Ofsted Chief On Equality, School Cuts And The Widespread 'Confusion' Over Mental Illness

Amanda Spielman says teachers should not pre-emptively raise suicide or anorexia with children and that the UK must not "accidentally let go" of female equality gains.

Brexit has dominated the headlines during Amanda Spielman’s two years as chief inspector of schools at Ofsted.

But between funding cuts, teachers’ growing workloads and a sharp rise in pupil exclusions, education has never been far from the spotlight.

Spielman, who will serve another three years in the top job, said it is “almost certainly too early to tell” if Theresa May, who stood down as PM this week, leaves behind a legacy in schools.

But the 58-year-old, who is careful never to share a view not supported by Ofsted’s own data, has a long to-do list for May’s successor.

“The biggest concerns we have seen in inspection has been about the treatment of girls,” she tells HuffPost UK.

Spielman says there are some faith schools, both “state and independent” of varying faiths, where “segregation [is happening] in a way which is setting girls up for a narrow and restricted adult life.”

She says she finds it “very concerning, where we see girls’ lives being shut down.”

While this has been highlighted at some schools in Birmingham, Spielman fears it is a wider problem playing out at faith schools across England.

“It is happening in a small number of state schools but also in an increasing number of independent schools, where we have quite a lot of concerns about the narrowness of experience, girls in particular are really not being prepared for life in modern Britain,” she says. “This is something I would pick out as an area of concern.”

In an inspection of an Islamic school in Birmingham, Ofsted found boys and girls from the age of 9 “literally would not see each other from when they walked through the door to when they left school for the day”.

Spielman adds: “The girls always had what was left over from the boys, they would eat after the boys, everything was designed around boys’ first and then boys.”

Amanda Spielman has been chief inspector of schools for two years.
Amanda Spielman has been chief inspector of schools for two years.
PA Wire/PA Images

A book explaining circumstances in which men could beat their wives and should be disciplined was also found in a prominent place on the shelf.

Spielman says discrimination against girls at a young age in schools is a “significant worry” for Ofsted and “isn’t a problem that is specific to one religious group”.

“These girls are British citizens, just like every other girl in the country,” she says. “We sometimes get focused on the thing that is getting particular attention in the media, but equality for girls and women took a long time to achieve and we mustn’t accidentally let go of it.”

Appointed by ex-education secretary Nicky Morgan, Spielman spoke to HuffPost about a wide range of issues, from food poverty to female equality.

One area requiring improvement, Spielman says, is how schools are handling mental health.

She believes there is a “great deal of confusion” around the scale and seriousness of the spectrum of mental health issues and it is in some cases damaging children’s development.

“As a nation, we have started taking mental health much more seriously, which is a good thing, but we haven’t yet quite grasped what are the minor lumps and bumps that actually don’t need professional treatment and what are the things that do,” she says.

It means specialist care capacity is hit, with child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) workers often left “explaining to teenagers that their unhappiness was completely normal” and that “they would come to feel better” without specialist treatment.

“you shouldn’t talk to children pre-emptively anorexia or suicide; you are more likely to encourage them to think about those things”

- Amanda Spielman, Ofsted chief

“Teachers are not mental health experts,” she stresses.

A combination of good intentions and misunderstanding the complexity of mental illness could have more dangerous consequences, she adds, saying that she believes introducing the subjects of anorexia or suicide as part of lessons or assemblies should be ruled out completely.

“There are some kinds of support that [a teacher] might give a child that might look superficially like you are being helpful but actually people who are professionally trained in mental health know that it is exactly the wrong thing to talk to children about,” she says.

“You might think it is a good thing to do assemblies on this or to talk to children about that, but [...] you shouldn’t talk to children pre-emptively anorexia or suicide; you are more likely to encourage them to think about those things or take an interest if you bring them to their attention.”

Spielman believes the NHS should be doing more to support schools on this issue.

“You don’t want schools to be making it up on the hoof,” she says. “You want the community health partnership to say ‘here are things we think are useful in schools’ and to be age appropriate.”

Spielman has previously raised the alarm about the rise in exclusions – there was a rise of 1,000 between 2016 and 2017, putting the figure at around 40-a-day. Ofsted also recently published research on ‘off-rolling’ – where a child is removed from the school roll for the school’s benefit, rather than in the child’s best interests – which showed two-thirds of teachers thought it was on the rise.

It has led some to question whether the phenomenon, which many blame on school cuts, could be contributing to the spike in youth violence.

This is wide of the mark, says Spielman.

“If somebody is carrying a serious knife concealed into school, they may well need help but saying ‘they are going through a difficult time so we shouldn’t say anything to anybody’ is not a great way to approach it,” she says.

“A school is not a social services department... I don’t think we should be asking teachers to be therapists.”

- Amanda Spielman, Ofsted chief

She adds that the demise of early intervention under austerity had knock-on problems for young people. “Schools are not law enforcement agencies or surveillance agencies,” she says.

“A school is not a social services department and you want that good connection and co-ordination [with police and local authorities] but I don’t think we should be asking teachers to be therapists.”

From closing early on Fridays to fundraising to pay for books and pens, teachers have repeatedly claimed that school cuts are having a detrimental effect on education.

There is strong evidence to suggest they are right, with the respected thinktank the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) concluding there has been an 8% drop in per-pupil funding since 2010.

Spielman does not see the cutbacks having an impact, something she pointed out in her 2018, controversially telling teachers there was “no evidence” to support claims children’s education was being harmed.

“Despite the financial pressure on schools, we haven’t seen any worrying trends in inspection outcomes,” she say.

She says schools are having problems adjusting as well as struggling to cope with children who would have got support through the increasingly-sparse Sure Start or early intervention services.

She says: “Local authority budgets for children’s services have fallen very substantially and they, by and large, and rationally, have said they have to priorities their statutory responsibilities.”

There have been widespread reports of children attending school hungry due to food poverty, and teachers providing holiday food clubs to support children. Spielman says she has “come across a number of concerning things” often related to “wider family problems” and does not accept there is a deeper impact on education.

“It’s something where we see a lot of anecdote in the newspapers, I don’t think i can say that we have got inspection evidence that reinforces that,” she says.

Another subject that has received a lot of media attention is the rise in the number of children who identify as a different gender.

Figures published by the Gender Identity Development Service show that the number of referrals of children who identify as a different gender each year has risen from 97 in 2009/10 to 2,519 in 2017/18.

The number of girls receiving referrals increased from 40 to 1,806, while the number of boys rose from 56 to 713.

How schools provide unisex spaces and non-gendered biology classes has come under scrutiny, both from the press and parents on all sides of the issue.

But Spielman feels the space handed to the issue in the media is disproportionate and the public focus should be on the discrimination still faced by girls.

“This is something, rather as with foodbanks, there is a huge amount in the media and less coming through from school inspection,” she says.

Spielman is passionate about education being the foundation of equality in society, having this week weighed into the debate over LGBT relationships lessons in schools.

She warned parents cannot “pick and choose” whether their children go to such lessons.

And in a direct response to Tory leadership contender Esther McVey, who said “parents know best” and should have the right to remove their children from LGBT inclusion lessons, Spielman questioned “where would it end?”, as she voiced fears parents would demand children are removed from science lessons “because they didn’t want their children knowing about evolution or reproduction”.

Overall, Spielman, who is in year three of a five-year term, wants schools to get back to basics, saying the best thing schools can do is provide a rounded education.

“The best protective thing you can do for a child is help them do well at school,” she says.


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