On Thursday, Amanda Spielman, HM Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills, gave a speech at the conference of the Church of England Foundation for Education Leadership. Two points were of general interest to students of law and religion. On the tensions between faith and social cohesion, she said this:
“… tolerance and respect does not mean that we should privilege all belief above criticism. Ofsted inspectors are increasingly brought into contact with those who want to actively pervert the purpose of education. Under the pretext of religious belief, they use education institutions, legal and illegal, to narrow young people’s horizons, to isolate and segregate, and in the worst cases to indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology. Freedom of belief in the private sphere is paramount, but in our schools it is our responsibility to tackle those who actively undermine fundamental British values or equalities law.
That doesn’t just mean Ofsted, but everyone involved in education. Rather than adopting a passive liberalism that says ‘anything goes’ for fear of causing offence, schools leaders should be promoting a muscular liberalism. That sort of liberalism holds no truck for ideologies that want to close minds or narrow opportunity. Occasionally, that will mean taking uncomfortable decisions or having tough conversations. It means not assuming that the most conservative voices in a particular faith speak for everyone – imagine if people thought the Christian Institute was the sole voice of Anglicanism. And it means schools must not be afraid to call out practices, whatever their justification, that limit young people’s experiences and learning in school.”
She commented that
“Many of our faith schools are exemplars in promoting tolerance, not just of different faiths, but also lifestyles and cultures as well. This stands in stark contrast to the way many faith schools operate in other countries and is something that we should be rightly proud of”.
However, she went on to say that there were segments of particular faiths that were determined to use schools to promote beliefs and practices that were anathema to British values and she expressed her full support for Neena Lall, the Headteacher of St Stephen’s School in Newham, who banned the wearing of hijabs at her school by girls under eight. Specifically:
“… one of our greatest areas of concern is what is happening under the radar in so-called out-of-school provision. Out-of-school provision is a mainstay of the work of the church; indeed it is hard to think of a more British institution than a Sunday school. Similar positive activity groups exist in other faiths, providing extra-curricular activities, language training and spiritual instruction. I have no doubt they provide an enriching experience to the young people who attend them. But some other out-of-school settings operate less benignly. These institutions, some of which operate as illegal schools, use the opportunity to – in the words of the former Prime Minister – put ‘poison in the minds, hatred in hearts’ of young people. They need to be tackled.
That is why … it is a matter of regret that the Church has resisted changes in the law to allow Ofsted to inspect these settings. This is not about infringing religious freedom: no one is proposing a troop of inspectors turning up at Sunday schools. Instead, it is about ensuring that the small minority of settings that promote extremism are not able to evade scrutiny. If we are to protect many of the tenets that the Church holds dear, we need the power to tackle those trying to use education to undermine them.”
The original proposal for inspecting out-of-school education settings was made before Ms Spielman became HMCI and the target appeared to be informal, after-school madrassas and (possibly) Ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools of the kind highlighted in the recent report by the London Borough of Hackney’s Children and Young People’s Scrutiny Commission. However, the proposal was drafted in such a way that, on a very careful reading, it appeared – rightly or wrongly – that it would catch activities such as a series of intensive choir-practices in the week before a major service.
Perhaps it might prove possible to devise a more-focused inspection scheme for out-of-school education settings; but unless such a scheme is drafted in general terms there is always a danger of it falling foul of the Equality Act 2010 and Article 9 ECHR – of which, as a public authority, Ofsted is obliged to take account.