‘Education has to be the values anchor in a stormy sea’ according to Amanda Spielman in an address to the Birmingham Education Partnership conference last week. The ground was carefully laid during the speech to make the argument appear irrefutable. Education challenges us and opens our minds to new concepts and ideas. It takes us on a ‘journey of enlightenment’ – spot the motivational rhetoric as the philosophical argument heads towards a moral precipice – a journey which is ‘far more difficult without democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law, and tolerance of different belief systems’. Well, nobody wants to send children off on a rocky, pot-holed road to ignorance, so obviously everyone is going to buy a ticket for this journey.
But the rhetoric belies embedded thinking within Ofsted that sends a much more sinister message. If you don’t embrace Ofsted’s interpretation of the Equality Act, you can’t absorb new ideas and you therefore, by implication, remain rooted in your own ignorance. If children aren’t being taught values at home or are being actively encourage to resist them, then schools must fill the gap and do so by ‘inculcating’ British values.
Education should establish moral codes in order to provide the values anchor that children need. And that goes straight to the heart of the argument. Who gets to decide what moral codes children are raised with? And who codes them: parents or the state? Amanda Spielman clearly has no doubts – where parents are deemed to be steering their children in the wrong direction, it’s the job of Ofsted to set them right. She even appears to rather regret the fact that children only spend one fifth of their lives in schools, thus severely limiting the amount of inculcating and moral anchoring that Ofsted can police.
The case of Vishnitz Girls School demonstrates the sharp barbs of this values anchor. Ofsted is adamant that inculcation is necessary in order to enforce the Equality Act 2010, because LGBT is a protected characteristic. Al Hijrah is another case in point. Accused of gender inequality, the school was failed by Ofsted. When it mounted a legal challenge (which it won on the grounds that segregation is not, of itself, discriminatory) Spielman found it deeply frustrating that a school used a legal challenge ‘to delay things that in our view urgently need to happen’. Her defence in court was short on empirical evidence and long on feminist ideology.
The word ‘inculcate’ was correctly chosen by Spielman: it means to ‘instil by persistent instruction’. An equally apposite word choice would have been ‘indoctrinate’. So there, beneath the beguiling tone of the speech, lies a deeper intention – to indoctrinate children with a liberal ideology and to deal with parents who choose not to buy a ticket for Ofsted’s journey to enlightenment.
Except, here’s the thing. Are Ofsted in breach of the very Equality Act which they so love to invoke? Because in the same week that Amanda Spielman was delivering this speech, the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education delivered its State of the Nation report. It showed that 28% of secondary schools gave no dedicated time to teaching RE – and that’s only the percentage of schools that owned up. More than a quarter of secondary schools are breaking the law, yet Ofsted simply looks the other way. They show missionary zeal in failing schools that don’t comply with their LGBT or feminist agendas, yet do nothing about schools that don’t comply with the law.
And this isn’t simply a case of schools breaking the law as defined in the 1944 Education Act. Schools are also failing to comply with the Equality Act 2010 by denying about 800,000 students each year of an opportunity to explore faith. Listen to the voices of young people in the Interim Report of the Commission on Religious Education to understand just how vital high quality RE teaching is in understanding belief. And if Ofsted think that such an understanding can be delivered through other routes, then they are guilty of doublethink of Orwellian proportions. If LGBT and feminism must be explicated in order to actively promote equality, then so must religion. Ofsted can’t pick and choose which protected characteristics it wants to police. If they are so ardent about equality, then the teaching of RE must be as vigorously enforced as all other aspects of the law.
It extends beyond the curriculum, too, because schools are failing to protect pupils of faith. The DfE is spending millions of pounds on stamping out homophobic bullying: the amount being spent on addressing religious bullying is zero. Schools are held to account if they don’t have a homophobic bullying policy in place: the accountability of schools for religious bullying is zero. Yet Ditch the Label, an organisation which collects data on teenagers’ views of bullying (rather than teachers’ perceptions) shows that the number of children bullied for their faith is the same as those being bullied for their sexuality. So where, DfE, is the money to stamp out religious bullying? And where, Ofsted, is the evidence of you holding schools to account?
The Bible uses the imagery of anchors, too. The letter to the Hebrews talks about our hope in God, saying that ‘We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure’ (Hebrews 6:19). Unlike British values, faith can never be inculcated – it’s a very personal decision made by people who want to live in relationship with God. Christian parents don’t need to indoctrinate their children so that they can cope with stormy seas – they know that hope in God will provides all the security we need through life, however stormy the sea gets.
The media clamour for compulsory SRE has reached the point of hysteria in the last few days, with one report even claiming that without it, women will become infertile. SRE provision is being blamed for everything from body shaming and mental ill-health, to child abuse and grooming. So, how did we get here? Should schools be solely responsible for addressing the problems that society faces as a result of total sexual freedom? And is it the role of democratic government to impose statutory regulation on the teaching of moral issues, regardless of a school’s ethos?
Historically, sex education was restricted to biology: human reproduction is still part of the science curriculum and is therefore statutory for all pupils. During the 1990s, sex education also became part of the PSHE programme; although PSHE has no prescribed content, it must form part of school curriculum provision. By 2010, the concept of relationships education had entered the arena and, completely ignoring the roles and responsibilities of parents, the DfE was stating that ‘children need high-quality SRE so they can make wise and informed choices’. Then the lobbying began in earnest, with women’s groups and LGBTQI+ activists among the most vociferous callers not just for statutory SRE provision, but for a centrally imposed curriculum with no parental opt out. It’s all about control – seize central control and remove parents from the loop, then you can influence whatever brand of propaganda you wish to be imposed on children and young people.
It’s no longer about the biology of reproduction, or about how to behave in a relationship, but about how young people should feel about sex. It’s no longer about how to stay physically safe and avoid pregnancy, but about how to stay emotionally safe and avoid getting harmed by your choices. Consent has become a twisted form of risk assessment, to be conducted before you embark on a physical activity: SRE teaching has become a matter of self-defence and safeguarding. As Ofsted determined, SRE should ‘promote equality in relationships and emphasise the importance of seeking and gaining mutual consent through positive and active communication’. Saying no isn’t enough – people must be taught to mediate consent.
This week’s media hype is probably due, in no small part, to NC5 – an amendment clause in the Children and Social Work Bill that is currently going through Parliament. If it becomes law, some very significant rights will be protected.
Successive governments have procrastinated on SRE policy revision, but it is widely expected that when the DfE finally acts, it will impose a centrally designed curriculum with no right of parental opt-out and consultation, or consideration of religious belief. Activists have taken advantage of the delay, using the media to build up a head of steam. As a result, the majority of parents and students themselves are now calling for high quality SRE, so the DfE can finally move with impunity, even though parents and students have little idea of the likely implication of their wishes when shaped into policy.
The NC5 amendment was designed to pre-empt that by protecting parental opt-out (except where Sex Ed is already part of the statutory science curriculum), to enforce parental consultation and to protect religious belief. It effectively ties the hands of the liberal lobby as they can no longer dominate central policy. ‘Consultation’ could be anything from parents being able to view materials (the current situation) to parents being involved in policy formation, curriculum content and resourcing (one model the DfE has considered as part of its best practice study). The amendment is also designed to make the building of strong, lasting relationships part of SRE. It’s a positive view of relationships that is lacking in any other proposals.
So that is how we got here. But what about the role of schools? Schools have always been good places for the delivery of centralised messages, as MP Diana Johnson acknowledged when presenting a Ten Minute Rule Bill on the issue of compulsory SRE in October 2014. She stated:
‘of course we want parents and families to be part of the discussions with youngsters about relationships and keeping safe, but … leaving it to parents, which is the current approach and the approach of decades past, is not working, it’s failing and it isn’t fit for the challenges of the future.’
Some parents don’t accept their responsibilities, but the solution is not to remove control from those parents who do, and who feel strongly about what their children are taught concerning relationships, identity and morality. Removing parental rights of opt-out and consultation is a denial of an essential freedom. The idea has little to do with feckless parents and everything to do with finding an excuse to enforce conformity to the liberal agenda.
For Christian schools and parents, the concept of an ‘anything goes’ SRE curriculum in which they have no say is alarming. The Bible teaches that sex is a gift from God, to be enjoyed between a man and a woman within marriage. It teaches that relationships are about building one another up in loving and supportive partnerships. The Bible also teaches that parents are responsible for their children’s education. So if NC5 allows parents to continue to do just that, using the Bible as their guide in raising their children to live in relationship with God, then the amendment is to be welcomed for ensuring that parents are included.