This week I was invited to the Bethnal Green Academy, a superb secondary school, Outstanding in Ofsted terms but from where last year three teenage girls absconded and left secretly for Syria.
So it was no surprise that this was the school at which the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan MP, announced a significant escalation of Ofsted investigations into unregistered, illegal independent schools, following the closure of 3 unregistered schools in Birmingham in late 2015. She also announced a new tougher approach to prosecuting illegal unregistered schools, including publishing details of when the government will take forward prosecutions and she issued a call to local authorities to identify any settings of concerns that Ofsted can follow through, with a commitment to strengthen closure powers. She also announced some other powers concerning children who go missing from school. So what, you might think, has this got to do with our sector, where the most likely scenario is of little Joshua or Sarah being taken out of school to attend a cousin’s wedding in Israel or grab some extra days in Marbella by extending half term by a day or three?
Well, as we learned only very recently, an unregistered strictly Orthodox primary school has been ordered to close by the Department for Education as it was operating outside the law.
Talmud Torah Tashbar in Stamford Hill, has been given one month to close. We all know that it is a criminal offence to operate an unregistered independent school, but the school’s apparently late application for registration was rejected and in late December 2015 it was told to close by 12 February 2016.
It seems that the whistle was blown, if that is the appropriate term, by the British Humanist Association, although the head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw has, we know, been pushing hard against illegal schools. His demand of tougher action from the DfE in recent weeks after three unregistered Muslims schools were discovered in Birmingham, seems to have had consequences far beyond the sector most often cited. One registered Orthodox primary school in Hackney, Chaim Meirim, had previously been at risk of closure after failing to meet inspection standards but the threat was lifted last year.
But in case you think that it is only the BHA who has our schools under the spotlight, let us not forget that a group representing former members of the Charedi community, GesherEU, recently wrote to the DfE to call for closer scrutiny of Orthodox schools and yeshivot, saying that they were failing to provide an adequate secular education. It seems that, in some parts of our sector, we are heading for a perfect storm.
So back at the Bethnal Green Academy, the Secretary of State launched ‘Educate Against Hate’, a sophisticated and well constructed webite, designed to alert parents, teachers and school leaders to the signs of radicalisation and what to do if you spot them. As John Hayes MP, the Minister of State for Security said, it will show you “where to look, what to see and how to respond”. The website is scrupulously neutral, so one can only wonder whether a parent who sees a Jewish teenager deciding to daven three times a day, demanding strict observance of the laws of kashrut in a home which is, shall we say, a little more lax, or wanting to dress more modestly than their peers, might fear that they, too had been ‘radicalised’?
After all, as the website,www.educateaginsthate.org, states ‘ Teenage years are often a time when young people will be searching for answers to questions about identity, faith and belonging, as well as looking for adventure and excitement. This can mean that they are particularly vulnerable to extremist groups, who may claim to offer answers, as well as identity and a strong social network. And because they know young people are vulnerable, extremist groups often target them using the internet and social media to spread their ideology. ‘
I commend the website to all involved in education, as it contains many excellent resources and ideas. But I cannot help wondering where it is all going to end?
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