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.