Plans for Ofsted to regulate after-school clubs and summer camps represent an “unprecedented attack” on religious freedom, The Christian Institute has warned in a letter to the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan.
The letter was sent in response to a Department for Education (DfE) consultation on proposals to introduce a nationwide registration scheme for any out-of-school setting providing instruction to under 19-year-olds for more than six hours in any week.
But The Christian Institute has warned that church youth work, music lessons, driving schools and even first aid courses could be caught by the plans.
In his letter, the Institute’s Director Colin Hart said he accepts that there are thought to be “a small number of settings where violent Islamist ideology is promoted to children”.
It would represent an unprecedented attack on freedom of religion in our country.Colin Hart
He said: “A targeted, intelligence-led approach to protecting children in such circumstances would be uncontroversial.
“But there is a serious risk that the universal approach suggested in the DfE consultation will capture vast numbers of moderate and mainstream religious activities, such as traditional Sunday schools, confirmation classes, choir practice, bell ringing and performing nativity plays.”
He questioned whether Ofsted will go into churches to inspect nativity play rehearsals, the script, or the Christmas carols performed.
Mr Hart continued: “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. It would represent an unprecedented attack on freedom of religion in our country.”
He added: “It is vital that the Department considers the real problems that this heavy-handed overreach will have on the volunteers who run the majority of these sorts of activities.”
He noted that thousands of school teachers who give up their free time to help with church activities may end up withdrawing out of fear that false allegations against their church would put their career at risk.
Mr Hart said the proposals are causing “great concern”: Ofsted and the DfE have been “unduly heavy-handed” in dealing with Christian and Jewish schools in an attempt to appear balanced in their treatment of other faith schools.
And he warned that non-religious out-of-school settings, such as sports clubs, army cadets and the Duke of Edinburgh Award, could be subject to inspections.
Needle in a haystack
He concluded by telling Mrs Morgan that the authorities are wasting their time by regulating Bible studies and sports clubs “instead of targeting genuine extremists”.
“Identifying possible terrorists is like finding a needle in a haystack. Registering and inspecting tens of thousands of youth groups for ‘potential extremists’ will only make the haystack much, much bigger.”
Currently, schools giving under 20 hours of instruction per week are allowed to operate without being registered.