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Are Ofsted appropriate inspectors of church youth groups?
No, for two main reasons. First, Ofsted have a track record of failing to spot clear evidence of extremism in schools. Inspectors made catastrophic errors in schools involved in the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal in Birmingham, issuing glowing reports of some of these schools before the media storm broke.
Second, since the outcry over the ‘Trojan Horse’ schools, Ofsted have swung to the opposite extreme with inspectors failing to respect the beliefs of schools, teachers, pupils and parents. The Government’s vague ‘British values’ test has allowed inspectors to censure schools they disagree with. The track record below shows a consistent pattern of behaviour affecting different types of schools in various parts of the country. Ofsted has not admitted wrongdoing in any of these cases.
- In 2013, St Benedict’s, a Roman Catholic school in Bury St Edmunds, was ranked as one of the best state schools in the country for sending pupils to Oxbridge.1 But Ofsted inspected at no notice in September 2014 and downgraded the school to ‘Requires Improvement’. They stated that it is “not made clear how all students are prepared for life and work in modern Britain”2 – in other words, how the school delivered ‘British values’. Ofsted later withdrew the original inspection report after media coverage of the case,3 but went on to criticise the school alongside other schools in a public letter. The headteacher said: “The continuing accusation that this school is one of a handful identified with radicalisation and extremism concerns is hugely disturbing”.4
- An inspector told Trinity Christian School, a fee-paying independent school in Reading, that it needed to show it “actively promoted other faiths” in the curriculum, and said that representatives of other faiths should be asked to lead assemblies and lessons. Trinity had been rated “excellent” for its provision for pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development in November 2013.5
- Inspectors investigating ‘British values’ at Orthodox Jewish schools asked schoolgirls intrusive questions such as ‘Have you got a boyfriend?’ and ‘Do you know two men can marry?’ At one Orthodox Jewish primary school, girls aged nine were asked if they understood how babies were made and whether they knew any gay people.6 One of the schools – Beis Yaakov high school for girls – has been placed into special measures and rebuked by Ofsted for failing to promote ‘British values’.7
- At The Durham Free School, one 11-year-old pupil has said that she was asked if she knew any lesbians. She said she was also asked if she felt comfortable in her own body. There has also been an allegation that one inspector asked a female pupil inappropriate questions of a sexual nature in an unsafe situation. One student said that he was asked by the inspector personal questions about his sexuality and whether he had lost his virginity. These allegations are contained in written statements made by the students.8 This school was later closed on the grounds of the Ofsted report.9
- At Grindon Hall Christian School in Sunderland, primary school children said they were asked if they knew of any boys or girls who thought they were in the wrong body and if they knew what gays and lesbians did. Six-year-olds were asked if they knew anything about Diwali or if they were familiar with the Torah and others were asked if they knew anyone with two mums or two dads.10 The mother of one pupil stated: “The questioning was completely inappropriate, they asked her what lesbians were, and whether she felt trapped in someone else’s body.”11 The headteacher said: “Pupils were embarrassed and surprised to be asked questions about sexuality… The offer of a one-to-one meeting with an inspector, who was a complete stranger to them, in order to discuss personal matters of sexuality was also viewed with alarm by some parents.”12 The school was rated inadequate and on these grounds is being transferred into the control of a secular trust.13
- We are aware of similar questioning at other schools which prefer not to be identified publicly. In one case, it is alleged that teachers were questioned about their personal views on same-sex marriage.
- A number of other Christian schools have been criticised under the ‘British values’ agenda. One recent report states: “Pupils do not experience a balance of differing views on certain matters including the ‘protected characteristics’ (for example, relating to: age, disability, gender, marriage and civil partnerships, religion or belief, sexual orientation) of the Equality Act 2010. This all means that they are insufficiently prepared for life in modern Britain. This also means that leaders have not effectively promoted all forms of equality…”14
What are our main concerns with the scheme?
Our main concern is that this panic-driven response to Islamist extremism threatens to take away vital freedoms from law-abiding people, including seriously undermining the religious liberty of Christians.
The scheme is draconian – breaches could lead to groups being closed down or individuals banned from working with children. It permits secular inspectors to monitor Christian teaching and opens up youth leaders to false accusations.
Churches do not radicalise children. In fact, much extremist activity around the world is against Christians. The State should not regulate Church teaching. But the proposals allow Ofsted to investigate whether church activities for children comply with the Government’s vague and subjective ‘British values’ requirements.
In fact the plans put public safety at risk by distracting the security services from where radicalisation is taking place, for example online or in unregulated settings.
The scheme could also be used to stop teaching on the dangers of Islamic terrorism. Such teaching could be deemed on some occasions to be contrary to ‘British values’ by failing to show tolerance of other religions.
How do the plans relate to the Government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy?
The Government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy, published in October 2015, says inspection of supplementary schools will be introduced to “enable intervention” in settings that are “teaching children views which run contrary to our shared values” (para. 74, Counter-Extremism Strategy).
The Counter-Extremism Strategy also says that children in out-of-school settings “may be at risk of being presented with, and believing, twisted interpretations of their religion” (para. 24).
Introducing the plans, the Prime Minister referred particularly to madrassas. But he said inspections would apply to an institution “whatever its religion” and added, “if you are teaching intolerance, we will shut you down”.
Do the plans only extend to regular weekly activities?
No. The plans specifically include settings that “do not operate on a regular or weekly basis”, such as during the school holidays (para. 3.7).
Could church worship services be inspected under this proposal?
Yes. The consultation document does not exclude worship services from the 6 or more hours ‘instruction’ a child receives in any week. It’s likely an exception for worship services could be open to exploitation by an Imam who ensured an element of religious worship was included in the teaching at a madrassa, therefore exempting it from scrutiny. Since the Government is determined not to be seen as targeting only Islamic extremism, it is reasonable to assume church worship services could be inspected as well.
Why 6 hours per week?
The Government has chosen 6 or more hours in a week as an indicator that the education is intensive and may require inspection (para. 3.6).
But it is quite arbitrary to have a registration threshold based on hours per week. Is the Government suggesting that 5 hours teaching per week is less likely to radicalise children?
The Government’s approach suggests that an institution providing training for 2 hours a week throughout the year (and therefore totalling over 100 hours) would not be required to register. But a holiday Bible club running for 2 hours each morning during one week of the school holidays (only totalling 10 hours in the year) would.
How is the 6-hour threshold counted? Is it the total number of hours of all a church’s youth activities, or is it whether one child could experience more than 6 hours‘ teaching in a week?
A setting could be inspected if one child or young person receives more than 6 hours’ teaching in a week. It is the amount of instruction that an individual child or young person experiences that matters, rather than the total number of hours of all the church’s youth activities.
So for example, a child attending church on a Sunday and church youth groups during the week, could potentially meet the 6-hour threshold.
What is an ‘institution’?
The consultation is vague on what is meant by ‘institution’. Institution is not any particular type of organisation, and certainly not limited to a formal education provider. We do know that the Government is seeking “to capture the full range of provision” (para. 3.2). The sort of setting that would have to register is determined by what it does, that is, on the “tuition, training or instruction” provided (para. 1.2), not on how it is constituted. Churches and Christian organisations are undoubtedly included in this definition.
Does it make a difference if children are accompanied by their parents?
There is nothing in the consultation to suggest that parental supervision would make a difference. The document does say that the proposal “is not about regulating the education that parents provide their children in their homes” (para. 2.4) but no such guarantee is given for tuition, training or instruction at an institution even when parents are present.
What would trigger sanctions and what would they be?
Sanctions would be prompted if there was a failure to register when the threshold was met, and if inspectors find evidence of prohibited activities (such as teaching that undermines British values).
The proposed sanctions include banning people from working with children and closing down groups (para 3.21).
Will inspectors inspect the content of teaching?
It is difficult to see how inspectors will avoid inspecting the content of instruction or lessons. The consultation document claims that the inspection regime is “not about regulating religion or infringing people’s freedom to follow a particular faith” (para. 2.4), and that Ofsted would not be “tasked with looking at the suitability of education” (para. 3.16).
But this conflicts with the subsequent statement that “undesirable teaching” would be prohibited (para. 3.19), including teaching “views which undermine our fundamental British values” (para. 2.5). Children must be “taught in a way which prepares them for life in modern Britain and to actively contribute to society” (para. 3.6).
What administrative burden can out-of-school education settings expect?
It could prove to be a complicated administrative burden for youth groups and children’s clubs, even though the consultation claims it would “avoid imposing unnecessary burdens on the great number of such settings” (para. 1.1) and be “light-touch” (para. 3.13).
For example, it is unclear whether time spent on games such as dodgeball will count towards the 6 hours of education, or what happens in the case of a child who attends different educational settings by different providers at the same venue. We can envisage complicated administration for groups trying to work out if they need to register or not, and, if so, what activities count towards the 6-hour total.
Presumably, once a provider or setting was registered it would have to follow a minimum inspection standard. But we are not told what this would entail.
Where an umbrella organisation is involved, at what level should registration take place?
It is unclear whether it is up to local organisers to register and prepare for inspection or if it could be dealt with at the level of the national organisation, for example if the out-of-school education is provided by a larger organisation such as Brownies, or a political party.
Is the Government targeting groups that already have safeguards?
Yes, many of the settings that would be captured by the proposal are already subject to checks and registration, for example by the Charity Commission.
The document says that the scheme will not cover schools and childcare providers because they are already “regulated under child protection, education and/or childcare law” (para. 2.2). The same reasoning should be used to exempt registered charities and similar bodies from this new burdensome regulation, allowing the authorities to focus on unregulated settings.
Are only religious youth groups required to register?
Not at all. Political parties, atheist groups, sports clubs and wildlife summer schools would all have to register if they instruct or train children for 6 hours in any one week.
- 1Independent online, 20 June 2013, see http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/wealthy-suburban-schools-risk-losing-outstanding-status-over-failing-poorest-pupils-warns-ofsted-8667141.html as at 8 December 2015
- 2The Tablet, 10 October 2014, see http://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/1268/103/ofsted-pulls-report-that-chided-suffolk-school-for-its-lack-of-anti-radicalisation-teaching as at 8 December 2015; Guardian online, 14 November 2014, see http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/nov/14/ofsted-british-values-suffolk-school-bury-st-edmunds as at 8 December 2015
- 3Guardian online, 14 November 2014, see http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/nov/14/ofsted-british-values-suffolk-school-bury-st-edmunds as at 8 December 2015
- 4Telegraph online, 15 December 2014, see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/11292905/Catholics-demand-apology-after-Ofsted-makes-unsubstantiated-extremism-claim-against-school.html as at 8 December 2015; Telegraph online, 25 November 2014, see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/11253436/Ofsted-rural-schools-failing-to-promote-British-values.html as at 8 December 2015
- 5Telegraph online, 25 October 2014, see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/11187655/Trojan-Horse-rules-stopping-us-being-a-Christian-school-governors-warn.html as at 8 December 2015
- 6Jewish News, 14 October 2014, see http://www.jewishnews.co.uk/ofsted-bullying/ as at 8 December 2015
- 7The Guardian, 30 October 2014
- 8Daily Mail, 24 January 2015; The Northern Echo, 4 February 2015, see http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/NEWS/11769593.print/ as at 8 December 2015; Breitbart news, 27 February 2015, see http://www.breitbart.com/london/2015/02/27/christian-school-where-ofsted-branded-pupils-bigots-will-close-education-secretary-confirms/ as at 8 December 2015
- 9The Chronicle Live, 27 March 2015, see http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/pupils-tears-durham-free-school-8933664 as at 8 December 2015
- 10Sunderland Echo, 14 January 2015
- 11Metro, 23 January 2015, see http://metro.co.uk/2015/01/23/schoolgirl-left-in-tears-over-school-inspectors-lesbian-questions-5033150/ as at 8 December 2015
- 12Sunderland Echo, 14 January 2015
- 13The Guardian, 24 November 2015
- 14The Cornerstone School Inspection Report, Ofsted, 23 November 2015, page 4, see http://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/provider/files/2522856/urn/125438.pdf as at 8 December 2015