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
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’.
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.