As we mentioned in an earlier post, the Department for Education’s call for evidence on inspection of informal out-of-school education in England caused considerable concern among several of the Christian Churches – and, indeed, among faith-groups generally – that all sorts of innocuous activities could be caught by the new policy.
On 20 January the issue was debated in Westminster Hall and, in reply to that debate, the Minister for Education, Nick Gibb, explained some of the Government’s thinking behind the proposal:
“First, I can confirm that the Government are not proposing to regulate settings 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 they could typically be spending more than six to eight hours a week.
Secondly, providers wishing to set up and run out-of-school education settings will not need to seek the Government’s approval to do so. Although our proposals envisage that such settings operating intensively should register, the aim of that is simply to improve the visibility of such settings. There would not be an application process and registration would be automatic. We have no intention of tying up voluntary and private sector organisations in red tape.
Thirdly, we are not proposing that settings eligible to register should be routinely inspected. This would be wholly disproportionate and an inefficient use of resources. We think that an inspection should only happen when there is evidence that certain prohibited activities might be taking place within a particular setting. Settings that provide a safe environment for children to learn in could legitimately expect never to be inspected.
Fourthly, we have no intention of seeking to regulate religion or to interfere in parents’ right to teach children about their faith and heritage. Protecting religious liberty is a fundamental principle. Out-of-school settings will not have the same obligations as schools actively to promote fundamental British values. Although out-of-school settings of all types can, and do, impart positive values to children, they are not the main providers of children’s education, and it is certainly not the state’s role to prescribe what they should teach, just as we are not seeking to prescribe other aspects of how they operate. I can therefore confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and other hon. Members that Sunday schools will not be under any requirement to teach any other religions.
The plans are for the threshold to be hit when a child attends a setting for more than six hours a week and that activities run by one setting would be aggregated but, following the call for evidence, we are considering a range of issues and how to take forward the proposals. We will look at whether it is appropriate to disaggregate particular activities or indeed, exempt particular activities altogether. That question was in the call for evidence.
[The Regulations] are not a way of regulating religion. We are not infringing people’s freedom to follow particular faiths or hold particular beliefs. In fact, the mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs is one of our core British values, alongside democracy, rule of law and individual liberty, and nothing in the proposals infringes on that.
… I will finish by saying that we welcome the suggestions that a number of faith organisations have made about how to ensure that any system of regulation is targeted, proportionate and focused on those settings that are failing to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.” [our emphasis].
The policy as announced in the call for evidence talked about intensive education as
“anything which entails an individual child attending a setting for more than between 6 to 8 hours a week, bearing in mind that this could be over an hour every day after school or on one or both days of the weekend” [3.7].
It is difficult to see how, on the face of it, the definition as originally formulated could not have been intended to include “one-off residential activities, such as a week-long summer camp”. So it looks as if proportionality may have broken out.