Civil Liberties

MPs unite to condemn Ofsted regulation of Sunday schools


Anyone with even a modicum of understanding will know that not all religions in all of their forms are equally benign. That’s where the whole ‘British Values’ drive has come from. Some aspects of Islamic religion and culture sit uneasily within the way British society has traditionally functioned, and with the rise of Wahhabi-inspired extremism the problem has got a whole lot worse.

The problem for a government which is keen to ensure that the values of liberalism and equality are upheld is that they can’t be seen to be singling out one group more than any other as the bad guys. It’s a bit like parents desperately trying to control a child who’s gone off the rails by imposing a whole set of new rules on all of their children even though the others are responsible, well-behaved and get along fine most of the time. For the other siblings it becomes a constant source of irritation that they are penalised despite not having done anything wrong.

We’re seeing exactly that happen right now with the proposed introduction by the Department for Education of registration and potential Ofsted assessment of all out-of-school provision which lasts for six hours or more in any week (who decided it takes at least six hours a week to teach extremist views?). That could quite easily include Sunday schools and church youth and holiday clubs as well as scout and guide groups and all sorts of community, sports and interest groups.

We all know that the real reason this has come about is because of the discovery of unregistered Muslim schools and madrassas which have been found to be operating in wholly inappropriate conditions and ways. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has estimated that these ‘problem’ groups and institutions number in the tens, and yet her plan is to burden thousands of other religious (and non-religious) schools and clubs with bundles of red tape, and the fear that they could be inspected and shut down if someone makes a complaint against them. It will be for Big Brother Ofsted to decide what teaching is and isn’t suitable and which views are or aren’t ‘extremist’. Last Thursday the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, further inflamed the situation on LBC radio. When asked whether Ofsted would go into Sunday schools to inspect them, he said:

The government needs to know where these places are and who’s running them and whether they’re fit and proper people to run these places… We’ve got to deal with this in an even-handed way and all we’re saying is that if church groups or religious groups want to run out-of-school classes then they need to register so that the country and the Department for Education know that they exist and that they’re being run properly.

How can Ofsted possibly know if a group is being run properly without inspecting it? And who are they to determine whether a church holiday club is fit for purpose when there are no criteria to establish what that actually means? How can it avoid becoming anything but the state regulation of religion?

David Cameron has stepped in to allay fears, insisting that Sunday schools and one-off summer camps would not be inspected. But amidst the confusion, contradictions and shoddy thinking, the climate of fear has already spread. I heard from the front of my own church on Sunday that our annual holiday club might not be able to continue next year because a change in legislation could mean that it becomes too difficult to get it registered and approved. This is unlikely to be the case, but the anxiety was genuine and it is bound to be a sentiment shared by many other churches and youth groups around the country who work hard to provide a great deal that benefits children in their local communities, way beyond what may be termed religious instruction.

The DfE’s consultation, which closed 10 days ago, received over 10,000 responses. MPs from across the spectrum lined up to condemn the proposals for a variety of reasons. Sir Gerald Howarth called for Michael Wilshaw to be sacked, and David Burrowes, who helps run his church’s summer camp, said:

Make no mistake, that if the registration and inspection regime comes into effect I will not let inspectors into my youth camp and I expect thousands others to join me in refusing to accept Ofsted’s new role as religious police.

Yesterday, criticism of the plans poured forth during a debate in Parliament secured by Sir Edward Leigh. His speech summed up the displeasure and dissatisfaction expressed during the session:

This scheme for spotting jihadists is therefore going to impose state regulation on groups teaching arts, music and sport, activities in which jihadists are not particularly known to engage. Stalin used to persecute innocent groups of philatelists or Esperanto learners; is this a very British kind of Stalinism?

..Christian groups, are really worried. They are terrified because, for the first time, Ofsted will decide whether to bar someone or close down their youth work by assessing whether their teaching is “compatible with, and does not undermine, fundamental British values…” Does the Department [for Education] really have a right to decide what is desirable and undesirable teaching in churches?

..The whole thing is a ridiculous mess that will severely damage the big society… It is the children who will suffer, not us, Ofsted or the Government… all because of this bizarre, unfocused, ill-thought-out, politically correct imposition on our freedom.

..To top it all, the scheme will not make children any safer from extremism; it will just tie up thousands of non-jihadi groups in red tape. The idea that jihadists will take the time to register is incredibly naive. Islamist extremists regard our laws as a total irrelevance. If they have no conscience about teaching children that Jews and Christians are worse than dogs, does anyone seriously think they will have a conscience about registering with the local authority? Are they really going to put themselves on the radar for an inspection? If they beat up children for not memorising the Koran, do we really think they are going to put their hands up and say, “Here we are—come and inspect us”? If Ofsted turns up to assess them, does anybody think that they would use the occasion to show their ghastly videos?

This out-of-school setting scheme is a total and utter distraction. We will end up with a list of tens of thousands of law-abiding, non-extremist groups, and Ofsted inspectors will try to justify their existence by picking on the occasional conservative religious group and brand them non-compliant with British values. It is a typical case of politicians and civil servants wanting to look as if they are doing something, rather than actually doing something. If they actually want to do something, they need to knock together the heads of the police, social services departments, Ofsted and all those with existing powers to make them use those powers properly.

On page 61 of the Conservative Party’s 2015 General Election Manifesto it is written that the party would “reject any suggestions of sweeping, authoritarian measures that would threaten our hard-won freedoms”. Somehow, in their zeal to combat Islamic extremism and the Islamist radicalisation of children, the DfE has misplaced the common-sense capacity to discriminate between good and bad; between right and wrong. Centuries of virtuous Christian Sunday schooling is being sacrificed as extremist paranoia officiates in the form of coercive regulation and illiberal dispensation.

This is such a bad, incompetent and shambolic idea. MPs are right to unite against it, and churches would be wholly justified in their non-compliance and non-cooperation with the state’s inspectorate of secular orthodoxy.