Why education expert Michael is trying to teach Ofsted a lesson

FORMER law student Michael Cohen is one of the foremost experts in Jewish education.

After 10 years at Jews’ College, London, where he gained three degrees, he qualified in education at London University.

His first position was as director of Jewish studies at North West London Jewish Day School, where he introduced the school’s first-ever Jewish studies curriculum.

He was so successful there that he was headhunted by Melbourne’s Mount Scopus Memorial College as headmaster.

Mount Scopus was then the largest Jewish school in the world. Yet like NWLJDS, before his arrival it had no Jewish studies curriculum nor professional staff development programme, both of which he introduced.

He also initiated parental education and special education programmes.

In 1980, Mr Cohen returned to the UK to take up the position of executive director of London’s Board of Religious Education, which ran six local Jewish schools.

Once again, until his arrival, the schools had neither a Jewish studies curriculum nor a professional staff development programme, both of which he introduced.

He was also responsible for providing informal Jewish education for eight Jewish youth clubs, as well as a publications department, which produced Jewish educational resource material used worldwide.

Four years later, Mr Cohen established London’s Institute of Jewish Education, which ran training programmes for staff in 60 Jewish schools in this country, more than 100 pre-school centres and 700 teachers.

Mr Cohen later spread his talents further afield, advising Jewish schools in resurgent Jewish communities in Central European countries, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, as well as Gibraltar and Australia.

At the age of 76, Mr Cohen is still as busy as ever, commuting one day a week to a Gateshead seminary, where he provides teacher training, as well as in London.

But his greatest task at the moment is to try to help the charedi community deal with its ongoing Ofsted crisis.

Although Mr Cohen, who has worked all his life with the mainstream Jewish community, describes himself as “not quite one of them”, after working with charedi schools for 20 years, he is trusted by the charedi community.

He said: “They know I won’t do anything to hurt them.”

Looking back over his near half-a-century involvement in Jewish education in this country, he told me: “We had some very good years when the authorities were very good to us.

“They allowed us to open Jewish schools. We now have well over 100, many of them charedi.”

But, he added: “The last couple of years things have changed dramatically.”

He put the principal blame for the current deterioration in relations between Ofsted and charedi schools on the British Humanist Association.

He said: “They decided to have a campaign against all faith schools and convinced the authorities that they should be much tougher and more demanding on us.

“For years we were never bothered with that sort of thing. A small, almost insignificant organisation somehow managed to persuade the Department for Education to change its entire attitude to faith schools.”

He decried the fact that this had happened in “a country which is very much established on faith, where the Queen is the Defender of the Faith, a country built on religious principles, where religion is a key part of society”.

Having worked with the educational authorities for decades, Mr Cohen suspects that examiners might be secretly jealous of the attainments of large, mainstream Jewish schools, like King David in Manchester, JFS and Hasmonean Grammar schools.

He said: “These have done extremely well, yet sometimes in a fraction of the time other schools do, taking into account the amount of time they spend on Jewish studies, which is not part of the National Curriculum.

“The authorities are really shown up as running a very poor system when we are able to achieve, not comparative, but better results in a fraction of the time.

“Our success has been, in a way, a slap in the face to them. It has created a kind of embarrassment to the authorities.”

But he said inspectors did not generally come down too hard on these large, mainstream schools, as their general performances were so good.

It was the religiously right-wing schools which were currently bearing the brunt of Ofsted ire.

He said: “When inspectors come, if a school is not doing well generally, they will pick on something.

“In a school like Hasmonean, which is a very good school, they can’t fail them on things like LGBT issues, when they are doing very well.

“They fail right-wing schools on many other areas besides, like health and safety, lack of proper leadership and poor administration.”

Mr Cohen said: “I work with these schools all the time. The sometimes lack of professional leadership, professional teaching and poor standard of education frustrates me enormously because Ofsted will highlight these inadequacies.”

On the many unregistered charedi schools, Mr Cohen said: “I make it clear to the schools I work with that they have to get registered, otherwise they are breaking the law.

“The problem is that it is always easier to highlight something black and white. It is difficult for inspectors to prove that teaching standards are poor. But they can ask whether they are teaching about gay marriage or not.”

Mr Cohen admitted that the situation was unfairly biased against charedi schools.

He said: “I met with Schools Minister Nick Gibb and told him that the law was that every school has to have a collective act of daily worship. But not all schools have that.

“I have never seen that failing mentioned in any Ofsted report. Yet inspectors are focusing on a law which is not as strong, like the teaching of areas of certain lifestyles which are not as clear cut. He was embarrassed.”

He continued: “Ofsted should be doing what the Department for Education tells it to do. But in the last few years, the DfE’s control over Ofsted has weakened and Ofsted is very much running the show.

“It begrudgingly gives praise, highlighting on three to four full pages what the problem is and then in six lines saying that the relationship between the teachers and the children is very good, that the children are confident and well-behaved.”

He commented: “When you consider what’s going on in the rest of the country, where teachers are routinely assaulted and there is knife crime, it is definitely very unfair the way our schools are portrayed in Ofsted reports.

“They are weighted to the negative. Very little credit is given. A fraction of the amount of focus is on the good rather than the bad.”

However, Mr Cohen is more confident that a compromise can be reached than he was weeks ago.

He said: “I think the authorities are going to have to step back a little and compromise.

“If there is to be any successful end to this problem, both sides will have to dig in a little. Orthodox schools are not going to do anything against Jewish law.

“I hope Damian Hinds, the new Education Secretary, who is a family man, understands the importance of our Jewish schools and will persuade prime minister Theresa May that Ofsted should tone down this crusade against us.

“At the end of the day, the authorities don’t want to lose a network of faith schools. If it wouldn’t be for faith schools, the standards in the other state schools would drop.

“The state system is so poor that we stand out as beacons of light. Find me a Jewish school where someone has been threatened with a knife, beaten up by pupils. How many Orthodox kids are in juvenile delinquency institutions?

“We are a law-abiding, successful community. That has to be acknowledged.”

© 2018 Jewish Telegraph