Faith schools by stealth

Following the report on ‘faith schools by stealth’ published by investigative journalist Warwick Mansell last month, we reflect on the worrying rise of surreptitious religious influence in one of the UK’s largest academy chains and the wider problem of ‘faith ethos’ academies and mixed multi-academy trusts.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the proliferation of academies and free-schools has given rise to a do-as-you-like culture within the education system. There has been much literature written on the issue of the autonomy enjoyed by academies and free schools, but in short, these types of school have tended to use the autonomy afforded to them as an excuse for a lack of transparency, something which regrettably has gone largely unchallenged. This is seen no more clearly than in the arrangements for ‘faith ethos’ academies – both unfortunate by-products of academisation.

The problem with ‘faith ethos’ academies is that, although they are not legally registered as having a religious character, they are nonetheless run by an organisation with a religious ethos. These organisations can then use their religious character to influence and exert control over aspects of the governance, employment, and curriculum policies of the school.

Mansell, like Humanists UK before him, draws attention to one such chain of ‘faith ethos academies’, Oasis. Despite the organisation having a clear Christian ethos, the academies are not formally registered with the Department for Education (DfE) as religious schools. Official documents reveal that Oasis is:

‘motivated by the life, message and example of Christ’.

One ex-Oasis school governor, described the organisation as a ‘faith school by stealth’, whereby he was expected to ‘police the ‘Christian values’ of Oasis, making sure they were ‘permeating through the school’.

This type of back-door religious influence is absolutely unacceptable, and it raises some serious concerns around democracy and freedom of choice. It is a testament to just how permissive our education system has become to religious influence, and has only been made possible through academisation.

Schools should be obliged by the DfE to provide an accurate description of their ethos, religious or otherwise, providing parents and guardians with the information needed to make an informed decision on what type of school they would like their child to be educated in. To not provide parents with accurate information on a school’s religious ethos is tantamount to infringing on their freedom of choice. That’s not to mention that a third of state-funded schools are already faith schools – troubling enough without organisations like Oasis, the third-largest academy sponsor in the UK, operating clandestine religious schools.

Unfortunately, organisations like Oasis are not the only worry when it comes to ‘faith ethos’ academies. Mixed multi-academy trusts (MATs) also have very dubious policies around their religious character and influence in governance, employment, and the curriculum.

Mixed MATs are the result of a less than harmonious union between schools with no religious character and religious schools. The rules of the union can assign more than half (and at least 25%) of trustee control to the religious organisation involved in running the religious school (ordinarily a diocese), regardless of whether the number of schools with no religious character is greater than those with a religious character. Ridiculous, right? This means the schools with no religious character can effectively become run by a religious organisation.

‘Faith schools by stealth’ are being imposed on whole communities, parents, and young people without their informed consent, and remarkably this is breaking no laws. The DfE needs to urgently review its current educational policies. Parents and young people deserve transparency and openness when choosing a school and this back-door religious influence cannot continue to go unchecked.

FSA staff

‘One of the biggest scandals in Ofsted’s history’

“If inspectors are not independent from the schools they are inspecting, the welfare and education of children will always be at significant risk.”

A year and a half ago the British Humanist Association published an exposé revealing that since 2007 two Ofsted inspectors from the strictly Orthodox Charedi Jewish community had consistently given favourable reports to the Charedi schools they were inspecting, leading to doubts over their impartiality and independence. The two inspectors were subsequently dropped by Ofsted.

Since then, more or less all of the schools involved have been re-inspected by Ofsted, and the reports from those inspections reveal both the enormity of the scandal and the scale of the impact that it is likely to have had on the pupils whose education went without the oversight it so badly needed.

In 2009, one of the two inspectors, Chanan Tomlin, rated Gateshead Jewish Boarding School as ‘good’ in almost all areas – apart from in pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, for which he graded the school ‘outstanding’. In July 2016, however, when the school was re-inspected, inspectors found that ‘leaders and managers do not ensure that pupils are effectively prepared for life in British society’, that there was not sufficient ‘time during the school day to learn secular subjects’, and that pupils proficiency in English was under-developed. The school was deemed ‘inadequate’.

‘There were no formal mathematics or English lessons timetabled beyond year 9.’

In 2010, Chanan Tomlin also inspected Beis Hatalmud School in Manchester, rating it in exactly the same way as he had Gateshead Jewish Boarding School. However, when the school was re-inspected in 2015 it was deemed to ‘require improvement’, and a year after that the school was told that it hadn’t met the independent school standards. The reports note that ‘there were no formal mathematics or English lessons timetabled beyond year 9.’

In 2011, Talmud Torah Toldos Yakov Yosef was inspected by Chanan Tomlin too. It was awarded the same (and seemingly trademark) ‘good’ rating. The school has had four inspections since then, each of which has found that the school is failing to meet a variety of independent school standards.

A similar story is true of Talmud Torah Bobov Primary School, but in this case, both of the two inspectors involved in the scandal had previously inspected the school. In 2008, Chanan Tomlin rated the school as ‘good’, and in 2011 Jonathan Yodaiken (the other inspector) did the same. Fast forward to 2015 and the school is rated as ‘inadequate’ in every area. This included a failure to actively promote principles ‘which further tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions by enabling pupils to acquire an appreciation of and respect for their own and other cultures’ and a failure to effectively prepare ‘pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life in British society.’

In 2012 Wiznitz Cheder School in Hackney was inspected by Jonathan Yodaiken who rated it as ‘good’ in most areas, ‘outstanding’ in some. In 2016, inspectors identified ‘unmet independent school standards’. Safeguarding was inadequate, health and safety was inadequate, and the school leaders were found to be failing to fulfil all their responsibilities effectively.

In 2013 Chanan Tomlin rated Talmud Torah D’Chasidei Gur ‘outstanding’ overall. The ‘teaching is outstanding’, the ‘curriculum is outstanding’, the ‘leadership and management are outstanding’, he noted. However, at its next inspection in late 2015, the school was rated ‘inadequate’ across the board. ‘Outcomes for pupils are inadequate’, ‘the arrangements for safeguarding are ineffective’, and ‘the curriculum does not provide pupils with a sufficient breadth or depth of learning’, the report noted. In June 2016, after a follow-up inspection, the independent school standards were still not met.

“Leaders are aware that this disregards the protected characteristic of sexual orientation within the 2010 Equality Act.”

In 2014, Jonathan Yodaiken inspected Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass School in Clapton Common, London. He gave the school a ‘good’ rating, though it only narrowly missed out on an ‘outstanding’. Eight months later, in July 2015, the school received an emergency, no-notice inspection. The report stated that ‘the school does not promote pupils’ safety and well-being well enough’, that school leaders asserted that ‘English tuition beyond Key Stage 3 is provided at home’, and that ‘the school’s ethos identifies its founding principle as “unconditional adherence to the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law)”. Leaders are aware that this disregards the protected characteristic of sexual orientation within the 2010 Equality Act.’ The school has had two further inspections since then, the most recent just two months ago. It is still failing to meet all the necessary independent school standards.

Finally – you’ve probably got the message by now – Talmud Torah Yetev Lev in Salford was inspected by Jonathan Yodaiken in July 2013 and given ‘good’ ratings across the board. Unlike the schools above, however, it hasn’t been re-inspected since the BHA exposé. And this isn’t just despite all we know about the other schools. It’s also despite the fact that its sister school in Hackney, which shares the same name and the same proprietor, has been judged ‘inadequate’ and failed to meet the independent school standards on each of the last four occasions it has been inspected. Surely that’s cause for concern.

Unfortunately, Yetev Lev isn’t the only school that’s been neglected in this way. Tashbar of Manchester was rated good by Chanan Tomlin in 2012, but hasn’t been re-inspected since either. And there may well be others we don’t know about.

The relatively small amount of media attention that this story received when it broke 18 months ago – covered only in the education paper Schools Week – should not disguise the fact that this is one of the biggest scandals in Ofsted’s recent history. Ofsted is criticised constantly, of course, and a lot of that criticism fails to acknowledge how difficult a job it does. But if its inspectors are not independent from the schools they are inspecting, children are placed at significant risk. Its reaction to the BHA’s exposé has been largely positive, and they must be commended for that. But as our follow-up research demonstrates, they’ve still got work to do.

FSA team