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Chair of Education Select Committee defends Jewish school that blacked out pictures of Elizabeth I because they were ‘immodest’

The chair of the Education Select Committee today defended the actions of a school caught red-handed censoring history and science textbooks, as well as abuse helpline information, and accused Ofsted of going into religious schools with ‘a very heavy hand’ and ‘without any understanding of the needs and beliefs of faith communities.’

Questioning Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman during a virtual meeting of the Education Select Committee, chair Robert Halfon raised the case of Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School, which was slammed by Ofsted for blacking out pictures of Elizabeth I in history textbooks, as part of a pattern of homophobic, misogynist, and anti-scientific censorship applied to classroom materials. In a speech to launch Ofsted’s annual report in January, Spielman highlighted the example expressing concern that some religious schools were ‘airbrushing women out of history’.

Mr Halfon said the school, who ‘felt the accusation was incredibly untrue,’ had only blacked out a picture of Elizabeth because ‘it was immodest’. Mr Halfon went on to say that the school claimed there ‘were many other pictures of the queen and other female leaders’ and that they do teach about them. However, Ms Spielman stood firmly by the content of the report, saying the materials showed ‘widespread censorship’ including an ‘entire chapter’ on Elizabeth I that was ‘glued together’. In 2019, an investigation by BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show also found that Yesodey Hatorah had been encouraging the mass withdrawal of pupils from Relationships and Sex Education (RSE). Nevertheless, Mr Halfon repeatedly urged Ofsted to ‘open up a dialogue’ with the school, appearing to accept the claim that they have been ‘unfairly treated’.

Humanists UK – which has long campaigned for a fully inclusive school system that is suitable for all children regardless of background – expressed concern that the chair saw fit to defend religious censorship in schools and that lines of questioning by the chair and other committee members – including one on how inspections of RSE could be ‘sensitive to the beliefs of faith schools’ –  appeared to suggest the inspectorate should hold faith schools to different standards than other types of school.

During the session, MPs also posed questions about proposed new powers to tackle unregistered schools which Ms Spielman said showed the issue was finally being ‘taken with the seriousness it deserves’. She nevertheless expressed concern about the extent to which the coronavirus might hinder the progress of new laws enabling Ofsted to investigate or close such settings.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: 

‘All children have the right to a rigorous, broad, and balanced education across all subjects, including science and history. Ofsted has carried out its duties proportionately and has done a good job of putting children first by holding to account those schools which fail to meet basic standards. This includes shocking instances where religious schools have censored out evolution, or such things as the treatment of gay people in Nazi Germany, or the role of women in history like Elizabeth I.

‘Unfortunately, the select committee has a poor history of holding religious schools and other religious providers to account, and would seemingly prefer Ofsted to retract well-evidenced reports of bad practice than guarantee an equal standard of education to children in those schools. This is a fundamentally wrongheaded approach and we would strongly urge them to rethink their position.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Ruth Wareham at ruth@humanism.org.uk or phone 020 7324 3000 or 0772 511 0860.

Read our most recent article about Jewish school with no English books in the library which barred pupils from GCSE examinations

Read our piece on how Jewish schools, including Yesodey Hatorah, encouraged mass withdrawal from RSE

Read our article on a Policy Exchange report urging Ofsted to let primaries ignore LGBT people

Read our article about the 40% of independent religious schools that fail to meet Ofsted standards

Read more about our work on state-funded and private faith schools

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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