Teachers have long complained about the amount of political meddling in Britain’s education system. “Political considerations are in my opinion too much suffered to influence the whole working of the system of public education in Britain,” said English poet and cultural critic, Matthew Arnold, who worked as an inspector of schools in 1858. Little seems to have changed since th
A national scheme of school inspections was reconstituted in 1992 to become known as the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). But it did not help headteachers to have much faith in the quality of inspections. Even a 2007 parliamentary report found it “not fit for purpose”. In addition as recently as 2013 when the fresh controversy was provoked over the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal. Behind it was apparently intimidation from the then Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Despite a succession of chairs, has done little to improve its discredited image. Worse still it would appear to be not just a convenient Government tool to implement its misguided counter-terrorism policies, but apparently susceptible to a multitude of influences by lobbies and protest groups. The announcement that inspectors are to target and question Muslim primary aged girls who wear a hijab is a step far beyond its mandate.
Although the announcement is being tentatively presented as a recommendation to inspectors rather than an update in Ofsted’s official handbook, the current chief inspector Amanda Spielman needs to take a deep breath. Her candidature for the job had unusually been rejected by MPs at the Education Select Committee, who had “significant concerns” about her suitability and noted her lack of vision, experience or interest in building bridges with the professions. And it appears that she is showing this in practice. If she wasn’t entirely convinced about the outrage it would cause then she only needs to read some of the feedback from 100 Muslim women collated by the Muslim Council of Britain. Not only is it offensive and odious to claim that wearing a hijab “could be interpreted as sexualisation” of girls as young as four, the excuse just does not wash. It must be reverse logic to suggest that wearing short skirts and crop tops is not seen as sexualising young girls but to cover up is.
Ofsted is allowing itself to be misused. Like other agencies, it is already required to look suspiciously on all Muslims as potential terrorists as part of the ill-founded Prevent duty. It seems to now be caught up as a stooge in the wave of Islamophobia sweeping the country. Spielman appears to be giving in to such pressure groups as the Social Action and Research Foundation and the National Secular Society that have their own obvious vested agendas.
The inspectorate has more than enough on its plate in improving educational standards in schools. Children also have many social issues and problems which needs to be dealt with. But the question must be asked why this targeting of Muslims appears to be taking precedence over Ofsted’s core objectives. Their interference not only concerns religious issues but that of a mother’s rights and is misguided. The agency seems to have become sucked into the misconceptions about the hijab and fears within the community is that the aim is for an eventual sweeping ban.
Ofsted’s recommendation is also clearly discriminating against Muslims. No dress code requirements are being considered against other communities. Primary school children may be forced to wear a turban or a kippah in alignment with their religious and cultural requirements with no similar concern. This is institutionalised Islamophobia.
“The freethinking of one age is the common sense of the next” was one of Arnold’s sayings. Unfortunately, Ofsted has learnt nothing. Its biggest challenge is to work towards an inspectorate system that seeks to judge the broader criteria of education and not be bogged down in responding to meddling by politicians and lobbyists and interpreting what are “British values”. It demands an inspectorate system of Arnoldian rigour, independence and creativity to hold it to account. It can start by actually listening to Muslim mothers.