Vi­o­lat­ing our free­dom to think

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Ge­of­frey Al­der­man

LAST NOVEM­BER, THE govern­ment launched a con­sul­ta­tion on a se­ries of mea­sures de­signed to reg­u­late “out-of-school education set­tings”. This phrase was de­fined as en­com­pass­ing “any in­sti­tu­tion pro­vid­ing tu­ition, train­ing or in­struc­tion to chil­dren aged un­der 19 in Eng­land that is not a school, col­lege, 16-19 academy or reg­is­tered child­care provider.”

Prime Min­is­ter Cameron as­sured us that the mea­sures were de­signed to tackle “ex­trem­ism”. Now that the con­sul­ta­tion has ended, it seems he was be­ing eco­nom­i­cal with the truth. For the Chief In­spec­tor of Schools, Sir Michael Wil­shaw, has made it clear he in­tends to use new pow­ers to in­ter­vene vig­or­ously in the man­ner in which part-time religious in­struc­tion classes (“Sun­day schools”) of­fer­ing more than six hours of in­struc­tion a week go about their work. Such en­ti­ties will, it ap­pears, be obliged to reg­is­ter with Of­sted and sub­mit them­selves to its scru­tiny.

Wil­shaw’s state­ment has pro­voked out­rage. So it should. No one ob­jects if Of­sted uses pow­ers to shut down ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions that are haz­ardous, un­safe and/or in­san­i­tary. And I don’t sup­pose that any­one is go­ing to ob­ject if Of­sted in­ter­venes to call a halt to the in­flic­tion of cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment — though at the ram­shackle slum of a cheder that I at­tended in Hack­ney 60 years ago, cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment was part of life’s colour­ful rou­tine and it doesn’t seem to have done me any harm. It is clear, how­ever, that, with Wil­shaw at the helm, Of­sted is minded to med­dle in the very cur­ricu­lum that re­li­gion classes fol­low. And that is some­thing about which we should all be con­cerned.

The back­ground to this ini­tia­tive is the govern­ment’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to crack down on what it terms “ex­trem­ism.” By this is not meant “vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism,” be­cause in­cite­ment to vi­o­lence has al­ways been a crime. But fol­low­ing the pas­sage last year of the Counter-Ter­ror­ism And Se­cu­rity Act, reg­u­la­tory and ed­u­ca­tional au­thor­i­ties have been charged with a statu­tory “Pre­vent Duty”. Al­though it ap­peared that what was be­ing sin­gled out for preven­tion was “be­ing drawn into ter­ror­ism”. I can tell you — as a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive specif­i­cally charged with the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the duty — that the mean­ing is be­ing cast in far wider terms. As in­ter­preted by govern­ment, it is now deemed to em­brace “vo­cal or ac­tive op­po­si­tion to fun­da­men­tal Bri­tish val­ues in­clud­ing democ­racy, the rule of law, in­di­vid­ual lib­erty and the mu­tual re­spect and tol­er­ance of dif­fer­ent faiths and be­liefs.”

No one in govern­ment has been able to pro­vide me with a sat­is­fac­tory def­i­ni­tion of the phrase “fun­da­men­tal Bri­tish val­ues”. But this has not dimmed the en­thu­si­asm of Of­sted in­spec­tors, who have in some cases in­ter­preted it to in­clude the ne­ces­sity to ques­tion the tra­di­tional view of mar­riage (a view re­jected by Mr Cameron) as the union of a man and a woman. “The fact is [says the Coali­tion for Mar­riage] that “un­der the [new] plans, Of­sted in­spec­tors would be on the look­out for ‘un­de­sir­able teach­ing’ which con­flicts with the Govern­ment’s vague and sub­jec­tive ‘Bri­tish val­ues’ test.’’

Of­sted does not have a good rep­u­ta­tion for re­spect­ing be­liefs about mar­riage… its ques­tion­ing of Jewish school­girls over their be­liefs about mar­riage is said to have left pupils “trau­ma­tised”.

Some have ar­gued that Sun­day schools would not be cov­ered by Of­sted’s dik­tat, since they cus­tom­ar­ily run for, at most, three hours rather than six. But In­spec­tor Wil­shaw has done his sums: when you add in con­fir­ma­tion classes, Bi­ble study pe­ri­ods and choir prac­tice, the magic tar­get of six hours is eas­ily reached.

A typ­i­cal cheder — teach­ing not only on Sun­day morn­ings but also on two-to-three evenings a week — would cer­tainly find it­self within Of­sted’s re­mit.

Be­yond that, I do have to ask whether it is in fact com­pat­i­ble with “Bri­tish val­ues” for govern­ment in­spec­tors to be able to march into vol­un­tary as­so­ci­a­tions and in­ter­ro­gate chil­dren as to their be­liefs about per­sonal mat­ters. What Cameron and Wil­shaw pro­pose is in­deed (as a gath­er­ing of hos­tile MPs con­cluded last week) “fun­da­men­tally il­lib­eral” and amounts to a pal­pa­ble vi­o­la­tion of religious free­dom.

Is such be­hav­iour com­pat­i­ble with Bri­tish val­ues?

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