British faith schools are to be forced to teach equality and respect for gay rights or face closure, in a move backed by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan. The orders come following 40 snap inspections of faith schools, including Christian and Jewish schools, in the wake of the Trojan Horse plot in Birmingham in which radical Islamists were found to have infiltrated between four and eight schools to promote hard-line Salafist Islam.
Reports on the 40 snap inspections are due later this month. Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of schools, is expected to conclude from the reports that any school not preparing students for life in modern Britain, by which he means embracing alternative lifestyles and other cultures, will be subject to no-notice inspections, downgrades, and even possible closures.
They will face the same penalties if they are deemed to be in breach of the Equalities Act, which mandates respect for gay and transgender people, and of other religions and races, despite the Act containing an exemption for school curricula.
His stance has the backing of Morgan, who told the Sunday Times today that it is “crucial” that Jewish and Christian schools “actively promote” British values, including tolerance for other lifestyles and cultures. “These values — democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs — are not new. The requirement to ‘actively promote’ them is designed to reinforce the importance this government attaches to these values,” she said.
However, Ofsted inspectors have come under fire in recent weeks for being overzealous in their desire to root out any behaviour which doesn’t adhere to their standards, including by asking inappropriate questions during their snap inspections designed to probe whether pupils held tolerant views towards gays and members of other religions.
“They made us feel threatened about our religion. They asked ‘Do you have friends from other religions?’ They asked this many times until we answered what they wanted us to say,” one year eleven pupil at a Jewish orthodox school has reported.
Another pupil at the same school, a girl in year nine, said she was made to feel “uncomfortable and upset” after inspectors told her that a “woman might choose to live with another woman and a man could choose to live with a man, it’s up to them”.
Fears that the new guidelines designed to curb extremist Islam could have a stifling effect on Christian and Jewish schools appear to have been well-founded, as St Benedict's, a Roman Catholic school in Suffolk which achieved A level results in the top 1 percent nationally, has been told that it is not doing enough to conform to British values by not doing enough to tackle radicalisation.
In another example, Trinity Christian School in Reading, which recently underwent a routine inspection required in order for it to expand its age range, was told by inspectors that it did not meet the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of its young pupils. Yet just one year ago, before the new regulations came in, it was rated ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ for the ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural development’ requirement, with last year’s report attesting that pupils were “well prepared for life in modern, multicultural, democratic British society through the teaching of the Christian principle to ‘love thy neighbour”.
Its failure to meet the new standards led to its application to expand being denied, and the school is now threatened with closure unless it actively promotes other faiths as part of its curriculum. Its governing board has written to Morgan asking for the new rules to be scrapped.
According to the Christian Institute, which is supporting the school, “The [report] made clear that the new standards, which engage the principles of the Equality Act, require changes to the school’s curriculum. This conflicts with section 89 of the Equality Act which excludes the content of the curriculum from equality law”.
Speaking to the Sunday Times, Morgan said “Schools should broaden horizons not close minds . . . and should encourage pupils to respect other people even if they do not agree with them. I should have thought this is a principle with which the vast majority of people would agree. All schools of whatever type have a duty to protect young people and to ensure they leave school fully prepared for life in modern Britain.”
Yet Trinity Christian School appears to adhere to this standard. On its website, under the heading ‘What is a Christian education?’ it states “God gave us our minds and we encourage our pupils to think for themselves and not accept uncritically everything they hear or read.”
Simon Calvert, the Christian Institute’s Deputy Director said “Christian schools like Trinity have a reputation for high standards and well-rounded pupils and they should have the freedom to continue doing what they’ve always done.
“Parents clearly want such schools to thrive, and the Department for Education should too.
“At the beginning of the summer we warned that if the Government brought in these regulations then they would be enforcing political correctness in schools. We also said there would be hostility to the religious, and ethical, viewpoints of religious schools.
“The DfE said it would never happen, but since then we’ve been finding case after case where that’s exactly what’s going on.”