Responding to the Out of School Education Service Call for Evidence
The publication on 26th November of the Government’s Out of School Education Service Call for Evidence has fuelled a degree of concern amongst churches. This includes the belief that churches can be told what they can or cannot teach children, be forced to register their children’s activities or be banned from providing them. Most of those who have raised concerns, have done so in response to second-hand accounts circulated by various agencies etc. IT IS IMPORTANT THEREFORE that anyone wishing to protest, take action etc. does so in response to the document itself and not what someone has told them it says. It is of particular concern when people are asked to write to oppose these proposals without being encouraged to read them first.
In so doing, there are a number of matters to consider:
The background to the Call for Evidence brings together two policy strands which are nonetheless distinct.
The first is to seek to ensure the wellbeing of children and young people who participate in activities which last for more than 6-8 hours in a single week.
The second is to allow OFSTED to conduct inspections in such contexts to ensure that the provision is suitable.
OFSTED INSPECTION: On its own, this is not an entirely new reality. Ofsted have had a responsibility to inspect facilities that offer significant periods of engagement with children for some time. It has largely been a matter of local discretion and voluntary registration to determine whether provision needs to be OFSTED inspected. Churches with, for example, structured nursery facilities may well already be used to this. It is important for churches and Christians to consider whether or not this is the key issue for them.
WELLBEING AND SAFEGUARDING: The matter of wellbeing is a slightly more complex one, and can be broken down into a number of components.
SAFEGUARDING: Much of the language of the Evidence Call is based on existing safeguarding legislation. Most churches have already adopted safeguarding policies that comply with defined good practice, however there are many contexts where this is voluntary rather than compulsory. We may welcome the proposal therefore to expand the number of situations where safeguarding policies become a legislated requirement.
WELLBEING: We might also note that although couched in the usual language of Safeguarding, there are several places in the Evidence Call where this actually refers to the content of teaching etc. In particular terms such as “risk of harm” which might be a familiar one in a safeguarding policy is extended to “risk of harm and extremism” in the DoE document. Similarly the commitment to “ensure that pupils are properly safeguarded” is qualified with the term “including from the risk of radicalisation.” Christian citizens may feel concerned about the appropriateness of using “typical safeguarding language” to refer to issues of extremism. We might also be concerned that no clear definition is offered as to what does and does not constitute “extremism”. (see section 2.2)
HEALTH AND SAFETY: Certain aspects of the consultation document refers to ensuring that provision for children and young people is not offered in premises which are unsafe and unsuitable. Few are likely to dispute this, but might be concerned that including this in the context of “extremist teaching” risks clouding and confusing various issues.
EXTREMISM: The consultation document openly acknowledges that this is a development of the government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy, published on 19 October 2015 which sets out a comprehensive approach to “tackling extremism in all its forms.” It cannot be denied that religion and religious teaching can be highly influential on individuals, particularly those who are young and impressionable. Churches may wish to consider therefore whether it is appropriate for a government to seek some form of regulation and control, and the degree to which this undermines the fundamental human right of freedom of religion. One response could be to promote a voluntary code of practice rather than a government imposed regime. Churches may also consider whether the key issue is that of children and young people’s provision, or the more general principle of how and whether churches and religious groups can promote “extreme” beliefs, irrespective of the context in which this takes place.
BRITISH VALUES: One of the key concerns for Christians is how the terms “extremism” and “radicalisation” are defined and applied. There are certain beliefs within Christian teaching that some in society would describe as extreme – Baptists might note that in several publications in recent decades they have described themselves as “Radical Believers”. In various statutory contexts this has been qualified largely by defining them as “views which undermine our fundamental British values”. Churches might reasonably be concerned at what and who defines “British values” and how and when these might be in conflict with Christian teaching. The DoE publication does include a significant explanation of this (section 2.4)
“It is also not about regulating religion or infringing people’s freedom to follow a particular faith or hold particular beliefs. The mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs is one of our fundamental British values, alongside democracy, the rule of law and individual liberty. Through this proposal, we are seeking to ensure that those who work in positions of trust and influence with children and young people respect those with different faiths and beliefs and do not, in expressing their individual beliefs, promote intolerance against others.”
Christian citizens may wish to consider whether the term “British values” is an adequate or appropriate one. They may wish to simply ensure that the spirit and intent of the above is adequately captured and protected, or may be concerned as to what does and does not constitute “intolerance”. Some might argue that it is difficult to believe that a particular set of religious beliefs are right without this implying that another religion’s beliefs are wrong – does this constitute “intolerance”? Who will determine this?
What will this mean?
It is a matter for local churches and Christian citizens to determine whether or not any aspects of this consultation are a matter of concern.
If a setting fails to meet the proposed legislation, various sanctions are proposed, and the consultation includes consideration of the circumstances in which these should be imposed and what they should be. At present these do not extend to legal prosecution but rather prevention, in particular barring particular individuals from operating such activities or prohibiting the use of premises that are deemed unsafe. The current proposals seek to prevent specific individuals rather than institutions from participating in educational activities.
How might Christians respond?
There are several ways in which Christians might choose to respond to these proposals:
Opposition: Christian citizens may consider that these impose an inappropriate level of state control of religion and oppose them on this basis.
Elemental: Christians may consider that some elements in these proposals are acceptable and others are not, so might make representation of specific issues.
Language: Christian groups may wish to express concern that the use of safeguarding language in relation to “extremism” unhelpfully risks confusing two issues that should remain distinct and therefore makes balanced discussion and response more difficult.
Exemption: Churches may wish to argue that regular core activities should be exempted from these regulations, so not oppose the legislation itself, but campaign for exemptions for recognised church activities.
Justice: It is hard to read the legislation and not sense that it is written around a particular kind of provision offered by many Muslim communities. As a Gospel people we are committed to justice for ALL people, so churches may be concerned that these policies could undermine religious freedom for minority groups, and in the interests of justice and liberty make representations on behalf of others.
Self-regulation: Churches could argue that the principles of these proposals could be achieved through voluntary good practice and introduce relevant codes of practice and self-regulation to achieve this, asking for this to be a way forward.
You can read the government consultation paper for yourself.