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 February 16, 2018 Admin10
Kirsty Williams AM, Cabinet Secretary for Education, announced the Welsh Assembly’s consultation on elective home education recently. The inclusion of compulsory registration and inspection was widely expected. In a surprising turn of events, it didn’t happen. Williams revealed that there wil be no compulsory registration, despite calls for this following the death of Dylan Seabridge.
She acknowledged that Wales (and this is also true of England) has the lightest touch legislation on elective home education of any government in Europe. That makes it the envy of many other countries, including America. That light touch may well continue, but don’t be too easily persuaded. Two definitive statements stand in stark contrast in the speech: ‘let me be absolutely clear: we will not be compelling parents to register that their child as being home educated’ (so far, so good) followed by a declaration that ‘the Government has a moral duty to ensure that all children receive a suitable education’ (probably not so good). Williams explained in some detail how this will be implemented. The responsibility will rest with Local Authorities to know where the children in their remit are being educated. To facilitate this, LAs will be required to maintain a database, to which independent schools will be have to contribute.
But that doesn’t mean that EHE parents are home and dry. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales has raised the issue of children’s rights and that is part of a much more sinister trend of governments across the UK to ‘rebalance’ the rights of children against their parents – the Named Person strategy in Scotland is the most overt attempt. The only possible outcome of rebalancing is for the state to assume all rights over a child’s upbringing. With rights and responsibilities removed, parents become nothing more than biological hosts for the next generation of society. It’s also a key indicator of a totalitarian regime.
There is also the issue of who defines ‘suitable education’ – this was described in the debate as a key litmus test. Very few home educating parents have sympathy with the current culture of measurement which values children solely by exam grades. But Williams is clear ‘that local authorities will act on their legal duties to intervene when children are not receiving a suitable education or may be experiencing neglect’. So this isn’t just about safeguarding. In fact, as with all other debates about the rights of parents, safeguarding is only a convenient smokescreen – a useful mechanism for garnering public support. At first reading, it seems like a good deal. On closer inspection, one might reasonably assume that the Welsh government has decided it can’t get away with walking through the door, but it’s certainly intending to climb through a window.
Little is said about the parents of special needs or disabled children who are increasingly removing their children from formal schooling because their needs are simply not being met. Other parents are choosing to home educate because they don’t consider the state offer to be appropriate for their children. Increasingly, there is anecdotal evidence that some schools are themselves encouraging parents to home educate their children, rather than face an expulsion which will remain on their record. None of these children is receiving a ‘suitable’ education from the very state which assumes moral superiority.
So what does this mean for England? Various high profile cases have hit the headlines recently, including mass ‘return to school’ notices in East Anglia, and a similar notice to the child actor who took the role of Matilda in the West End hit musical last year. The bigger picture suggests that Local Authorities in England are pushing hard to ensure that they are being seen to do their duty, but also to demonstrate the urgent need for compulsory registration.
A government consultation is expected in England any day now, so it will be interesting to see whether any notice has been taken of the approach preferred by the Welsh Assembly. Lord Agnew would be well advised to take note of Williams’ answer when asked why she wasn’t making registration compulsory:
‘a compulsory register that would potentially criminalise parents if they failed to register—relies on those parents to do that. The issue is that that legislation would only be as good as our ability to enforce it, which means you need to know who hasn’t registered.’
Applying the Rumsfold formula to the situation, if you don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t take any action. So the very children most at risk of harm, or radicalisation, or neglect, can remain hidden from authorities if parents are determined to keep them so.
During the debate in the Welsh Assembly , Williams made the following statement:
‘This Government is committed to ensuring that every child and young person receives an education that inspires, motivates and equips them with the skills and knowledge necessary to fulfil their potential.’
Perhaps it might occur to those trying to limit, or oppose, the rights of parents that this is exactly the reason why home educators do what they do, rather than leave their children’s potential and wellbeing to the vagaries of the state.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written a letter to parishes, challenging the thinking of Christians about the upcoming election.
Education features throughout their letter, acknowledging its significance in nurturing a strong, stable society and raising some relevant questions about our education service. They state: ‘If our shared British values are to carry the weight of where we now stand and the challenges ahead of us, they must have at their core, cohesion, courage and stability. Cohesion is what holds us together’. Education can be a powerful force for nurturing cohesion, but it shouldn’t be used as a tool of force. Instead of seeking to impose further centralised control over curriculum content, the government should be acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of our education service, the role that the Church has played in its formation over centuries, and the right of parents to choose the education which most closely matches their parenting values. Cohesion is not uniformity – cohesion is living at peace with difference and showing respect for fellow humanity. These should be the British values which we share in a pluralist society.
The letter calls for ‘education for all’. For this to be effective, it requires us to acknowledge that we are all uniquely created in the image of God, with different gifts, skills and aspirations. To achieve meaningful education for all which nurtures individuals and promotes human flourishing, we must stop the current ‘one size fits all’ approach to education. We should create an environment in which schools of all types, including Christian schools, can thrive without fear.
We are called to act with courage, which ‘also demands a radical approach to education, so that the historic failures of technical training and the over-emphasis on purely academic subjects are rebalanced’. It is time to reverse an education culture of constant high stakes measurement, which values nothing but results and predictions of future economic prosperity. We need to develop an education service which focuses on the holistic development of people. Careers education, for example, should be about reflecting on individual identity, values, interests, aspirations and ambitions, rather than measuring the effectiveness of careers education purely on consideration of maximising income.
The Archbishops further write: ‘To our concern for housing, health and education as foundations for a good society, we add marriage, the family and the household as foundational communities, which should be nurtured and supported as such, not just for the benefit of their members, but as a blessing for the whole of society’. Yet the new Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) requirements, made statutory in the Children and Social Work Bill that received royal assent this week, require schools to teach all relationships as being equal.
There is a growing body of evidence that children raised in stable families with two parents who are committed to each other in marriage are much more likely to achieve their potential academically, socially and personally. Yet despite highlighting the importance of marriage and family in the past, the government does not privilege them in any of the new policy proposals. Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, recently called for faith schools to reach ‘common ground’ with the LGBT community on sex education. Why? Faith schools should be allowed to genuinely teach according to the tenets of their faith. Further, the right of parental opt out should be extended across the whole of the RSE and Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) policies. To do otherwise is to open the door to state indoctrination on matters of morality and ethics.
Regarding the issue of assumptions of secularism, which now inform all education policy formation, the Archbishops state: ‘Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief. The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works, nor will they enable us to understand the place of faith in other people’s lives’. This is nowhere more evident than in the teaching of science. Government advice states that ‘Any explanation or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution cannot be permitted in science classes’. This limits open consideration of a range of theories about our origins, including creation.
Finally, the letter raises the issue of religious freedom, positing that, ‘The new Parliament, if it is to take religious freedom seriously, must treat as an essential task the improvement of religious literacy’. The RE Commission, a non-statutory body, is currently gathering evidence with a remit to make recommendations designed to improve the quality and rigour of religious education and its capacity to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain. Any changes to the framework or policy must acknowledge the religious diversity of Britain, the distinctiveness of each faith, the right of parents to make decisions about their child’s involvement in religious education and the right of schools to determine curriculum in a local context. We must avoid the imposition of a centralised curriculum, which is the route to totalitarian control. It is also time to put an end to the practice of safe spaces and no-platforming in further education institutions which limit the rights of Christians to express their views openly in the public square.
British valuesChristian pedagogyChurch roleFaith schoolsFamilyParentingRESecularism