Ofsted – state regulator of religion?

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Just before Christmas I spoke on Islam at a Christian training college. To do so I am now required by law to fill in a form ensuring I won’t stir up religious hatred. Church youth events are also coming under the scrutiny of anti-radicalisation measures. This blog piece describes where all this may be going as “religiously illiterate” government imposes the wrong solution on a very real problem.

The last Queen’s Speech included new laws cracking down on the ‘poisonous narrative’ of radical Islamist ideology. Records of individuals with connections to extremism will be made available to schools so ‘hate preachers’ are prevented from working where children are.

This Counter-Extremism Bill is opposed by an unusual coalition of faith and civil liberties groups such as the National Secular Society; the Peter Tatchell Foundation and some Christian groups.

The government plans to introduce Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) but the problem is it will also be applied to ‘venues and facilitators’ that may foster extreme activities. The government defines extremism as vocal opposition to fundamental British values i.e. “democracy”; “rule of law”; “mutual respect”; “tolerance of belief and lifestyle”.

Simon McCrossan of the EA told Lapido Media:

‘Extremism has no objective meaning. It’s a relative term which derives its meaning from a central reference point – namely ‘fundamental British values’ which are dangerously open to interpretation. In the absence of a written constitution and a codified bill of rights, it appears that “fundamental British values” are almost synonymous with the views of the government of the day.’

The bill’s critics say existing legislation is enough e.g. the “public order” and “counter terrorism” acts which already give government enough powers – but EDOs are part of a wider strategy to crack down on the spread of extreme ideologies.

Last November, the Department for Education (DfE) published plans to register and inspect out-of-school education settings; intended to ensure that Britain’s two thousand madrassas (Islamic schools) protect children’s welfare and are not promoting radicalization. David Cameron spoke about “extremist teaching” at the Conservative party conference saying:

‘There is nothing wrong with children learning about their faith, whether it’s at madrassas, Sunday schools or Jewish Yeshivas, but in some madrassas, we’ve got children being taught that they shouldn’t mix with people of other religions; being beaten; swallowing conspiracy theories about Jewish people. These children should be having their minds opened, their horizons broadened, not having their heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate.’

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, alarmed MPs by suggesting EDO powers could be applied to Sunday Schools and Jewish Yeshivas to be ‘even-handed’ and in a radio interview Wilshaw said:

‘We need to know if a Sunday school is being run, is it registered, is it being run properly by people that have been through proper safeguarding checks, and if that is done then we are happy with that and we will only go in when we feel that there is a need to do so.’

The Evangelical Alliance raised the possibility of Scripture coming under the scrutiny of Ofsted inspectors. Simon McCrossan, the EA’s Head of Public Policy said:

‘Under the current proposals, Ofsted would become the state regulator of religion. Whilst not there to consider the quality of teaching, they reserve the right to identify “undesirable teaching”, as defined by the state. The logical extension of this is the creation of forms of unlawful religion. It is quite possible that the holy books of all the major world religions contain passages and precepts that offend elements of the government’s counter-extremism strategy.’

In the last five months, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said that inspectors had identified up to a hundred unregistered schools. This begs the question of how ‘informal teaching’ is to be measured in schools unregulated by Ofsted and so putting children at risk of exposure to extremism and radicalization.



Source:   Evangelical Alliance, Jonathan Elliott, May 2016; featured by Lapido Media, Centre for Religious Literacy in Journalism www.lapidomedia.com

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