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
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
Damian Hinds was appointed as the Secretary of State for Education last week. The smouldering debate over faith schools also flared into flames again last week. The connection? Damian Hinds is a Catholic.
It took Humanists UK, outraged at the appointment of a person of faith to public office, less than 24 hours to get an article in the media claiming that the Catholic church, by supporting an intern, was guilty of ‘pernicious and deeply inappropriate political lobbying’ and that Damian Hinds was guilty of a conflict of interest.
It was a ludicrous claim, easily dismissed and widely ridiculed on social media. A range of organisations pay for interns to gain invaluable experience of political work: it is quite proper for the Catholic church to support a Catholic graduate to work alongside a Catholic MP. Damian Hinds followed protocol and declared the payment in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. So what is Humanists UK’s problem? Simply that Hinds is a Catholic. They can’t say so, of course, because that would breach the Equality Act.
The urgent concern of Humanists UK is that Damian Hinds might remove the 50% cap on faith school admissions, which currently prevents the Catholic church from opening any free schools. The cap removal was promised in the Conservative manifesto at the last election, but the pledge was broken soon after the Conservative government was re-elected and that was pretty much how opponents of faith education liked it. A consideration of the facts might help them to understand why lifting the cap could be a good thing.
The Catholic church would open between 30 and 40 new free schools if the cap was removed, creating between 15,000 and 20,000 new places. The growth of Catholic populations in some areas of the country, as a result of immigration, is considerable. A free school can only be opened where there is proven need and the pressure on places clearly demonstrates an urgent need. For the government this is much less about Catholic education than about not having to foot the bill for building new schools or finding 20,000 additional places in already overcrowded schools.
It’s a win-win situation for everyone, except those implacably opposed to faith education who are never going to send their children to these schools anyway. But because they don’t want them, they insist that nobody else should want them either. The arguments, of course, have to be political, because the Equality Act prevents them from opposition purely on the grounds of faith. So this is how their arguments run.
Faith schools create silos of segregation. The case of Northern Ireland is sometimes quoted in this argument. Except, of course, English society is not divided along sectarian lines and all schools are reflections of the communities they serve. Anyone accusing a village school serving farming communities, or a school teaching children from military families, of social segregation would be laughed at. Yet somehow it’s fine to level the accusation when it comes to faith.
Church schools proselytise and indoctrinate the next generation of society. Well, if that were true, churches would be full to overflowing every Sunday. Empty pews and falling attendance numbers in many churches show that young people are making up their own minds about faith and voting with their feet.
Faith schools unfairly take tax payers’ money. Parents of faith pay tax, too. In addition, their churches provide financial input to their schools which the government could simply not sustain from public funds.
Church schools bias their admissions in favour of middle class parents with sharp elbows. Read the Catholic Education Service’s recent census, which shows beyond dispute that Catholic schools serve some of the most disadvantaged children in society. Examine the figures for Church of England schools that faithfully serve the communities in which they are located regardless of social status. Of course there are parents who subvert admissions procedures in order to get their children into the school of their choice. But how is that any different from parents who move house in order to do exactly the same?
All these weary arguments will, no doubt, be given another media airing over the next few weeks. As a Christian, I find it encouraging that we have a religiously literate Secretary of State, in an age when rampant religious illiteracy roams the corridors of power at will. Instead of an Education Secretary who tells the church that it needs to get in line with modern attitudes on LGBT ideology, we hopefully have one who understands that churches’ teaching on marriage and identity is derived from the Bible, not public opinion.
The problem for opponents of Damian Hinds’ appointment is, of course, that they object to the presence of faith in the public square in any shape or form. An Education Secretary with faith raises the very real possibility that secular, liberal apologists will have to make space for the voice of faith to speak, too. Having worked so hard for so long to silence it, that must be a daunting prospect.
But here’s the most important point that the faith opposition lobby has to understand – they live in a democracy. The Department of Education loves faith schools. They said so this week in a statement: ‘We want to go further to ensure all young people have access to a good school place and we are keen for faith groups to play a key role in this. Many faith schools are high-performing and are more likely to be rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted than non-faith schools.’ A third of all children in this country are educated in church schools, and many more who apply are unable to get a place.
So the government loves church schools and needs church money. Hundreds of thousands of parents (even those of no faith) love church schools because of the quality of holistic education that they offer.
It looks like opponents are tilting at windmills.