‘UK Closing Christian School for Religious Intolerance’ declaimed a headline this week – a single article by an American Christian online news provider. But while it started as a single article, comment spread rapidly, embroidered as it went with observations about the rampant bigotry and fascism of an education system (that’s ours, in case you no longer recognise it) which requires the teaching of ‘pagan’ and ‘heathen’ religions in the cause of multiculturalism. (As an aside, it was a classic example of remembering that when you point a finger, there are three more pointing right back at you).
What school was the article about? It turned out that ‘school’ and ‘closing’ were about the only accurate words in the headline, because the coverage was about Durham Free School. A journalist had latched onto the fact that DFS is a Christian ethos school (not a faith school) and, with no understanding of our school system,covered the coverage from other media. The conclusion: the sole reason the school is closing is because of persecution of Christians. Had said journalist taken the trouble to read the Ofsted report itself, he might have understood the complexity of the situation – and even that still wouldn’t have informed him as to why the Secretary of State decided to close the school. Nobody knows that apart from her and her advisers.
But covering the coverage didn’t stop there. Comment started appearing about the competence of the DFS staff, high numbers of whom had allegedly faced competency hearings in previous employment. But that sort of information is confidential, so how could it be reported as evidenced fact? Where had it come from? Well, it came from the local MP who used Parliamentary privilege to make the allegations. The trouble is, the coverage got covered as fact and while the Head has strenuously denied it and demanded an apology, the mud will stick. So as well as having to find other jobs within just a few weeks, the staff will have to go to interviews knowing that the interviewing Head might well be thinking, ‘Was it true?’ and ‘Is this one of them?’
The problem with covering the coverage is that it creates an echo chamber that gleefully resounds with no thought for the misery that it causes. Because beyond all the coverage, accusations about staff competence and Christian persecution are people: anxious students, distressed parents and worried teachers. For some students this will be their third secondary school in a short time. The closure of DFS comes against a backdrop of other school closures in Durham that have left parents angry as political and financial expediency impact on their children’s education. But it’s them who have to deal with the consequences of the decision. It’s them who will have to start again, building new friendships, becoming part of new communities and adapting to new contexts.
So, in a complex situation it would help if journalists, including Christian journalists, stopped just covering the coverage. Check source documents. Don’t just grab at one little bit of opinion, filter it through your own prejudice and then pass it off as evidenced fact in search of a dystopian headline and social media traction. Because the issues run deeper than one school closure and all that it entails. Ofsted is fast losing the respect of the workforce with which it should be working. It’s becoming increasingly political – maybe even entering identity politics. And while Sir Michael Wilshaw strenuously denied that there was an anti-Christian agenda in Ofsted, he followed it up with an equally strong assertion that Muslim schools are being treated exactly the same. So an anti-faith agenda, then, Sir Michael?
A time when liberal secularism is becoming the new normal, a time when faith in the public square is under attack, is a time to speak truth to power. That requires reason, a wide evidence base and patience. So don’t cover the coverage. It helps nobody.