Jewish school found redacting textbooks put into special measures

A Jewish girls’ school which redacted textbooks showing men and women on the same page, paintings by Picasso and bare skin on ankles, wrists or necks has been placed in special measures.

Ofsted has condemned the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School in north London, which teaches pupils exclusively from the Charedi community, as ‘inadequate’ and warned of serious failings in the curriculum and safeguarding at the school.

During the inspection in March, Ofsted found a “prevalent redaction of textbooks, fiction and non-fiction texts” in the school library, including Sherlock Holmes, that had been enforced by the principal, Rabbi Pinter, and school governors.

Inspectors found “the majority” of pictures in books on major artists such as Picasso had been blanked out, as had books with photographs portraying men and women on the same page, for instance in a crowd. Paragraphs in English comprehension passages had been redacted and whole chapters in some texts had been stuck together.

In a text on Elizabethan England, leaders had redacted sections relating to the queen’s supremacy and the Puritan challenge. Staff had systematically gone through every book to blank out any bare skin in pictures featuring ankles, wrists or necks.

All fiction texts offered had a single faith perspective, and the biography section “focuses primarily on the achievements of Jewish men”.

School leaders also “tightly control” the curriculum and “prohibit pupils from learning key information”, including refusing to teach animal or human reproduction in science lessons and offering only a “restricted” teaching on global warming.

The school’s principal and governors were “unable to explain the origin of the detailed policy on redaction, or who decides what is redacted in texts across the school.” Humanists UK reported on the extent of the redactions in March.

Pupils do not receive sex education lessons, and the majority of PSHE is taught through the religious curriculum.

Safeguarding was also strongly criticised at the school, as Ofsted noted that leaders “deliberately restrict” pupils’ access to advice and guidance about how to keep safe in the world. This included the redaction of helpline numbers from books.

Although the report acknowledged good behaviour at Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School, and said achievement was above average by the end of key stage four, it also warned that the quality of teaching was not good enough.

“The majority of teachers are unqualified and many are inexperienced. Teachers’ subject knowledge varies enormously,” inspectors wrote.

However, Theo Bibelman, the chairman of governors at the school, has criticised Ofsted for making the school a part of a “secularist plot”.

He accused the watchdog of having “downplayed our successes and academic achievements whilst showing a clear disrespect for the Orthodox Jewish community.

“We were appalled at the way the Ofsted inspectors treated our staff and students and we have made that clear to the relevant government authorities,” he said. “It seems that unless we agree with the secularist agenda of Ofsted London then we cannot comply with their inspection criteria.

“We are always striving to improve our school, and we continue to do so, but the nature of this inspection and the resulting report has led to us feeling part of a secularist plot. This inspection was never about us. It is about Ofsted using their unfettered powers to try to force faith schools to comply with their agenda or fail.”

The report also directly acknowledged the tension between the wants and needs of the religious community and the statutory duty on the school as prescribed by the government.

It warned that the principal and governors judge the school’s effectiveness “in terms of the school’s own values, reflecting the expectations of their immediate community, rather than their statutory obligations as prescribed by the Department for Education”. These are “incompatible in several respects”.

Although inspectors acknowledged that the acting headteacher’s plans to implement some changes are in place, including improving the quality of PSHE, they warned that “during the inspection it became clear that pressure from governors and parents sometimes thwarts their attempts to make improvements in line with current legislation.”

A spokesperson for Ofsted insisted all schools are inspected “against the same framework and standards”.

“All schools have a duty to actively promote fundamental British values, provide a rich and broad curriculum and ensure that pupils are kept safe. That is what parents expect and the law demands.

“Faith schools are entirely at liberty to teach the tenets of their faith on social issues,” he added. “However, they must also comply with the law and ensure that pupils are properly prepared for life in modern Britain. The vast majority of faith schools see no tension in doing this.”

Last month, the Yesodey Hatorah boys’ independent school was one of 26 recipients of private school warning notices released by the DfE.