, that are taking place at the moment, it is becoming clear that they have done so.

What is not true is that faith schools are resistant to these requirements.

Far from it. As I inspect Muslim schools I meet headteachers and trustees who talk about the need to educate the next generation of good British Muslims so that they can play a full part in the life of their country.

They point out that tolerance and harmony are Islamic virtues and they want their pupils to appreciate and respect other cultures.

When we inspect independent faith schools we need to do so thoroughly, sensitively and fairly. We can and should expect them to meet the same regulations as every other independent school.

But we cannot and should not question their right to exist in a free and democratic society, as David Bell acknowledged in his speech.

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