Category Archives: Comment


Faith schools have taken quite a battering in the last few years. The charges against them are varied: there’s the indoctrination argument, the social segregation argument, the unfair admissions argument  and the neutral public space argument, thinly disguised as a legal wrangle about admissions protocols.  Ofsted has waded in with its wildly enthusiastic rooting out of homophobia in faith schools then, following the public outcry that resulted, making a subtle shift in approach by taking the standards of English teaching as a route into enforcing conformity.

Despite all of this, faith schools, it seems, will remain part of the fabric of our education provision. The meddling with admissions procedures will continue and no doubt the National Secular Society will continue to oppose any expression of faith in the public square, but faith schools remain enduringly popular with parents.  This week, however, a couple of new issues arose, which might change public perceptions.

Firstly, the Church of England seems to have started attacking itself from the inside. Martin Hislop, vicar of St Luke’s in Kingston on Thames, is reported to be dropping church attendance as a criteria for admission to St Luke’s Primary School on the grounds that he feels ‘uncomfortable’ about accusations of parental gaming and that the need to record church attendance did not contribute to a ‘positive and affirming atmosphere’ in the parish. Doubtless parents do game the system in a range of subtle ways and not just for church school admissions – moving house into the catchment area of a good school is reasonably common and the use of a family member’s address for those outside of the catchment area isn’t unknown.

What the Vicar’s decision will do is trigger a price war on houses in the school catchment area which will probably secure the very demographic that critics of faith schools abhor.  It will almost certainly discriminate against less affluent families and narrow the intake, so parents will still game the system, just by another method, I guess it will, at least, release them from unwilling church attendance.

This move is part of a growing trend in the Church of England – a group of clergy even published a letter earlier this month urging open admissions. In principle the idea may well be defendable, but it also raises the issue of those Christian parents who choose a church school for its faith ethos, not for the quality of its education. Why should families who genuinely worship in their local parish church, who commit time, money and energy to its work and who do so because they love God and not to game the system, be barred from their children attending that church’s school?

This issue was further complicated this week by the news that due to the shortage of school places, 20 families have been given places at a Sikh faith ethos school that they didn’t request. It’s an issue which I touched on in an earlier blog, and one which has been brought into sharp focus by the reactions of one particular parent.  He said: ‘We strongly believe in education being secular and not based on any one faith – and we expressly stated in our original application that we wanted a non-religiously affiliated education for our daughter.’ They had deliberately not applied for their nearest school because it was Church of England.

So what happens when parents find themselves in this position? Human rights treaties give parents and guardians the right to educate their children in accordance with their religious faith and their morals and that is true for atheist and secular parents just as it is true for parents of faith. What education managers and politicians seem not to understand is the distinctiveness of faith ethos schools. Just as one example given by a parent delegated to a Sikh ethos school: will the school include meat on the school dinners menu, when Sikh ethos is strictly vegetarian? Will children be allowed meat or fish in their lunchboxes if this is against school principles? And although RE teaches about a range of faiths, each day starts with Sikh prayers. Parents have the right to opt their children out of these, but what will the social effect be? And how can they become integrated into a community when they are opted out of parts of each day?

So what is the future for faith schools? If faith education is to mean anything, it must mean distinctiveness within each faith. To do otherwise is to reduce faith education to nothing more than a caring school where moral standards are nurtured and a holistic approach defines the school ethos. There are many schools like this with no faith ethos, so what would be the difference?

Church of England, Catholic and Jewish schools have a longer tradition of education than the state, but Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools are the new kids on the block and their entry raises questions about how we define faith education and who can, and can’t, access it. It also leaves unanswered the question of compulsion and whether parents can be forced to absorb spare capacity in schools which contradict the beliefs with which they choose to raise their children. Maybe this will be the next debate surrounding  the continued functioning of faith schools …



‘Excuse the cynicism but my idea of the “Good Life” is not shoving my 3 and 4 year olds in 30 hours of state childcare to ensure I pay tax’ tweeted a mother this week, as political parties vie to outdo each other in the childcare stakes.  It has become the educational issue of the election, far outstripping any dialogue about teacher shortages and primary school place shortages, both of which could tip our education service into crisis.

All parties are suspiciously quiet (one might almost suspect a conspiracy of silence) about future school structures, governance, inspection and funding. Little is being said about the future of school curricula or how to protect education from the constant political meddling of people who understand little about what students might need to learn and even less about how they learn.

Promises of childcare, of course, court voters, because more childcare means more parents (usually mothers) returning to work. The more parents return to work, the more tax revenue for the Exchequer and the more money being trickled into our nascent economy.  The earlier children are put into care, the better their educational attainment and the more they can earn as adults. Ka-ching! Vote for childcare because everybody wins. Or do they?

As I wrote in a previous blog, there is no magic bullet. There is some evidence of positive impact on disadvantaged children, but also a conclusion that home life is more important and a suggestion in one study that early gains may well be lost by the end of primary school. There is evidence that school-based nurseries have a greater impact on learning because staff are qualified, but many are closing because of inadequate funding or the pressure to create more Reception class spaces. Private and voluntary provision is popular with parents because of its greater flexibility, but it has much less impact on early learning and is also facing a funding crisis.

So what might be on offer from the new government? There is broad consensus between the main parties. The Conservatives have pledged to double current provision for 3 and 4 year olds to 30 hours per week, creating 600,000 new childcare places. Labour is promising 25 hours plus wraparound care for all primary school children from 8am to 6pm. Lib Dems promise 20 free hours from the age of 9 months, when parental leave runs out.

But the move could backfire. Funding sources remain vague, which could turn out to cause the death of any government’s childcare promises. Nurseries are already closing because the funding for 15 free hours doesn’t meet the real cost, so doubling the hours will just double the problem.  Funding, in fact, will probably come from the new DfE opportunity forsocial investment’  hence the party leaders’ courting of the Christian vote. At the recent Festival of Life, David Cameron even resurrected his Big Society concept, saying that Christians are: ‘the Big Society in action’. By caring for the ill, mentoring teenagers and providing aid overseas, he said that ‘Christians are working for a better Britain. Like Jesus turning water into wine, you turn loneliness into companionship, you turn deprivation into comfort, you turn lost lives into lives with purpose’. It’s not Christians who bring about the transformation, of course, but the God whom we love and serve, but the point remains that the contribution which Christians are making to society is viewed as a way to source provision when all other cupboards are bare. Cameron isn’t alone – Ed Miliband gets it, too.

But is childcare from the age of nine months, or two, or even three or four, the best provision for our children? One school is even planning to offer care from birth. Maybe instead of joining the headlong rush to get everyone maximising their earning potential and preparing the next generation to do likewise, we should stop and think about what is best for our children. The Bible says that ‘Children are a heritage from the Lord’. We should be our children’s first and best educators – Deuteronomy 4:9 says: ‘be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them’. How, why,  and at what age, we start to share the raising of our children with others should be informed not by government policy or by how quickly we can get back to work, but by what is best for our children.

Increasingly, the evidence shows that home environment has the biggest and most lasting impact on a child’s life. The family is God’s design for raising children, the place where they are loved without reserve, where they are nurtured and where they are given the time, space and care to flourish. The early years are where life’s foundations are built. Do we really want someone else to build the foundations of our children’s lives for 30 hours a week from the age of nine months?


When my daughter was about five years old, she was given a babushka doll. It disappeared almost immediately into a box, where it remained until we came across it years later when she was packing away her childhood. With a slight shudder, she dropped it into the nearest charity bag. Apparently, she had found the face scary and the idea of things existing inside other things even scarier, so she had never played with it and she was relieved to see it go. And so it is with British values: scary on the face of it, even scarier when you unpack it, and we would all be glad to see them go.

As I outlined in my previous blog, British values as a concept is nothing new. According to the Prime Minister, they are, after all, as solid and reliable as fish and chips and the Union flag. The problem with the shiny new version is that it’s not really about its face at all; it’s about social revolution playing dress up; about things hiding inside other things.

Let’s begin with the face of it – democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. So far, so good. Democracy is a human construct and so not a Christian value, but Romans 13:1 says: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established’. Titus 3:1 reminds us to ‘be subject to rulers and powers, to be obedient’ and 1 Peter 2:13-14 says we should ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors’, so it’s clear that we should support our democratically elected leaders and the institutions of the country.

Nor would people of faith argue against individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. The problem is, the respect and tolerance is anything but mutual. It’s rapidly becoming a one way street as Ofsted seeks to impose its monoculture. I have also written this week about Ofsted’s bullying of independent Orthodox Jewish schools in the cause of preparing children for life in modern Britain. Ofsted is extending its reach way beyond schools and into the social fabric of any communities which don’t comply. It’s social revolution – the reshaping of society by imposition from a government body. Not much liberty there then, and the face of British values is, on reflection, pretty scary.

So what’s inside the British values babushka doll? Let’s start with faith schools. There have been various calls for faith to be removed from our schools altogether – the Green Party has made it a point in its manifesto. It’s completely unworkable, of course, both because no government could afford to pick up the resulting bill, and also because no government is foolish enough to remove something that parents consistently want. So the new tack is to dilute the ethos by meddling with admissions procedures. Once the anti-faith school population reaches a critical mass, parents will start vetoing the faith content, leaving just the excellent education on offer. New thinking: don’t openly impose the monoculture, do it by stealth using secular parents.

Next layer: last autumn saw a new obsession with homophobic bullying, with LGBT rights becoming a British value.  Without any thought for what happens when the imposition of a view about one protected characteristic comes into direct conflict with another, Ofsted went off on their infamous hunt to root out homophobia. When faith schools pointed out that they didn’t have to teach anything that conflicted with their conscience and also that parental opt out meant that children in some schools weren’t being taught about LGBT issues, Ofsted found another way around the issue. They simply made the existence of homophobic bullying (although not initially of race, of the disabled or people of faith) a safeguarding issue. So now, whether or not the school teaches an SRE programme which includes LGBT, they fail on safeguarding. Law protecting conscience nil, Ofsted one.

The CHIPS programme which is currently being implemented in more than 90 schools around the country also takes a clever new route into the classroom. The programme is cross-curricular and centred on literacy and music, so there is no parental opt out.  Like British values, the programme has been around for several years without attracting much attention. Now suddenly it is becoming de rigueur as the LGBT lobby group seizes the opportunity for Ofsted to affirm its ideology.

The final, and scariest layer, is extremism. The careful placement of ‘neo-Nazi’  and ‘ISIS’ in speeches plays very effectively on public fear, allowing the government to implement measures such as the Prevent strategy that gain wide support, despite being itself extreme in its reach. Just as the last Parliament was dissolved, Home Secretary Theresa May delivered one such speech. The word ‘strong’ figured regularly, together with the aggressive rhetoric of victory through conflict. She also outlined the plan for ‘a step change in the way we help people to learn the English language. There will be new incentives and penalties, a sharp reduction in funding for translation services, and a significant increase in the funding available for English language training.’ Inspections of Orthodox Jewish schools in the last few weeks have borne out this newest British value – imposition of the English language is the latest way to reach into communities that don’t conform.

So, there’s the British values babushka doll. There are almost certainly more layers yet to be carved. The supreme irony is that the government is becoming exactly what it is trying to oppose – an extremist group which seeks to impose its singular ideology.