Our community recently received a gift of sorts from OFSTED, when it formally stated that it would no longer penalise primary schools for not teaching about all 9 protected characteristics. I’m told that this has been the Department for Education’s recommendation for a number of years, but, until last week, OFSTED insisted on their own interpretation of the requirements around the Equalities Act 2010. This move finally frees good Charedi primary schools from being punished for complying with the wishes of their parent bodies. Of course, the updated guidance leaves secondary schools stuck in the same bind, but it is nevertheless a welcome step forward and long-overdue relief for school leaders.
The most important thing about this policy change, however, is not that it puts an end to the persecution of good primary schools. Even more crucially, it removes the figleaf used by the bad ones, which, let us not forget, represent the majority of Charedi boys’ schools. For the last seven years, school leaders presiding over chaotic and ineffective Chol departments have used the spectre of a secularist campaign to sexualise children as a smokescreen for their failure to teach children how to read and write. Now that schools will be judged solely on criteria that are important to ordinary Charedi parents, they have no legitimate excuses left.
This has the potential to be a real turning point for our community. When I first became involved in Chol education, I found a culture of apathy built on a mish-mash of three, logically contradictory but emotionally complementary, beliefs. The first was that Chol wasn’t really that bad and that, while Chassidishe boys might have a few rough edges, they picked up the basics and their overall literacy and numeracy was in the same general ballpark as mainstream children. The second was that it’s impossible to raise Chol standards and we had to be ‘realistic’ about what Chassidishe schools are like. The third was that Chol didn’t really matter anyway and it’s just something we tack onto the end of the school day to make the authorities happy, so who cares?
The situation now is entirely different. While fundamental hashkafas haven’t changed much, the whole tone of the conversation about Chol has been transformed. There are, of course, still extremists in the community who regard English literacy as intrinsically evil, but the consensus in most Chadorim is that Chol is important, Chol is here to stay, and Chol needs to be fixed. A number of factors have contributed to bringing about this change; there’s no doubt, however, that the main one has been seven years of consistent pressure by OFSTED and the DfE: nothing quite clears away the mental cobwebs like the prospect of a closing order. That’s why, for all the criticisms I have made of OFSTED’s missteps and blunders, I will always maintain that we desperately need the scrutiny that only they can provide.
Forcing the leadership of Charedi schools to develop a will to change is no small achievement, but we must remember that it’s only the first step. The sad truth, though, is that the new sense of urgency that the authorities have created in Charedi schools has, as of yet, generated more heat than light. Because the road to success is both so long and so uncertain, schools don’t know where to start. Bereft of a plan to actually become a good school, what they tend to do is simulate the outward signs of a successful educational institution, cargo-cult fashion, with a familiar roster of educational consultants more than happy to provide the cargo. Since funds are now forthcoming schools lay out money on fancy textbooks, syllabuses, lesson plans, tracking systems and policies, which can be procured straight away, but the real effect on children’s education is negligible. In fact, the real level of chol in chedorim is, under the surface, getting slowly but steadily worse, as the chronic shortage of capable teachers gets more acute under the pressure of demographic growth.
The only way forward is for schools to change their goal from a vague idea of satisfying OFSTED by running a mini afternoon version of a mainstream state school and, instead, work step by step towards providing a quality education, leaving the bells and whistles to the end. The roadmap to success can be planned out by looking at the two examples – one in Stamford Hill and one in Northwest London – of chedorim that have worked their way to the status of Good schools. I won’t bore you here with all the details, but the basics are quite clear. First, English lessons must start in Reception, with a full phonics programme in Year 1. It isn’t necessary to have more than two hours a day for Chol, but it is essential that every minute of these hours be used effectively, which requires an effective behaviour and discipline strategy. Most importantly, competent teachers must be sought out not at the end of a rainbow, but among the hundreds of qualified female professionals right on our doorstep. I have laid out the case for this in detail elsewhere, but the key point is that it’s the only way to ensure that children are taught to read, write and add up.
This is where OFSTED, too, must change their approach. Instead of maintaining the fiction that they are dealing with basically normal schools that suddenly morphed into third-world institutions around seven years ago when, coincidentally, OFSTED started paying attention, it must recognise the need for a special inspection framework that uses carrots and sticks to guide Charedi schools on a specifically Charedi path to success. By assessing schools that are literally off the charts according to mainstream standards, OFSTED creates an irresistible incentive for schools to fake it until they make it, which they never do. Schools that address their real problems through realistic solutions that work in the Charedi system need to be recognised and, to some extent rewarded, even during the intermediate period where they are still objectively well below standards. Schools that try to wow inspectors with shiny curriculums that playact at implementing the National Curriculum need to be given specific instructions about what they should do instead.
OFSTED’s policy of forcing Charedi schools to teach Charedi children about the diverse sexual preferences protected by law was never anything more than a fever dream. Let us all be glad that it’s now, for the time being, behind us. The idea, however, that Chol in Chedorim can be fixed by applying the standard toolkit that OFSTED uses for dealing with typical failing schools is, in its own way, no less delusional. In education, as in so many areas of life, it’s not enough to be right, you have to be smart too.
Gemar Chasimah Tovah