Comment Comment and Features

I was wrong: Ofsted is a real menace

Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw is a former Catholic school headmaster

Last November I sought to reassure Catholic Herald readers that there was nothing to fear from the Government’s policy of promoting British values in schools.

The actual values – democracy, the rule of law, tolerance and respect – were not, I argued, in any way inimical to Catholic orthodoxy; indeed, they were positively good things in themselves. Moreover, Ofsted, under the control of the former Catholic school headmaster Sir Michael Wilshaw, could, I believed, be relied upon to adopt a tactful and sensible approach to promoting these values. Well, I was wrong.

During the past fortnight the newspapers have been detailing the appalling treatment meted out to two Christian schools in the north east – the Durham Free School and Grindon Hall in Sunderland. Inspectors asked pupils aged 11 and 12 utterly unsuitable questions such as “Do you know what lesbians do?” and “Have you ever felt you were trapped in the wrong body?” At Grindon Hall, they demanded to know whether pupils at this Christian school “celebrated” the Muslim festival of Eid. (Ofsted insists it found no evidence its inspectors acted inappropriately.)

The honest answers to the inspectors’ inquisitions turned out to be the wrong answers. Grindon Hall has been put into special measures, despite being top of its local authority league tables for GCSEs. Why? Because according to Ofsted, “the curriculum does not adequately prepare pupils for life in modern Britain. Pupils show a lack of respect and tolerance towards those who belong to different faiths, cultures or communities.”

Durham Free School, meanwhile, is actually being threatened with closure after inspectors reported that “some students hold discriminatory views of other people who have different faiths, values or beliefs from themselves”.

It is no longer enough for the government and Ofsted to prescribe what must be taught; now schools are to be held accountable for the personal views of their pupils. This despite the fact that rebellious teenagers will frequently espouse views contrary to those their teachers and parents seek to promote.

While what is actually in these Ofsted reports is worrying enough, what is even more alarming is what has been removed. Schools are shown a draft of their report in advance of publication and see the little smears of prejudice that Ofsted’s quality control processes try to sanitise before publication. Grindon Hall’s first draft – and I promise I am not making this up – contained this remarkable statement: “The Christian ethos of the school permeates much of the school’s provision. This has restricted the development of a broad and balanced approach to the curriculum.”

Now, read that again substituting “Catholic” for “Christian” and you will see the full horror of what Catholic schools could soon be facing. If our schools inspectorate’s default position is that Christian or Catholic equals homophobic and Islamophobic – and any close study of the Grindon and Durham cases suggest that is the case – then we really do have a problem with the perverse and insufficiently nuanced interpretation of British values that officialdom has seemingly chosen to adopt.

It is odd that a Conservative-led coalition government should be presiding over this sort of thing in an election year. Can there really be any votes in pandering to the worst kind of secular fundamentalist bigotry? It seems the Green Party thinks so. Until they got within sniffing distance of the election television debates few political journalists at Westminster gave a hoot about what the Greens’ actual policies were, blithely assuming they were all cranky but harmless stuff about limits to growth and keeping carbon footprints small. Now all eyes are on the detail, and, sure enough, the Devil is certainly there. Since we’ve been on the subject of education, let’s see what the Greens have to say about that: “No publicly funded school shall be run by a religious organisation. Schools may teach about religions, comparing examples which originated in each continent, but [will be] prohibited from delivering religious instruction in any form or encouraging adherence to any particular religious belief.”

I may be wrong (again) but I have an uneasy feeling that Labour policy could be heading in that direction in the medium term, too. Perhaps it is time Labour was reminded of the salience of the Catholic vote.

I remember back in 2010 reading an article in an obscure journal by the pollster Sir Robert Worcester, founder of the market research agency MORI, saying that if it were only Catholics voting at the last general election, Labour would have had a 19 point lead over the Tories and a thumping majority. Even though its parliamentary candidates are no longer chosen by the Knights of St Columba, Labour still gets the Catholic vote without really trying. The only way the Conservatives could wrest it from them is by taking a stand in the culture war. Little chance of that – the Tories don’t seem too sure which side they’re on.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (30/1/15)