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‘Ofsted’s chief inspector is not in a position to play God’

Colin Richards, a former HMI and a primary-sector specialist adviser to Ofsted, writes:

Ofsted has recently published its findings following thirty-odd no-notice inspections, including some of Islamic schools. Its programme of snap inspections is to continue. What is even more controversial than no-notice inspections is Ofsted’s venturing into a dangerous “values” area which is well beyond its competence.

Ofsted will be policing the Department for Education’s (DfE) hurriedly published non-statutory guidance on “promoting fundamental British values as part of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development”, a document issued without any consultation but with a hint of panic as its sub-text.

Both the DfE and Ofsted are setting themselves up as arbiters of what constitute British values and extremism in schools. This was done without any thought-through national debate on those “fundamental values” supposedly threatened by extremism or on the propriety of investing this responsibility to an organisation whose inspectors are not trained (who could be?) or fitted (who is?) to undertake the task.

However sensitive an inspector, and many are, inevitably the notion of George Orwell’s “thought police” comes to mind, especially to those who are the butt of their criticism.

The current situation is fraught with danger to community cohesion, cultural identity, school viability and, also, to Ofsted’s credibility. To borrow religious vocabulary, Ofsted has got itself, and faith schools more generally, into an unholy mess as it trespasses where any sensible angel (of whatever religious complexion) would fear to tread.

The Church of England’s chief education officer has very recently recognised that Ofsted is straying beyond its legal brief. How did it find itself in this cultural/religious minefield? Partly, I suspect, because of the hubris of its chief inspector whose empire knows no limits and partly because it has never contested its responsibility for reporting on “the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils”, a clause inserted during the passage of the 1992 Education Act, as a result of pressure from the churches. Ofsted should have contested its validity and practicality 20 years ago; it should do so now. 

The inspectorate now needs to acknowledge that it is impossible for its inspectors to evaluate spiritual development or the school’s provision for that development. How can fallible human beings ever purport to judge others’ spiritual development? Not even the chief inspector is in a position to play God, never mind his subordinate “angels” on their visits to schools. Arguably, too, the same applies to judgments of cultural development, especially since inspectors are not trained cultural anthropologists.

Ofsted should back off and, along with its critics, the DfE and the churches should work to get that unworkable clause revoked.

Related links:

Ofsted is 'ill-equipped' to monitor extremism, Church of England warns

Teachers will be forced by law to help fight extremism, says Theresa May

‘This is a damning verdict on the effectiveness of central government brokered academisation’







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