It’s a pertinent question. Who is really running Ofsted? To outward appearances Ofsted and the Department for Education work together, but the reality behind the rhetoric may be rather different. Contrasting messages have certainly been emerging from both departments for quite some time.
In the past, with more than a third of England’s children educated in church schools, the core issue has been religious belief and its expression in the public square. The Fair Admissions Campaign has tried hard to remove any kind of cap on faith school places, making them all open access. It hasn’t worked – to the extent that the DfE is currently considering removing a 50 per cent cap in order to allow the Catholic church to open new free schools in areas of great need. The DfE likes faith schools for the simple reason that they are more likely to be outstanding than secular schools, giving more children the opportunity for the best possible start in life. They also, although this is never stated, save the government a great deal of money.
Recently, though, the debate has moved to a new level, as opponents of faith attempt to intervene in the freedom of parents to raise their children within their own faith and culture. Public debate about schools that receive public funding is one thing. Interfering in the family is altogether another.
Humanists UK have ceased to be a positive force for the promotion of humanism. They have instead remade themselves as an anti-faith activist movement. The organisation has crossed a boundary. And they have found a willing ally in their endeavours within Ofsted.
Cases of Humanists UK’s direction of Ofsted policy emerge in the press on a regular basis – the Hackney enquiry and whistle blowing on alleged abuse in a Jewish school are the two most prominent.
Both of these have been claimed by Humanists UK as a victory. They also detail how they were responsible for prompting the creation of the Ofsted unregistered schools team, brokering meetings between the DfE and Ofsted, securing recommendations in the Casey report and a range of other whistle blowing incidents and exposés.
To listen to the narrative, you might be forgiven for thinking that the issue of unregistered schools is one of religion. That’s what Ofsted and their secular buddies would like you to think. The reality is that around 80 per cent of unregistered schools are secular. This is a campaign against faith, conducted by a government department.
It’s a narrative that could be interpreted as posturing, except that Amanda Spielman has, on at least two occasions, demonstrated that Humanists UK’s claims about the extent of their influence are justified. She mentioned the significance of the Hackney enquiry when she was called before the Education Select Committee. She mentioned the investigation into Jewish schools on a BBC News at Six broadcast – a broadcast which, according to their social media posts, was the work of Humanists UK.
The influence on Ofsted was not missed by Lord Polak, who asked Lord Agnew in a recent debate: ‘Who is driving the agenda for secularisation? Will the Minister remind Ofsted that the humanists are not the only minority group with opinions? Does he agree it is bizarre that it is they who are the most intolerant and are being evangelical in wanting everyone to conform to their views?’
That level of power within a government department would be insidious enough, but attacks on family life are growing under the guise of the rebalancing of parents’ rights with those of their children. Humanists UK are now feeding the view that children’s rights are not being observed for those receiving a faith education, as parents do not own their children.
What the law actually says is that parents are responsible for ensuring that their children receive a suitable education and that they have the right for that education to be in accordance with their own philosophical and religious beliefs. ‘Suitable’ cannot be defined by the state – the law defines it as being an education that allows the child to develop their full potential.
The problem is in setting the rights of parents and children against each other, rather than seeing them as necessarily complementary. Children have a right to have parents, who can only be parents if they are able to meet their responsibilities without interference from the state, unless a child is at risk of harm. Not agreeing with contemporary ideology does not constitute harm, no matter how much the secular lobby might insist that it does. No group in a diverse society has the right to police how parents raise their children.
Writing in the TES this week, Andrew Copson, CEO of Humanists UK, has the audacity to suggest that it is should be a basic requirement of the government for parents to comply with equality law and British Values when raising children. It might seem far-fetched, but with Ofsted policy now clearly being directed by aggressive secularism masquerading as muscular liberalism, invasion into the privacy of the family will continue unabated.
When Michelle Donelan MP asked Spielman whether she was ‘comfortable with that scenario, where we are constantly subjected to some kind of inspection in our private lives’, it drew a long silence in reply. Maybe we are expected to be comfortable with it – and with Humanists UK shaping Ofsted policy, mission creep looks set to become a headlong rush to totalitarian control.
British valuesFaith schoolsParentingSecularismSpielman
This week, the government published its Integrated Communities Strategy. The concept of social cohesion is nothing new – Professor Ted Cantle produced a similarly detailed report in 2001. In 2016, Dame Louise Casey, the then government integration tsar, produced a further Review into the state of social integration. You may be forgiven for thinking that nothing has changed in nearly 20 years.
However, while it may be true that social cohesion has not improved, the ideologies underpinning these reports are very different. Where Cantle talked about people living on parallel train tracks, often defined by faith, Casey talked about ‘less progressive religious communities’ who are ‘taking religion backwards and away from 21st century British values and laws’. Where Cantle suggested a 25 per cent cap on faith school places, Casey opined that ‘it is not okay for Catholic schools to be homophobic and anti-gay marriage.’
So where does this latest attempt pitch the government with regard to religious belief? Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government defines integration as ‘communities where many religions, cultures and opinions are celebrated, underpinned by a shared set of British values that champion tolerance, freedom and equality of opportunity … values which include a proud history of defending people’s right to practise their religion within the law …’ So is it defending religious freedom?
The Strategy devotes a complete chapter to education, sweeping up all the current discussions surrounding illegal and unregistered schools, home education and schools where extremist materials have been seen by Ofsted inspectors. Why target schools? Because schools are the only place where you have most of the nations’ children in one place at one time – convenient to deliver propaganda. The problem, of course (as Amanda Spielman recently lamented) is that children only spend 20 per cent of their time in school – it’s the other 80 per cent that makes all the difference; although the government now has a plan for that, too.
Fundamental British Values figure large in the Strategy. Ofsted intends to beef this up in its inspection process, ensuring that integration is a factor in categorising schools. The same is true of all new free school applications. In the document, these values are defined as ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect’. So far, so good. Except that in the minds of the liberal glitterati (with Ofsted as the state-approved enforcer) this also encompasses every liberal ideology they espouse, including LGBT rights prioritised over those of all others and the active promotion of transgender ideology from the earliest years in school.
While nobody would argue with the compulsory registration of illegal schools (which are not, as Ofsted likes to suggest, mostly religious settings), the closer regulation of private schools is a direct threat to parental freedom. Many small independent schools are religious in character, chosen by parents who want to raise their children within their faith. The government is ‘committed to taking a firmer approach to enforce standards when there is evidence of noncompliance’. Noncompliance with standard safeguarding practices? Or noncompliance with the relentless march of liberalism, even when it conflicts with the tenets of faith?
The situation with home education remains confused. While there appears to be some attempt to differentiate between illegal or unregistered schools and home education, there is still no apparent awareness of the difference between elective and enforced home education, the latter growing because the state system has failed children to the point where parents have no other option open to them.
The battle waged unabated in the media, with The Times claiming that registration would go ahead anyway (that later turned out to be either fake news, wishful thinking or poor journalism) while the DfE responded by saying that compulsory registration was ‘categorically not in the green paper’. Meanwhile, with Louise Casey ignoring the facts and calling for home ed parents to be forced to opt out of education (registration by the back door) Lord Soley’s bill continues on its path.
There are two other deeply worrying decisions raised in this green paper. The first relates to the compelling of parents to accept the decision of their child’s school regardless of personal belief. It states that ‘Pupils have the right to manifest a religion or belief, but not necessarily at all times, in all places or in a particular manner’.It is probably a knee-jerk reaction to the recent situation at St Stephen’s school, where the head’s ruling on the wearing of a hijab was reversed after ugly pressure.
However, it could equally, in the hands of those wishing to impose a singular ideology, be used to prevent every child in the community expressing faith in any form, on the grounds that to do so would harm the social cohesion of the school. So, at what times will it be inappropriate? In what places? In what manner? To prevent abuse of sloppy law, this must be much more closely defined. Or is the real agenda to stamp out all expressions of religious belief in the public square, apart from the occasional reference to a benign deity who just wants us all to do what makes us happy?
The second concern is the resurrection of the regulation of out of school settings, even before the findings of the consultation are published. Not content with controlling what children hear in school, the government is now bent on controlling what they hear for the other 80 per cent of their lives. Interestingly, when questioned about this by Michelle Donelan MP during an Education Select Committee hearing, Amanda Spielman had absolutely no answer to the question, ‘Are you comfortable with that scenario, where we are constantly subjected to some kind of inspection in our private lives?’
A consultation is offered to sit alongside the Integrated Communities Strategy. If you take part, be aware of the extent of mission creep contained in these proposals – however reasonable and fair they may seem, many of them are just another step along the road to the removal of parental freedom and diminishing of individual rights.
The Education Select Committee this week summoned Amanda Spielman as part of its accountability hearings. It was a wide-ranging debate, during which Ms Spielman showed the extent of Ofsted’s confused double-think about its social engineering programme. It led Robert Halfon, the chair of the Committee, to comment more than once on the importance of ensuring that the innocent aren’t swept away with the guilty.
Some of the thinking is genuinely confused – an extensive discussion about inspecting out of school settings (which Ofsted is very keen to resurrect) demonstrated that nobody actually knows what needs inspecting and what doesn’t. Spielman talked rather vaguely about ‘8 hours’ of attendance, which would encompass just about every young swimmer in the country who puts in a couple of hours of intensive training before and after school every day. She talked about the need to regulate tutorial centres, even though they are already subject to safeguarding law. She disingenuously observed that it was unlikely that Sunday Schools would be affected, although madrasas would be. But it would, of course, affect all holiday clubs, residential trips, sleepovers and camps organised by churches.
When pressed on how she would ensure that only the guilty would be tracked, she resorted to Ofsted’s usual argument when it runs out of options – creating law is down to government, not Ofsted. It is not her job, she opined, to create policy on the hoof. So perhaps she should limit her comments to her actual remit and stick to the day job, rather than posturing for a power grab.
When questioned about the definition of ‘muscular liberalism’, members of the committee were assured that this was definitely not secularism in disguise; it’s about living Fundamental British Values, which means not allowing spaces to exist where intolerance is bred. Over the issue of faith schools causing segregation, the answer was revealing. Some faith schools, Ms Spielman stated, do excellent work that doesn’t lead to segregation. Indeed, they thoroughly prepare children for life in modern Britain – those she mentioned (Church of England and Catholic schools) are the ones who have welcomed Stonewall with open arms to create environments which normalise queer ideology. But there was a warning – not all faith schools have the same kind of positive outcomes for pupils. One such Christian school was recently told by an HMI to invite Stonewall in to advise staff on how to achieve these positive outcomes. That rather suggests that the involvement of Stonewall has become a key litmus test for Ofsted when it comes to categorisation of faith schools.
The key fact to emerge from the discussion is that these schools are not allowed to teach according to the tenets of their faith, regardless of the content of any guidance documents. Spielman made it clear, in the context of Orthodox Jewish schools, that Ofsted cannot disapply the law – she meant, specifically, the Equality Act 2010. She outlined the dilemma that Orthodox Jewish schools face, as they cannot, in accordance with their belief, teach about same sex relationships or transgender issues. Whilst as evangelical Christians we can talk about these issues with children and young people, we talk about them in relation to the biblical principles of being born male and female, and marriage being between one man and one woman. That is not inconsistent with also teaching our children to respect other people’s choices.
Current DfE guidance states quite clearly that ‘It is not necessary for schools or individuals to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with their own’. It goes on to say that it is not ‘acceptable for schools to promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background’. Ofsted seems to adopt the view that failing to ‘actively promote’ LGBT ideology, or teaching from a faith position is, in itself, discriminatory. There are copious examples of this interpretation – Vishnitz Girls’ School is the worst.
But Spielman was clear – the law will not be disapplied and the wishes of parents cannot take precedence over the law, however firmly held the beliefs are. The case of Al Hijrah was quoted – a key legal battle which she was very keen to win. It was important because it created the precedent to impose a liberal agenda on any faith school which can’t comply, because the law of the land (or at least the law as it is interpreted by Ofsted) conflicts with their understanding of the law of God.
It’s fine to say that we shouldn’t tolerate intolerance – everyone would agree with that. But the danger here, which was implicit in all that Spielman said, is the definition of ‘intolerance’. It should be defined by schools and settings which teach about terrorism, murder, beheadings and violence against women. But it was clear that for Ofsted it is defined by any faith which cannot comply with active promotion of LGBT ideology, or any person who refuses to remove their faith to the private sphere. That is, in itself, intolerant, and really does risk sweeping away the innocent with the guilty.
British valuesFaith schoolsOfstedSpielman