The Government will push ahead with its plans to give schools’ regulator Ofsted the power to investigate church youth work.
Ministers have announced that they will “set out next steps” for proposals to register and inspect all out-of-school settings.
This could include church youth groups and one-off events such as holiday Bible clubs.
The Government revealed its intention to push ahead in a response to serious concerns from the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
A report by the group, published in July, identified “grave concerns” and vowed to “return to this issue” when more details are known.
In a written response released yesterday, the Government said it was considering how best to take the policy forward, highlighting that settings deemed to be failing to promote children’s ‘wellbeing’ will be targeted.
The Government also praised Ofsted’s controversial ‘British values’ inspections, which have targeted young pupils at Christian and other religious schools with intrusive and inappropriate questioning.
Absurd and damaging
Despite this response, the Government went on to claim it accepted that: “Freedom of worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty that should be defended.”
The out-of-school settings plans, which are part of a wider counter-extremism strategy, have provoked fierce criticism from various groups, including MPs.
During a parliamentary debate in May this year, Tory backbencher Sir Gerald Howarth said, “regulating groups such as Sunday schools is clearly absurd.
“It would place a huge administrative burden on such groups, would severely damage volunteering and would be a serious infringement of personal liberty and freedom of association.”
DUP MP Gavin Robinson warned that introducing such a measure would “breach the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment to reject any sweeping authoritarian measures that would threaten the hard-won freedoms in this country.
“It would be far too wide and far too shallow, when, in response to extremism, we need a measure that is deep and narrowly focused”, he said.
The Christian Institute’s Director Colin Hart has called the out-of-schools settings plans an “unprecedented attack” on religious freedom.
In a letter to then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan last year, Mr Hart wrote: “The idea of having an Ofsted inspector sitting in on your church youth group or Sunday school to see if you are an extremist is, I have to say, highly offensive.”
The Government wants to inspect any out-of-school setting in England which provides instruction to children for more than 6 to 8 hours in any week.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron referred particularly to madrassas when he announced the new approach, but said it will apply to an institution “whatever its religion” and added: “if you are teaching intolerance, we will shut you down”.
For more about how churches will be affected, go to our out-of-school settings campaign page and watch our video, ‘Don’t close my Sunday School!’ – Poppy’s story.