Who’s defending liberal values – the Department of Education or the Evangelical Alliance?

John Wesley teaching at Sunday schoolA recent press release from the Christian body the Evangelical Alliance  seeks to draw attention to a current government consultation about extensions to the UK-wide ‘counter-extremism strategy’. In particular, it highlights a new system for regulation of ‘out-of-school education’. Many readers may be aware of a number of recent news items regarding poor-quality and harmful teaching and premises at informal and unregulated schools. To some extent, this is being linked in the public mind with so-called ‘Islamism’– but the implications go much further.

Three factors seem to have triggered the EA’s interest:

  • A proposal that all organisations offering voluntary education of under-19s over 6 hours per week should register with Ofsted and a local authority. (There is also the possibility of a voluntary registration system for education under the 6 hours limit).
  • The criteria that such teaching should be inspected for its consistency with ‘British Values’. The full government document (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/480133/out_of_school_education_settings_call_for_evidence.pdf) expresses this as the ‘fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.’
  • Proposed powers to sanction volunteers found to have infringed these and other requirements by banning them from all educational activity, which presumably includes paid employment.

Many readers will not need telling that the EA (whose claim to be a definitive voice for ‘evangelicalism’ should not always be taken at face value) has an agenda, and even where it is well-intentioned, it may not be unbiased. For balance, the British Humanist Association is positive about the proposals, and highlights some extreme examples of out-of-school education by voluntary bodies which they claim amount to a replacement of the educational curriculum by poor-quality, prejudiced indoctrination. By contrast, the EA directs church leaders’ attention to idea of such proposals leading to inspection of Sunday Schools, holiday clubs and other activities that might complement but not replace a child’s state education. Intriguingly, there is a seeming lack of a pan-religious perspective; surely, more solidarity with other religions would bolster conservative Christian arguments?

But whatever the rights and wrongs of detail, this is a clear extension of the state. Voluntary registration for places of worship has been in place since the 19th century; charitable law involves some regulation of religious and non-religious charities with educational intent; but not in centuries in this country has the explicit content of teaching outside of formal education been the concern of government. We should pause.

The government’s commitment to ‘British values’, whilst ostensibly laudable, must be scrutinised. Those exercised by ‘prevention of harm’ might prefer to see Britishness defined differently, through more-specific ‘thou shalt nots’:

  • Voluntary, out-of-school bodies may not cause harm to children in their care by placing them in unsafe environments.
  • Such bodies may not promote hatred of or violence towards groups or individuals.
  • Such bodies may not use or promote corporal or psychological punishment, abuse or neglect, or cause lasting harm to children in their care.

But even if we subscribe 100% to these proposals, there is the issue of delivery. If you are a local activist or councillor, how certain can you be that in your area, local and central government will be able to work effectively together and allocate funding so this new system of regulation works successfully and – most importantly – without prejudice towards any one group or religion?

The consultation ends on 11th January. Why not have a look? 

* Matthew Campbell is a member of Bristol LibDems, lives in South Bristol and works for a local authority in the South West of England. He also posts on this site as Matt (Bristol).

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  • “Who’s defending liberal values – the Department of Education or the Evangelical Alliance?”


  • Matt (Bristol) 23rd Dec '15 - 4:10pm

    David – in both cases, I would say, only occasionally and often by accident. But as a headline it made you look.

    Stephen. Pretty much what you said. But exactly HOW they will work out the arbitrary 6hr threshold is completely opaque. There is so much devil in this detail it’s crazy. But that’s what this government loves. I would encourage all with a perspective on this to comment. Generally speaking the last word on this sort of thing belongs to Douglas Adams re: the ‘consultation’ on Arthur Dent’s house…

  • ‘British values’ – IIRC that was the slightly Orwellian invention of the DfE as part of its response to the ‘Trojan Horse’ schools affair in Birmingham. As such, there is a distinct whiff of an Islamophobia-that-dare-not-speak-its-name about it. Also, it was possibly the reason that – to be seen to be unbiased – the DfE had to target some ‘Christian ethos’ schools (‘Christian ethos’ being as I understand it the current term of art for schools that emphasise the unique value of every child under God and the importance of building character but are NOT fundamentalist or creationist).

    So, ‘British value’ #1 – Democracy: how does that work in practice in DfE-land? Erratically at best it seems – witness the peculiar case of Grindon Hall School in Sunderland. A former independent it was an early convert to free school status and was described by the local paper a few months ago as being the “top school in Sunderland for A Levels and the joint fourth for GCSE results”. I don’t know Sunderland but I’m told its in a poorish part of the city so that’s impressive.

    There were some issues reported but they sounded to me like the inevitable teething pains of a formerly independent coming to terms with state-sector bureaucracy. (Which itself begs the question of just how free is a Free School?) And then the Trojan Schools affair and DfE sent in Ofsted that, apparently in very cursory inspection, categorised it as “inadequate”. It seems children were swinging on the chairs and doodling at times. Shocking!

    The upshot was that DfE is forcing this ‘Free School’, against the wishes of parents and staff to merge with the “Bright Tribe” academy chain run by a vulture venture capitalist described by the Journal paper as having “complex financial and organisational arrangements and [it] has never run a 5-18 school.” Bright Tribe’s longest standing academy saw GCSE results plummet last year.

    Quite how all this is consistent with either ‘Democracy’ or the promise of ‘Free Schools’ is hard to say. It’s certainly arbitrary governance that’s most unBritish.


  • Tim Leunig (DfE) 23rd Dec '15 - 11:33pm

    Matt – thanks for raising this – we are keen to get responses that include as many different views as possible.

    And we are **consulting** so if you don’t think it is a good idea, say so. Equally, if you think churches where children spend 40 minutes a week should be inspected, say so. As the consultation says, “We welcome views on defining a threshold for settings to fall within scope of this proposal with reference to the number of hours which children attend”.

    We are running 8 consultations at present – do send in your views on any or all via https://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/

    Keeping children safe in education
    Launch Date: Tuesday 22 December 2015
    Closing Date: Tuesday 16 February 2016
    Read consultation details on GOV.UK Respond on-line

    Risk protection arrangement for academy trusts
    Launch Date: Thursday 17 December 2015
    Closing Date: Sunday 31 January 2016
    Read consultation details on GOV.UK Respond on-line

    Staffing and employment advice for schools
    Launch Date: Thursday 17 December 2015
    Closing Date: Wednesday 10 February 2016
    Read consultation details on GOV.UK Respond on-line

    Wraparound and holiday childcare
    Launch Date: Monday 7 December 2015
    Closing Date: Monday 29 February 2016
    Read consultation details on GOV.UK Respond on-line

    National reference test: implementation arrangements
    Launch Date: Monday 30 November 2015
    Closing Date: Friday 22 January 2016
    Read consultation details on GOV.UK Respond on-line

    Out-of-school education settings: registration and inspection
    Launch Date: Thursday 26 November 2015
    Closing Date: Monday 11 January 2016
    Read consultation details on GOV.UK Respond on-line

    British Schools Overseas: standards and inspection arrangements
    Launch Date: Thursday 26 November 2015
    Closing Date: Wednesday 17 February 2016
    Read consultation details on GOV.UK Respond on-line

    Implementing the English Baccalaureate
    Launch Date: Tuesday 3 November 2015
    Closing Date: Friday 29 January 2016
    Read consultation details on GOV.UK Respond on-line

  • The problem is that at various times, support for the slave trade, an assumption that white people were superior to others, support for burning heretics, a belief in Protestant Christianity, a belief in growth at all costs and a belief that Christmas is all about buying loads of expensive stuff could all have been said to be core British values. For the government’s position to be defensible to Liberals, I think we should define the core values very narrowly as the values essential to our society working. These would still, of course, be disputable but they would include accepting democracy, respecting people with different views (NOT not believing they’re wrong), accepting dues to society (like taxes) and believing the law ought generally (NOT always) to be obeyed.

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Dec '15 - 6:27pm

    Tim Leunig, rest assured I and other shall be commenting and thank you for your noting this thread, clearly big brother is watching…

    As to the various commenters on the debate about British values – without a codification of same (like in a written constitution?) it’s an ongoing hostage to fortune…

  • Richard Underhill 26th Dec '15 - 11:11am

    The concept of “British Values” is a spin-doctor’s attempt to labrl the European Convention on Human Rights as foreign, which it is not, and to prepare for a reversal of the Human Rights Act, which should be built on.
    Red Tape is not just a magazine for civil servants, it implies disapproval of regulations which allegedly harm business but which benefit a wider public. Lead free petrol is an example (eventually legislated by a Conservative Chancellor jumping on the bandwagon). Another example would be noxious gases from diesel exhausts, eventually discovered by testing in California.

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