A leading London private school has been downgraded by Ofsted for placing more weight on teaching “social justice” than on learning “subject-specific knowledge and skills” while some pupils felt their views were “suppressed” in lessons.
The American School in St John’s Wood, which charges £32,650 a year, was downgraded from “outstanding” in its previous inspection to “requires improvement”.
In a report from an inspection from December 2021, Ofsted noted that leaders of the school, which educates pupils from age 4 to 18, had high expectations and “gives strong importance to equality and inclusion”.
But it added: “Sometimes, however, teaching places much more weight on the school’s approach to social justice than on learning subject-specific knowledge and skills.”
The report said that the school provided opportunities for pupils with different characteristics to discuss issues affecting them.
“However, not everyone felt that they are able to express their views freely in class,” it added.
“A significant number felt that their voices are not encouraged, or in some cases, are suppressed.”
In November 2021, The Times reported that non-white pupils had been recruited to affinity groups for people of colour, which some parents felt was discriminatory towards their children.
Parents also expressed concern about the teaching of concepts such as “white fragility” to their children. Former headteacher Robin Appleby left the school in January.
The report praised the school’s music curriculum, which it said was “broad and balanced” but added that “in other areas of the curriculum, the approach is not as balanced”.
“This is particularly where teaching places more emphasis on the school’s social justice programme than on the acquisition of specific subject content,” it added.
Ofsted said that in the school’s lower school curriculum for social studies, pupils “spend much time repeatedly considering identity (including analysing their own characteristics) rather than learning, for example, geographical knowledge”.
The middle school humanities programme was also highlighted for focusing on social issues rather than skills, although the report praised the sixth form curriculum for its “broad and rich range of academic options”.
The school had developed student-led extra-curricular “affinity” groups, some of which limited membership to “under-represented groups”, Ofsted said.
“Some parents and pupils feel that this approach is divisive when seen alongside some teachers’ stridently expressed views on social justice,” the report said.
A significant number of pupils reported that they were “uncomfortable” giving their views in class, especially if these did not chime with the outlook of their teachers.
The report concluded: “While recognising the importance of promoting equalities, a significant minority of parents and pupils told inspectors that a culture has developed where alternative opinions are not felt welcome.”
“In some classrooms, teaching has not allowed for questioning or for the balanced presentation of opposing views. Leaders and trustees should ensure that teaching does not preclude tolerance of those with different views, particularly where specific partisan or political views are presented.”
A spokesperson for ASL said: “ASL has been rated Outstanding in all of our previous inspections.
“This review, however, was unusual in scope and substance, with a narrow focus on some aspects of our programme.
“Despite meeting 96% of the Independent School standards, our rating was downgraded two levels. We do not think this rating reflects the quality of our school or excellence of our teaching.”