Regulating out-of-school education

In late November the Department for Education issued a call for evidence on inspection of informal out-of-school education in England. DfE’s intention is to register and inspect

“… out-of-school education settings providing intensive tuition, training or instruction to children. The system we envisage is intended to avoid imposing unnecessary burdens on the great number of such settings which are positively enhancing children’s education. It would, however, enable action to be taken where settings are failing to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, which includes failing to protect them from the harm caused by extremism” [para 1.1].

‘Children’ means those under the age of nineteen; and (in brief) it is proposed to introduce some form of inspection and regulation where informal education operates for more than six hours a week. What seemed to trigger the proposal was concern about the teaching in some madrassas and a handful of informal religious classes run by ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups. DfE is particularly concerned about issues such as the use of corporal punishment – which is illegal in formal schools, whether they are run by the local authority, a faith group or independent. There are also concerns about health and safety issues.

The proposal has caused considerable concern among several of the Christian Churches (and probably among other faith-groups as well): their representatives have pointed out that certain apparently-innocuous activities such as intensive choir-practices before a major festival, weekend residential courses or rehearsals for a drama group could be caught by the new policy. As part of the day-job I sent in a response on behalf of the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service pointing out that, while the Churches fully support “the broad aim of keeping children safe generally from the risk of harm, including emotional harm, and promoting their welfare” [para 2.1], some of the proposals in the package were fairly vague. In short, we suggested that the proposal, though understandable, has not been fully thought through and seems disproportionate to the mischief it is seeking to cure.

Evidently we were not alone. According to the Telegraph, Sir Gerald Howarth MP evidently wrote to the Prime Minister in terms rather similar to ours: in a letter dated 15 January, David Cameron has replied as follows:

“The Government is not proposing to regulate institutions teaching children for a short period every week, such as Sunday schools or the Scouts. Nor will it apply to one-off residential activities, such as a week-long summer camp. We are looking specifically at places where children receive intensive education outside schools, where children could be spending more than six to eight hours a week.

The Government is working closely with the Church of England and other faith communities to ensure that the system is targeted, proportionate and focuses on those settings which are failing to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Those discussions have been productive, and we have made clear the focus is on establishments that are preaching hatred or putting children at risk.”

So perhaps a sense of proportionality has prevailed. There remains, however, an unanswered question: how will it be possible to tailor the policy so as to address religious radicalisation (which is the underlying thrust of the proposal) without falling foul of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the ECHR, in particular Articles 8 (private and family life), 9 (thought, conscience and religion) and A2P1 (education) in conjunction with Article 14 (discrimination)? We await the consultation response with considerable interest.

Frank Cranmer

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Regulating out-of-school education" in Law & Religion UK, 20 January 2016, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2016/01/20/regulating-out-of-school-education/

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There is an update to this post at Regulating out-of-school education: is the DfE having second thoughts? 

5 thoughts on “Regulating out-of-school education

  1. This does not represent a change in policy, as far as I can see, though the subtle wording of the letter may make it look as though it does. Many active churches will provide events etc which total more than six hours per week for children on their premises and will, I believe, be required to register, to be open to inspection, and to be subject to sanctions, tested against criteria which are vague and subjective.

  2. Sir Michael Wilcox, the head of OFSTED, does not seem to be as sanguine as the Prime Minister about Sunday schools, which he says will have to be registered and may be inspected by OFSTED. I am not clear why that should be necessary given the provisions on safeguarding children which are in force now. It is not clear also whether events such as weekend or week long holiday camps will be subject to registration. Sir Michael says there will only be intervention by OFSTED if someone complains about a Sunday School but that does seem to give scope for those wanting to hamper out of school Christian work with children.

  3. I’m pretty doubtful myself: I merely reported what the PM was quoted as saying. I certainly don’t see how week-long – or even weekend – holiday camps could be excluded without accusations of discrimination.

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