Hearing the voices

To what extent should the British State be involved with the religious, cultural and family background of the children and young people for which it has the responsibility to educate? To what extent should parents of children coming to the United Kingdom be expected to comply with the educational aims and objectives of the British educational system? In a multi-cultural society, should all expressions of religious faith and cultural practices be treated with equal value? These and other related questions are implicit in the recently published Ofsted Report 2018/19.
The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) is a non-ministerial department of the UK government, reporting to Parliament. Founded in 1992, with a jurisdiction covering England and its headquarters located in London, Ofsted is responsible for inspecting a range of educational institutions, including state schools and some independent schools. It has staffing and a budget to match its range of responsibilities.
The current Chief Inspector of Ofsted is Amanda Spielman and, on the 21st. of January 2020, she gave a speech which launched Ofsted’s Annual Report for 2018/19. In this report, Amanda Spielman discussed the quality of education, training and care services in England. Following the publication of the report, Ms Spielman was duly interviewed by the television presenter Sophie Ridge on the latter’s Sunday morning current affairs programme on Sky News.
During this interview Amanda Spielman focused on the section of the latest Ofsted report which dealt with “Children’s Social Care”. The Ofsted report considered that “making good decisions for children lies at the heart of our approach to social care”, and Amanda Spielman emphasized that, where these “most vulnerable children” are concerned, the Ofsted inspectorate always wants to see that “the right decisions are taken by those with the power and responsibility to help them”.
In acknowledging that there are still some weaknesses in the system of Ofsted’s approach to social care, the 2018/19 Ofsted Report stated that, despite “a context of increasing demand, children’s services are still chronically under-resourced” However, the report also states that “Better ways of working would also help improve the overall picture for children” and would help to strengthen some of the weaknesses in the system.
The report highlights five themes that needed a “joined-up approach” in order to combat common areas of weakness in children’s services. These themes were;
• Child sexual exploitation
• Domestic abuse
• Neglect of older children
• Child criminal exploitation and – most recently –
• Sexual abuse in the family.
With the above in mind, in her interview with Sophie Ridge, the Ofsted Chief Inspector commented that a weakness in the children’s services can be seen, in the words of the Ofsted Annual Report for 2018/19, in the “scandalous failure to tackle sexual exploitation of children because to do so meant crossing lines of race, culture and religion, with all their inherent sensitivities.”
In both the 2018/19 Ofsted Report and her Ridge interview, Amanda Spielman was tacitly acknowledging that the education of many children – especially those in the “most vulnerable situations” – was being hindered by the religious beliefs and practices, the faith culture, of their family background. Furthermore, the necessity to address this cultural situation was something of which educational authorities, indeed political responsibility, was wary of confronting.
However, Amanda Spielman insists that Ofsted, “as well as speaking truth to power, won’t duck controversy or difficult topics.” So too, recognizing that “bad things can happen”, nevertheless, “everyone with a responsibility for children must speak openly and honestly about these.” Some subjects that are “inherently taboo” would include the following:
• Schools illegally segregating pupils and giving girls a much worse deal than boys
• Books in schools that promote corporal punishment
• Materials that say that a wife cannot deny their husband
• Teaching materials are censored to airbrush women out of history, even including Queen Elizabeth 1st.
It is implicit in both the Ofsted Report 2018/19 and Amanda Spielman’s interview with Sophie Ridge that, repeatedly, reported findings that should have led to proper public discussion of some very difficult issues, have failed to do so. But the voices are not being heard with the required level of clarity and too few people “are willing to tread in these sensitive areas and that real concerns drop out of sight almost at once.”
Moreover, it can be realized that many people find it difficult to acknowledge that, in contemporary British society, “the different rights we value are not always easy to reconcile with each other.” Some of the areas where tensions have been evident would include the following:
• The interaction of religious freedom with the law of the land
• Rights for groups versus rights for individuals, especially girls
• The extent of parents’ rights over children
• The differing perceptions in different sections of society as to what constitutes a family or a relationship.
Yet, in the view of the Chief Inspector and the Ofsted Report 2018/19, schools are often where these tensions play out. Amanda Spielman further mentions that, during the period of the current report, “a small number of state schools were picketed and bullied by protestors. Some were undoubtedly parents, but many others were seasoned agitators, wanting to escalate problems.”
In attributing causation for this action, the report is very careful in stating that the subject of the demonstrator’s anger was relationships education in primary school – which generally amounts “to telling children that there are different types of families, some with a mum and a dad, some with just one parent, some with only grandparents, and some with two mums or two dads.”
Out of this simple concept, protestors, on this occasion belonging to the Islamic faith constructed “a depressing tissue of exaggeration, outrage and, sometimes, lies. Children were not actually being taught about the mechanics of gay sex; and they were not being turned towards homosexuality, nor away from their families and their faith.”
To paraphrase an important section of the report: in consequence of the sensitive nature of issues (such as those above), and the sometime volatile reaction to any discussion of them, it is often the case that there is no swift condemnation from government and remarkably little from national and local political leaders. Powerful voices are often muted. Headteachers are isolated. Overall, leadership is lacking.
Though not explicitly stated, the Ofsted Report 2018/19 clearly indicates the tensions in children’s education and care between the aims and objectives of a national curriculum and the religious and cultural background of the students the curriculum seeks to serve. The tensions are evident; the solutions are more of a problem.
In my next blog I will seek to present one such solution.


About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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