TILTING AT WINDMILLS

Damian Hinds was appointed as the Secretary of State for Education last week. The smouldering debate over faith schools also flared into flames again last week. The connection? Damian Hinds is a Catholic.

It took Humanists UK, outraged at the appointment of a person of faith to public office, less than 24 hours to get an article in the media claiming that the Catholic church, by supporting an intern, was guilty of ‘pernicious and deeply inappropriate political lobbying’ and that Damian Hinds was guilty of a conflict of interest.

It was a ludicrous claim, easily dismissed and widely ridiculed on social media. A range of organisations pay for interns to gain invaluable experience of political work: it is quite proper for the Catholic church to support a Catholic graduate to work alongside a Catholic MP. Damian Hinds followed protocol and declared the payment in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. So what is Humanists UK’s problem? Simply that Hinds is a Catholic. They can’t say so, of course, because that would breach the Equality Act.

The urgent concern of Humanists UK is that Damian Hinds might remove the 50% cap on faith school admissions, which currently prevents the Catholic church from opening any free schools. The cap removal was promised in the Conservative manifesto at the last election, but the pledge was broken soon after the Conservative government was re-elected and that was pretty much how opponents of faith education liked it. A consideration of the facts might help them to understand why lifting the cap could be a good thing.

The Catholic church would open between 30 and 40 new free schools if the cap was removed, creating between 15,000 and 20,000 new places. The growth of Catholic populations in some areas of the country, as a result of immigration, is considerable. A free school can only be opened where there is proven need and the pressure on places clearly demonstrates an urgent need. For the government this is much less about Catholic education than about not having to foot the bill for building new schools or finding 20,000 additional places in already overcrowded schools.

It’s a win-win situation for everyone, except those implacably opposed to faith education who are never going to send their children to these schools anyway. But because they don’t want them, they insist that nobody else should want them either. The arguments, of course, have to be political, because the Equality Act prevents them from opposition purely on the grounds of faith. So this is how their arguments run.

Faith schools create silos of segregation. The case of Northern Ireland is sometimes quoted in this argument. Except, of course, English society is not divided along sectarian lines and all schools are reflections of the communities they serve. Anyone accusing a village school serving farming communities, or a school teaching children from military families, of social segregation would be laughed at. Yet somehow it’s fine to level the accusation when it comes to faith.

Church schools proselytise and indoctrinate the next generation of society. Well, if that were true, churches would be full to overflowing every Sunday. Empty pews and falling attendance numbers in many churches show that young people are making up their own minds about faith and voting with their feet.

Faith schools unfairly take tax payers’ money. Parents of faith pay tax, too. In addition, their churches provide financial input to their schools which the government could simply not sustain from public funds.

Church schools bias their admissions in favour of middle class parents with sharp elbows. Read the Catholic Education Service’s recent census, which shows beyond dispute that Catholic schools serve some of the most disadvantaged children in society. Examine the figures for Church of England schools that faithfully serve the communities in which they are located regardless of social status. Of course there are parents who subvert admissions procedures in order to get their children into the school of their choice. But how is that any different from parents who move house in order to do exactly the same?

All these weary arguments will, no doubt, be given another media airing over the next few weeks. As a Christian, I find it encouraging that we have a religiously literate Secretary of State, in an age when rampant religious illiteracy roams the corridors of power at will. Instead of an Education Secretary who tells the church that it needs to get in line with modern attitudes on LGBT ideology, we hopefully have one who understands that churches’ teaching on marriage and identity is derived from the Bible, not public opinion.

The problem for opponents of Damian Hinds’ appointment is, of course, that they object to the presence of faith in the public square in any shape or form. An Education Secretary with faith raises the very real possibility that secular, liberal apologists will have to make space for the voice of faith to speak, too. Having worked so hard for so long to silence it, that must be a daunting prospect.

But here’s the most important point that the faith opposition lobby has to understand – they live in a democracy. The Department of Education loves faith schools. They said so this week in a statement: ‘We want to go further to ensure all young people have access to a good school place and we are keen for faith groups to play a key role in this. Many faith schools are high-performing and are more likely to be rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted than non-faith schools.’ A third of all children in this country are educated in church schools, and many more who apply are unable to get a place.

So the government loves church schools and needs church money. Hundreds of thousands of parents (even those of no faith) love church schools because of the quality of holistic education that they offer.

It looks like opponents are tilting at windmills.

HOME EDUCATION AND THE SAFEGUARDING BANDWAGON

The safeguarding bandwagon in relation to home education rolled on throughout the Christmas break. Wales announced  consultation on compulsory registration – the significance of which was missed by the national media. Eleanor Schooling, Ofsted’s National Director of Social Care, published an article on more effective safeguarding for home educated children – a thinly veiled attempt to coerce the government to agree to compulsory registration, which hung in the ether and appeared to have no purpose.

Hackney Council was next to jump on the bandwagon, publishing an article on unregistered educational settings (UES) in its borough. The report focuses exclusively on Jewish yeshivas and laments the lack of government urgency in introducing compulsory registration and in giving local authorities powers to inspect home education. The argument goes that because these settings are unregistered, they constitute home education and all home educators must therefore be controlled. Having no education expertise but never a lobby group to miss an opportunity, Humanists UK weighed in, contributing to the report and adding to calls to control Jewish education. They took much of the credit for the Hackney report, presenting themselves as leaders of the national campaign against religious schools and, in passing, accusing Jewish schools of child abuse.

Why is the bandwagon gathering such momentum? Probably because those who want complete control of every child in the country under the guise of safeguarding sense that they may be losing the argument. In a written answer, Lord Agnew (who recently replaced Lord Nash as Under-Secretary of State for Education) not only says that there will be no new legislative powers, he uses Amanda Spielman’s own comments on Ofsted’s success in dealing with UES to prove that existing legislation is effective. He even states that there are far fewer unregistered schools than at first estimated. That’s not what supporters of Lord Soley’s private members bill wanted to hear.

Lord Soley’s bill aims to tighten controls on home education; it received its second reading in November. Adopting a warm, avuncular tone, Lord Soley says he wants to help home educators, as they are a much neglected group, often unsupported and with unacknowledged needs. That’s the warm, cuddly bit.

The truth is a little more ominous. He wants to balance the rights of the child against the rights of the parents, even though home educating parents are discharging their duty and responsibility, not exercising their rights. In his speech, he thanks local authorities, two in particular, for their help in preparing the bill. And an FOI request to one of those authorities reveals, via transcribed emails, what that help actually looks like.

On the elective home education (EHE) lobby: ‘You are correct the EHE lobby is mobilising – already FOI requests…asking for copies of all emails between officers and yourself.’

 On what they want to achieve: ‘gov view is that LA’s need to stretch the guidance and they want case law to be tested’…’ Problem is that this needs to be communicated to EHE community’.‘That’s basically the trouble with all of this. Too much relies on parental permission’. ‘The core issues then are to establish clear statutory access to the children and having full details of all EHE’s’. ‘Hopefully our collective efforts will influence the DfE’s thinking’.

 On removing the words ‘emotional and physical development’ from the proposed wording in order to get legislation past the home ed lobby: ‘the starting point is to get access to educational provision. Looking at provision is firmer ground than trying to tackle emotional development’, ‘words “physical and emotional” could be left out not least because this will distract and allow the EHE lobby to be critical. The important issue is the duty to monitor the child’s “educational’ development”’ ‘Once EHE professionals are under duty to monitor the “educational’ development” of the child by a visit to the home and a discussion with the parent and child, they will be in a better position to detect any safeguarding issues’ ‘the starting point is to get access to educational provision. Looking at provision is firmer ground than trying to tackle emotional development’

 Lord Soley’s concern over the possible role of Lord Agnew: I understand the new Minister is S T A [Sir Theo Agnew] – is that correct? The other problem here is the position of the new minister on this issue. If he is still sympathetic to co-operating with me on getting the Bill into a form that satisfies the Government and myself then obviously I will try and involve the Department at all stages. If there is not a willingness to co-operate then I will have to reconsider how I handle the Bill. Any ideas about this?

On sanctions for non-compliant parents: Where a new statutory duty is created it is usual and good practice to create a sanction for non-compliance with the duty…[include] a provision that makes clear that where a parent fails to register a Local Authority may take this into account in determining whether to issue a notice under the Education Act 1996…case law has established that “if parents refuse to answer it could very easily conclude that prima facie the parents were in breach of their duty”.’

Lord Soley ends one email by saying that he needs to work out ‘how best to enlist public support as the opposition is now growing’. Oddly, I thought that was what living in democracy meant – legislation can be both proposed and opposed. Clearly he has temporarily lost sight of how democracy works.

He also observes that opposition is ‘still far less than it was some years ago’. Watch this space, Lord Soley and make no assumptions about using your power to get ‘clear statutory access’ to other people’s children. Parents are the guardians of their children’s welfare, not the state.

 

FAITH CLEANSING IN OUR SCHOOLS

The 2007 Children’s Plan could not have made it clearer: parents bring up children, not governments. That didn’t stop the government of the day commissioning Graham Badman to investigate home education, with a particular emphasis on safeguarding; the introduction of compulsory registration; home monitoring inspections, and the definition of ‘suitable’ education. Unprecedented protests that the proposals would ‘for the first time in our history, tear away from parents and give to the State the responsibility for a child’s education’ kicked the issue into the long grass.

Despite that, Louise Casey regurgitated the same arguments against home education in her report into opportunity and integration just a year ago. And here we are, yet again, with exactly the same proposals in a private members’ bill introduced by Lord Soley, which recently received its second reading. At first sight, Lord Soley’s thoughts seem entirely reasonable, particularly after Colin Diamond, Birmingham’s corporate director for children and young people, warned that a recent court ruling could drive Muslim children into radicalising settings. Surely compulsory registration would be a good step?

Except that here’s the thing. Lord Soley is an honorary associate of the National Secular Society so their lobbying is probably behind the latest attempt to place home education under state control. The October ADCS Elective Home Education survey still talks about safeguarding, but the NSS is taking a new tack this time – it’s all about children’s rights. The survey finds that most long term home educators do so for philosophical or religious reasons, so the NSS is leaping into action to demonstrate that children’s rights are being abused by parents’ religious worldviews, although they have no problem with philosophical ones.

‘If children are raised and educated only within the context of a religious community’, they declaim, ‘they are left unprepared for life in modern Britain’. Well, if you want to raise your child to know and love God and live according to biblical standards then yes, that’s probably correct. But then, those parents don’t want to raise their children to engage in casual sexual encounters; to engage with sexting and revenge porn; to lie drunk in the gutter after a night out with friends or to live in ways that are all about ‘What’s in it for me?’ rather than God’s design for us as uniquely created in His image.

Modern Britain is not what every parent wants for their child. What right does the NSS have to tell them that they’re wrong? However, with an apparent benevolence which belies the underpinning arrogance, the NSS claims that they have an interest in opening opportunities for children, not closing them. So a lobbying organisation with a membership similar to that of the British Sausage Appreciation Society knows better than parents?

It might seem that paying so much attention to less than 0.5% of the school-age population is excessive. But combined with other opinions raised in the media, it suddenly takes on a much more ominous tone. Because this week, Humanists UK has complained to the DfE about Catholic schools ‘unlawfully promoting political action’ by encouraging parents to campaign against the admissions cap that prevents the Catholic Education Service from opening free schools. The irony seems to elude Humanists UK that its own campaigning against faith in the public square is a partisan political action. Or is this a case of double standards? Humanists UK can campaign about what they believe in, but parents can’t.

They also seem to have missed the point of a liberal, democratic society, which is one where all worldviews can be freely expressed. Every child’s upbringing is rooted in parental and community worldviews and part of growing up is to decide what to embrace and what to reject. What both secularists and humanists refuse to accept is that theirs are also worldviews. So why, in a liberal democracy, should the worldview of just 1% of the population prevail over all others? The answer, of course, is because they assume themselves to be right not only for themselves, but for everyone else.

Andrew Copson is quoted as saying that, ‘For too long, religious organisations have hijacked our state education system to further their own vested religious interests’. When I pointed out to him that without church schools, there would have been no free or universal education until well into the nineteenth century, he responded with, ‘And if it weren’t for churches in the 19th century then state education would have come more quickly – they blocked it for a long time fearing a loss of control’. Spot the irony yet again – Humanists UK wants to enforce its ‘neutral’ worldview in every school and on every home educator in the country. If that isn’t control and vested interest, what is?

However much these groups lobby the DfE and bend the ear of Ofsted, they cannot escape from two powerful facts. The most persuasive is that considerably more than a third of parents choose faith settings and these schools are always massively oversubscribed. Try telling all those parents that they’re wrong. The other fact is that our education system couldn’t function without church money – the state simply couldn’t afford to maintain all the lands and buildings that are owned by the church. The answer to that one is for the NSS and the BHA to stop sniping and to open free schools of their own.

Nothing has changed since the last attempt to impose state control on home educators: this is just another round of faith cleansing. If humanists and secularists want a seat at the education table, they should spend their time talking about what they are for, rather than what they are against. It’s getting hard to discern what they believe in through the white noise of anti-faith rhetoric.

When it comes to education, the Bible doesn’t talk about rights, it talks about responsibility. Parents alone are responsible for educating their children, so it is for parents to choose how they do so and with whom they partner in the process – ‘These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up’ (Deuteronomy 6:6—7).

It is not the business of the state to remove that responsibility.