Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman has said she is “cautiously optimistic” of progress having been made on illegal schools, with legislation thought to be in the offing.
The head of the national schools inspectorate was speaking during a parliamentary select committee’s online scrutiny session on Monday, as she addressed an issue that will impact the Orthodox Jewish community in population centres such as Hackney.
Yeshivas, similar to madrassas, are classed as illegal educational settings, but both local councils and Ofsted say they continue to operate for lack of legal powers to shut them down, calling for primary legislation from the government.
In the London borough of Hackney, home to the UK’s largest Orthodox Jewish population, there are an estimated 1,500 Jewish teenage boys learning in yeshivas, with the council strongly supporting Spielman’s call for primary legislation to help them deal with the issue.
Asked by Conservative MP David Simmonds, Spielman said it was “a serious problem that I care a lot about… It’s a tough one not least because it needs primary legislation to deal with some of the gaps in our powers”.
She said Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic meant that parliamentary time had been in short supply of late, but added that she was “nevertheless cautiously optimistic that things have been happening”.
She pointed to continued funding from the Department for Education (DfE) for Ofsted’s unregistered schools team and four successful prosecutions, adding that inspectors entering such premises now used body-worn cameras to collect evidence of operations.
“I think the judiciary is waking up to the scale and seriousness of the problem which is extremely welcome,” she said. “Initially the Crown Prosecution Service wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about taking these cases to court [but] everyone now understands that this is serious.”
Earlier this year the DfE began consulting on legislation needed to address the gap in legal powers through which illegal schools continue to operate, with no accountability by way of inspections, because they are not defined as schools.
“I’m very much hoping that legislative changes will come about in the not-too-distant future,” she said, although the Covid-19 emergency continued to be the priority. “I do get a sense that this is being treated with the seriousness that it deserves.”
The DfE consultation covers “the changes we’ve been looking for around the definition of a school and of full-time education,” she said, as well as the powers to shut the premises down.
“For us it is [also] around collecting evidence. We’ve been frustrated by being unable to pick up and of children’s exercise books, for example, that make clear what is being offered. At the moment the operators of an illegal school can simply pick up literally every piece of paper when we arrive and walk out with it.”
Fellow Conservative MP Christian Wakeford asked Spielman how Ofsted would be mindful of faith schools’ religious sensitivity when Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) becomes compulsory in September.
She said determining what was “age appropriate” teaching covering issues such as protected characteristics was “one of the greatest difficulties in this… it would have been helpful if the RSE guidance had extended to year-by-year specifics”. Spielman acknowledged that this would lead to a degree of “subjectivity”.
Committee chair Robert Halfon MP raised the issue of Ofsted’s criticism that Elizabeth I had been “airbrushed” from textbooks at Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in Stamford Hill, whose long-serving principal Rabbi Avrohom Pinter died from Covid-19 this month.
He said the school said it redacted one image of Elizabeth because it felt that image was immodest, adding that it showed how many faith schools felt Ofsted was “going in with a heavy hand”.
Spielman said: “I’m sorry but I’m happy to stand by our report on this one. We looked at the teaching materials in the school because the initial stuff we saw showed such widespread censorship.
“My recollection on the Elizabeth I example was that the entire chapter was glued together or in some way redacted. This wasn’t a question of an image. It was an entire chunk of history. Our inspectors saw extremely extensive restrictions and redactions in all the materials that were available to the girls.
“The inspection team came to see me to talk me through what they found. It was an extraordinarily extensive set of redactions… But of course we are very willing to have further discussions with the school.”