Violating our freedom to think
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?