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