A Christian fostering agency has launched a legal challenge against Ofsted over a controversial inspection report requiring it to abandon its religious ethos.
Cornerstone Adoption and Fostering Service, an independent fostering agency which only places children with evangelical Christians, was visited by inspectors last year.
Despite previously being rated ‘Good’ in all areas, the most recent Ofsted report downgraded the fostering work to ‘Requires Improvement’, and branded Cornerstone’s ethos “discriminatory” because it holds to the mainstream Christian view of marriage.
The agency’s case will be heard by the High Court next week via video link. It is being supported by The Christian Institute.
Sheila Bamber, Cornerstone’s Chair of Trustees, said Ofsted failed to have proper regard to the law in downgrading Cornerstone “for its faith ethos that requires foster carers to be committed evangelical Christians who live out that faith in all areas of their life”.
She said that the judgement displays a “seriously flawed and discriminatory approach to our service”, adding that it is contradicted by a subsequent inspection of the adoption support service, which was deemed ‘Good’ in all areas.
“Ofsted is not a judicial body and is not equipped to make definitive legal statements about Cornerstone’s compliance with the Equality Act 2010 and Human Rights Act 1998. In so doing, Ofsted has acted beyond its remit and has misapplied the law.”
Cornerstone has submitted to the court letters of commendation from families and social workers. One describes staff at Cornerstone as “accepting, understanding and non-judgmental”.
Another says Cornerstone’s work “clearly makes a difference to young people and their families” and describes staff as “friendly, knowledgeable and happy to assist”.
Pam Birtle, Cornerstone’s CEO, who was herself in care as a child, said that if Cornerstone’s service was closed, many hard-to-place children would struggle to find homes.
She added: “Although our contribution is not massive, it’s significant to the children that we take and it’s our plan on the other side of this court case to grow Cornerstone to provide a greater sufficiency for the local authorities, so that more and more children can have the families that they so desperately need.”
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute, commented: “Evangelical Christians sometimes struggle to get through local authorities’ fostering recruitment because they can be uncomprehending of, or even hostile to, their beliefs.
“Cornerstone widens the pool of available adopters by bringing evangelical carers into the system, whilst subjecting them to the same rigorous assessment you would expect from any good agency.
“There are 306 Independent Fostering Agencies in England. Why is Ofsted insisting that non-evangelicals must also be able to use England’s only evangelical fostering agency?”
Cornerstone has faced scrutiny for its Christian ethos before.
The Christian Institute’s legal team helped them deal successfully with questions from the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2008 and the Charity Commission in 2010-11.