Britain: Faith Schools Must Promote Other Religions or Face Closure

Office for Standards in Education

In its zeal to enforce new guidelines that will help combat extremism and promote British values in faith schools that appear to be inherently homophobic, Britain’s school inspectors recently closed two Christian schools and warned several others. Christian and Jewish school authorities on the other hand, have cited a string of such events in recent months, accusing the government using the excuse of Islamic extremism to impose a heavy-handed secularist and homosexualist agenda upon them.

Since October of last year, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED) is believed to have launched a series of sudden checks on Christian and Jewish schools across the United Kingdom. Most recently, Grindon Hall and Durham Free School said they would have to close by Easter, since their funds were pulled after they were placed on a special measures list for failing to comply with OFSTED’s new guidelines.

The department accused both schools of failing to incorporate British values in its curriculum, particularly with regards to moral, spiritual, social and cultural development. OFSTED had issued new guidelines in September 2014 to protect students in public schools from possible extremism, after the alleged Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham came to surface last year. As reported earlier, local extremist organizations were believed to be trying incessantly to infiltrate various public schools in Birmingham in an attempt to indoctrinate students with radical Islamist ideologies.

In a public statement on January 20, Grindon Hall principal Chris Gray wrote, “Playing politics with the new regulations on ‘British values’ is not acceptable and does little to help our children prepare for life or achieve good exam results.”

He also said despite him having filed a formal complaint more than a month ago, he had not heard back from OFSTED. According to Gray, the way in which education inspectors had interrogated students and staff members was inappropriate, hostile and raised serious safety concerns. Apparently, parents had complained about their children being subjected to deeply personal and intrusive questioning, including questions related to homosexuality being asked to primary school students.

“Inspectors made it clear with their questioning that the school was expected to ‘force pupils to celebrate non-Christian religious festivals.’ This would breach our Christian foundation which stipulates that we are a Christian school. It would certainly offend against the consciences of many of our staff, pupils and parents. No one should be told by a government official to celebrate any religion. Learn about it, yes. Celebrate its festivals, no,” said Gray.

In October 2014, Trinity Christian School, too, violated OFSTED’s education standard, only a week after the new guidelines had been issued. John Charles, chairperson of the board of governors of the Church of England-affiliated school wrote a letter to the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan soon after, accusing OFSTED of using the Trojan Horse scandal to override the ideologies of different faith schools.

OFSTED’s new British Values standard, which is part of the fifth paragraph of the guidelines that were published on September 29, 2014, says schools must “actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” and “ensure that principles are actively promoted which … encourage respect for other people, paying particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010.”

Trinity has accused OFSTED’s inspections of being conducted under false pretenses. Apparently, the inspectors were supposed to visit the school on October 7 to determine whether Trinity could extend its services to lower grades. Instead, OFSTED inspectors focused predominantly on whether the school was abiding by the new standard for moral, spiritual, social and cultural development that had been implemented only a week ago.

“At no point were any questions asked about other aspect[s] of the curriculum or the quality of teaching assessed through lesson observations,” Trinity’s letter said.

Instead, the school was told it was likely to be shut, as it had failed to invite other faith leaders to offer lessons and lead assemblies. They also held the school responsible for failing to actively promote the principles of the Equality Act of 2010 that focuses on homosexuality.

“Pupils must learn about people with protected characteristics and the school must not give a viewpoint that certain lifestyles are wrong, nor should the school promote a particular lifestyle. … Trinity was told the Christian principle that all people are equal before God and have inherent dignity as human beings was not enough to demonstrate compliance,” the letter said.

The Christian Institute, which is defending the faith schools in question, alleged OFSTED inspectors had questioned 11 to 13 years olds at Durham Free School about “having the talk”, “making a baby” and “what makes a Muslim.” Education inspectors on the other hand, reported that in these schools, the education standards were low, progress inadequate and students’ achievements very weak.

Responding to questions raised by an Education Select Committee of MPs, OFSTED head Michael Wilshaw turned down allegations of his inspectors asking questions that are inappropriate. He also defended questions related to homophobia being asked at the schools

“If you approach a child and say ‘Is there homophobic bullying?’, they wouldn’t know what you are talking about,” Wilshaw said. “But, if inspectors say ‘Are children calling each other gay here or lesbo here?’ – they would understand what that means. And there was very, very bad homophobic bullying going on in these schools.”

In October last year, OFSTED was coerced into issuing a public statement that clarified that they were not bullying students at Jewish schools, after the Association of Orthodox Jewish Schools alleged that their students had been traumatized and made to feel ashamed with questions related to sex and same-sex marriage.

The Association issued a statement saying the inspectors were “asking pupils inappropriate and challenging questions, many of which fall outside the religious ethos and principles at orthodox Jewish faith schools … according to local media reports, students felt threatened about our religion after the inspectors quizzed them about homosexuality and whether they had friends of other religions. They asked this many times until we answered what they wanted us to say. We felt very bullied.”

The Association’s director, Jonathan Rabson, said the confrontational approach used by OFSTED’s inspectors was a worrying trend that has never been seen before in the Jewish community in the United Kingdom. He said he feared a shift in policy towards faith schools.

Responding to the various complaints from Jewish schools, OFSTED’s Chief Operating Officer Matthew Coffey, defended his inspectors’ approach of interrogation, saying they were told to use age-appropriate questions to assess children’s understanding and tolerance of lifestyles that are different from their own.

“OFSTED is not looking for answers to questions which are contrary to their faith, simply that they are able to express views which are neither intolerant nor discriminatory towards others. This is vital if we are to make sure young people are ready for life in modern Britain,” Coffey said.

Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, said even though everyone in the United Kingdom is in favour of the threat of Islamic extremism being dealt with in schools, the government’s new guidelines are worded so broadly that schools are often unreasonably chastised for holding on to their Christian ethos.

Photo Credits: Little Pebbles

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