Ofsted under fire after failing ultra-Orthodox Jewish school for being too religious
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
A damning Ofsted report into an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school has raised serious concerns that the government watchdog does not treat faith schools fairly.
Talmud Torah Tiferes Shlomoh, in Golders Green, has been branded a failing school by Ofsted, which judged it spends too much time teaching Jewish religious studies.
Pupils at the all-boys independent school are therefore “inadequately prepared for life in modern Britain”, inspectors ruled under guidelines brought in following the Trojan Horse Islamic extremism scandal in Birmingham schools last year.
But the verdict has prompted the National Association for Orthodox Jewish Schools to hit out at Ofsted, saying it is unduly harsh to strictly religious Jewish schools.
Executive director Jonathan Rabson said: “We have been very concerned recently about the high-handed approach of Ofsted in relation to their inspection of strictly orthodox schools, especially those in the independent sector.
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“We have gone on record as saying that inspectors have often used insensitive and inappropriate questions with faith schools and have failed to understand the religious context that underpins the ethos of the schools, judging them by secular standards.”
But in a statement, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said: “As a former headteacher of a Catholic secondary school, the charge that I am presiding over some sort of state-sponsored, anti-faith school ‘witch-hunt’ would be laughable – were it not so serious.
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“I have long been a staunch supporter and proponent of faith schools in this country, believing that they are a valuable and enduring feature of our education landscape.
“Let me offer this unequivocal reassurance – the vast majority of faith schools have nothing to fear either from Ofsted or from the recent guidance issued by the department for education on promoting British values as part of the curriculum.”
Most of the Talmud Torah Tiferes Shlomoh’s 219 pupils go on to secure places at Jewish religious colleges, known as yeshivas, which focus on the study of the Talmud and Torah.
The school for boys aged three to 15, in Elmcroft Crescent, is rated highly by parents and the Jewish community and places are often over-subscribed.
In 2010 and 2007, the school was judged by Ofsted to provide a “good” standard of education.
But by last month, following a snap inspection in January, this was downgraded to the lowest possible rating of “inadequate”.
Ofsted said the school does not teach pupils basic skills such as spelling, grammar and punctuation. Pupils mostly learn to read in Hebrew and lack fluency in reading English as a result, the inspector said.
Pupils only learn a restricted set of secular subjects and are “shielded” from learning about sex, drugs or sexual orientation, the inspector wrote.
Conservative Finchley and Golders Green parliamentary candidate Mike Freer said he was very surprised at Ofsted’s remarks.
“I’m very happy to raise any concerns the school has with Ofsted itself,” he pledged. “Faith schools do an extremely good job but they do have to prepare pupils for the wider world.”
But Trudy Gold, a former director of education at the London Jewish Cultural Centre in Golders Green, said the report is part of a worrying new trend in faith schools.
“I don’t think Ofsted is picking on Orthodox Jewish schools,” she said. “I think it’s more of a fear that we are breeding extremism in our society and I find it quite dangerous, whether it be Jewish, Muslim or evangelical Christian.”
She added: “I think it’s difficult for faith schools to find the balance, but it’s vital for an integrated society.”
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler, of Belsize Square Synagogue in Belsize Park, added his concerns.
“Jewish schools should follow the same rules as everybody else,” he said. “Jewish schools, Muslim schools, Christian schools all have the same obligation to be part of our greater society.”
The school declined to comment.