Late last year, I went to a meeting with Ofsted’s Director of Strategy. During that conversation, I discussed my concern that Christians who simply want to exercise their freedom to live by biblical principles and to teach their children accordingly, are being accused of indoctrination. That view extends to any but the most anodyne teaching, or expression, of the Christian faith in schools. A significant part of the problem, I explained, is that the media simply lumps Christianity, Judaism and Islam together, labelling them all as extremist. Language like ‘hate-filled’ and ‘toxic’ is a regular part of reporters’ rhetoric and Ofsted is playing a considerable role in encouraging this perspective. I was given an assurance by the person concerned, who happens to be Amanda Spielman’s speech writer, that care would be taken in future.
So, you can imagine my disgust when I read Spielman’s speech to the Church of England Foundation for Education Leadership last week. To be fair, it’s helpful in that it does lay out the full extent of her messianic mission, including her antipathy to all but the most warm and fluffy expressions of faith – the type that John Major evoked with his description of ‘warm beer, long sleepy afternoons watching cricket on the village green, and old maids cycling to Evensong’. The extent of her anger with any opponents of Sunday School inspection was also very evident, even though primary legislation is the concern of a democratically elected Parliament, not of Ofsted.
Her solution – ‘muscular liberalism’ – merits interrogation. Presumably she has to define it as muscular liberalism because, as Tim Farron recently pointed out, liberalism has eaten itself so the ideologues need something altogether, well, muscular. As is well documented, Spielman enjoyed a privileged education, which will have been balanced, diverse and pluralistic. It’s an education that afforded her ample opportunity to make up her own mind about what she believes and she’s clearly chosen secular feminism as her worldview – that’s fine. We live in a democratic country. She can believe whatever she wishes as a private individual. What she cannot do is abuse her role as Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills by imposing her views on society. To do so is to deny todays’ children and young people the right to understand, engage with and respond to any views other than her own.
When it comes to Christianity, she says that freedom of belief is acceptable in the ‘private sphere’ but not in the public square. The same, Ms Spielman, must therefore be true of your personal worldview. Fine for your private sphere – not acceptable in the public square. And most certainly not acceptable from a government employee heading up a department which purports to value freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law and adherence to the Equality Act 2010. Just in case you need reminding, Ms Spielman, faith is a protected characteristic. The motto of the organisation you represent is ‘Raising Standards, Improving Lives’. Lives are improved when people have the opportunity to determine their own beliefs, not have them inculcated by aggressive secular dogmatists. You’re on record about the inculcation strategy, by the way.
The problem was neatly defined by the Christian Institute – ‘Just because somebody is religious and has socially conservative views, that does not mean that they have their first foot on the escalator to violent extremism’. A spokesperson from Anglican Mainstream (which, unlike the Christian Institute, is actually Anglican, Ms Spielman, just to clarify) pointed out that extremism is ‘a violent response involving physical harm to people’ and to confuse that with work in defending marriage and sexuality is’ illiterate’. If you need some lessons in literacy, Ofsted, we are happy to oblige.
Other concerns were expressed by the Safe at School Campaign, who saw the implications of the speech as so sinister that they called for Spielman’s resignation. As their press release pointed out, Spielman was acting way beyond her remit by:
•usurping parental rights in saying that she would back heads against parents
• manipulating British values in limiting freedom to speak about belief, which is an essential part of a liberal democracy
•accusing schools which teach basic Christian principles on marriage, sexuality and the sanctity of life of ‘indoctrinat[ing] impressionable minds under the guise of religious belief’.
The problem with the imposition of social control, as many dictators have discovered throughout history, is the immutability of Newton’s third Law of Motion. For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. So, Ofsted, you won’t solve the intractable, and very genuine, problem of extremist worldviews by imposing aggressive secularism, masquerading as muscular liberalism. You will simply drive the real problems further underground and out of reach, whilst alienating vast tracts of a reasonable and balanced society.
To paraphrase Pink Floyd (should you happen to be reading this, Ms Spielman) ‘Hey, Ofsted, leave our kids alone’.