'Trojan Horse opened the door to a steady assault against faith schools – is this is the end of religious tolerance?'

In Britain today there's an Ofsted-led offensive on religious freedom, says one charity chief executive as she asks: how has it come to be that only state-sanctioned, new 'mainstream thinking' may be taught in schools?

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In her message to the nation this Christmas, the prime minister reminded us of the precious gift of religious freedom:

"Let us take pride in our Christian heritage and the confidence it gives us to ensure that in Britain you can practice your faith free from question or fear…

… let us reaffirm our determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to speak about and practice their beliefs in peace and safety."

Who more than religious minorities are so profoundly conscious of this gift? The journey of the Jews through the millennia has been plagued by the denial of religious freedom. As important to us as life itself, our forebears have sacrificed everything rather than desert their faith. There are people alive in our communities today and in other communities of faith who smuggled proscribed religious texts and artefacts into the Soviet Union, so that Judaism could continue to be taught and practised, despite religious oppression by the state.  

Mrs May’s words are true and just. But coming at this time, they are hollow. For in Britain today, there is a state-led offensive on our religious freedom.

An attack on schools

It is not our personal practice that is threatened.  Nor, at least for now, on what we do in our synagogues.  The attack is on our schools, on the way we educate our children. 

For decades, Jewish schools were heralded as beacons of best practice. In particular, they stood out for their strong ethos, for the moral, social and civic values they developed in their pupils. Between 2010 and 2013, 16 Orthodox Jewish independent schools in Hackney were inspected by Ofsted.  Eleven were found to be "outstanding" for the personal and social development of their pupils, and five were "good".

Then suddenly, in 2014, they were hit by a radical redefinition of what the personal and social development of children should look like, and what "British values" means. Trojan Horse brought with it measures aimed at "driving out extremism". Thus began the steady offensive against our schools.

Now the state, operating through the regulator Ofsted, has become the enforcer of secular liberal values.  The concept of "British values" has been well and truly captured, and inculcating these values in our children is the only way to "prepare for life in modern Britain".  This philosophy is cast-iron, and no dissent is countenanced.

And so, we stand by helpless as our schools are assaulted in the public discourse and attacked on the ground.  School after school is failed for not teaching primary school-age children about transgender and sexual fluidity – and for neglecting to give children enough 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 skullcaps to school.  Ofsted is prepared to fight in the courts to enforce its worldview and override the deeply held beliefs of entire parent bodies.

Ofsted failings

The chilling words of Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, have a ring of Soviet-era policy.  There are "school leaders and governors who naively turn to religious institutions of a particularly conservative bent for advice about religious practice, not realising when this advice does not reflect mainstream thinking". This country must use "compulsory education to make sure children acquire a deep understanding of and respect for the British values" even where, she warns, "this is in tension with parental wishes or with community norms." 

If a school dissents from her definition of British values, it fails.  It does not matter that children are clearly respectful and tolerant, a feature cited consistently in Ofsted reports of Orthodox Jewish schools, or that by all other benchmarks a school may be good or outstanding.  

How was this allowed to happen?  What has happened to the holy grail of parental choice? How has it come to be that only state-sanctioned, new "mainstream thinking" may be taught in schools?  How have peace-loving law-abiding communities been pushed to choose between the law of their religion and the law of their beloved country?  What, prime minister, about the freedom of people of all religions to speak about and practice their beliefs in peace and safety?

There is only one pathway for schools that do not meet the new requirements: restriction of a new intake of pupils and ultimately closure.  There are many Jewish schools on that pathway today.

Is this the end of religious tolerance or will the prime minister make good on her words?

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Chaya Spitz OBE is the chief executive of Haredi charity, the Interlink Foundation. 

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