The Ofsted head’s latest speech won’t allay the concerns of faith schools

“The last thing a chief inspector should be is a crusader.” So said the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, in a Guardian interview back in February. And yet the Ofsted chief has often been caught up in controversies over what she calls “muscular liberalism”, especially when she says her organisation should take a role against “those who actively undermine fundamental British values”.

Spielman has asked her inspectors to press young Muslim girls on why they wear the hijab. She has been forced to deny that Ofsted was singling out Jewish schools for criticism, after headteachers of traditional Jewish institutions said they seemed to get an unusually high number of visits. She has said that some schools use “the pretext of religious belief” to “pervert the purpose of education” and “indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology”. Given the consistent theme, Catholic schools will be among those who are watching closely.

If this were a campaign against Islamist extremism and the threat of terrorism, few would complain. But terror prevention is beyond Ofsted’s remit; and Spielman’s project is far more idealistic, to judge by her speech last week at the influential Tory-leaning think tank Policy Exchange. Spielman said she wanted “to explore why the promotion of British values is important in encouraging cohesion and integration, and so why responsibility for promoting them must fall to our schools”.

The “British values” agenda has been much mocked since the Coalition government first came up with it in 2011: it is supposed to encompass democracy, liberty, tolerance and the rule of law. Spielman defended the concept, while acknowledging its difficulties. For instance, her speech pointed out that, while “democracy” is on the list of values, “barely more than a quarter of so-called millennials in this country believe that democracy is essential”.

Spielman, however, sees the contested nature of “British values” as a call to spread them more widely: “We cannot simply take them for granted,” Spielman told Policy Exchange.

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