An outcry by Christians over plans to register and inspect Sunday schools is forcing the Government to “tread carefully” over the matter, it has emerged.
During a debate in the House of Lords, Lord Nash, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System, revealed that a consultation on the out-of-school settings plans received 18,000 responses.
The Christian Institute, CARE, Christian Concern, Evangelical Alliance and Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship have been raising awareness about the proposals and urged supporters to respond to the consultation when it was announced.
The Government’s controversial out-of-school settings plans were engineered by former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan in the wake of the Trojan Horse affair, and are part of a wider Counter-Extremism Strategy.
They propose giving schools’ regulator Ofsted the legal power to investigate any setting in England that provides instruction to children for more than 6 to 8 hours in any week.
This could include Sunday schools, youth groups or one-off events such as a holiday Bible club. They would also apply to a whole host of secular settings such as music lessons and drama groups.
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” adding, “if you are teaching intolerance, we will shut you down”.
The plans have raised fears that Christian groups would be punished for teaching children traditional views on marriage.
Speaking in the Lords on Wednesday, Lord Nash said the Government is “determined to regulate in this area” but needs to “tread carefully because many of these organisations are small, open for only a few hours a week and staffed by volunteers”.
Earlier in the debate he revealed that work between the Government, Ofsted and local authorities has already led to the closure of “many” illegal settings, raising questions as to why any new powers are necessary at all.
Lord Nash also addressed demands for more intrusive regulation of home schooling, saying that the Government is “listening to both sides of the debate” and considering its position.
Deputy Director for Public Affairs for The Christian Institute, Simon Calvert, said: “The fact that 18,000 people responded to the Government’s consultation is really encouraging”.
“And the minister’s answer in the Lords shows that at least ministers are familiar with some of the arguments Christians have been putting forward”.
“Giving Ofsted a say in what’s taught in churches”, he added, is a “profoundly offensive idea”.
“Why in the world would you target church youth groups as part of any counter terrorism strategy? I mean, none of the 7/7 bombers were radicalised in Sunday schools.
“It’s a dangerous distraction for the counter terrorism service to be looking at what’s going on in Sunday schools.”
Earlier this week, the Government’s integration tsar said believing that marriage is between one man and one woman goes against British values.
Dame Louise Casey made the inflammatory remarks in front of MPs as they questioned her on a major report.
Discussing the Trojan Horse school affair, she likened Roman Catholic schools’ support for traditional marriage to the extremism exposed in Birmingham.
Dame Louise’s report on integration, published last month, recommended that holders of public office swear an ‘equality oath’ affirming British values.
But the idea has been criticised in the media and The Christian Institute warned it could lead to people with traditional views being excluded.