Earlier this week the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) hosted a meeting in which they heard from the main whistleblower at Park View School in Birmingham, the school at the centre of the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal, as well as two former students (one ex-Charedi Jew and Jonny Scaramanga, who went to an Accelerated Christian Education school) who were subjected to narrow, fundamentalist curriculums. The closed meeting heard powerful testimony about the extent to which religious schools can damage children’s lives, the general role of religion in schools and the actions that must be taken by policymakers to ensure that this is no longer possible.
The former member of staff at Park View School discussed how in their view, the values set out in the recent ‘British values’ consultation were genuinely under threat at their school. They gave firsthand experience of gender discrimination, inadequate sex and relationships education, and improper disciplinary and grievance procedures. They recounted how they contacted Ofsted, who refused to act on the basis that the school was an Academy, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who said that there was little that could be done, before finally contacting the BHA who successfully took the matter up on their behalf. They discussed how hard it is for whistleblowers to speak out; the fear of individuals being painted as racist for identifying genuine issues; and the problem of ‘governor capture’, where a governing body is taken over by a narrow group with a particular agenda, and what could be done to detect and prevent this.
The former Charedi Jew, from Stamford Hill in Hackney, outlined how he grew up speaking almost no English, receiving just thirty minutes of a ‘normal’ curriculum each day – the rest of the time being spent on studying religious texts. Like thousands of others in Hackney, he went to a school not registered with the Department for Education (DfE) – something that is illegal – and so was denied the basic quality of education, health and safety, and protection against corporal punishment to which all pupils in all English schools are entitled. This is a problem that has existed for years, and yet Ofsted, Hackney Council and the DfE have, in his view, been passing the buck between them as to whose responsibility it is to fix, with the council being particularly complicit. He recounted how the Charedi schools of Hackney started failing their Ofsted inspections around 2007, but then Ofsted began hiring Charedi inspectors and the schools’ results all improved.
He outlined the difficulty in leaving the community as individuals are trapped by their lack of education or even speaking any English and so feel unable to survive in the wider world. He also cited the problem of child custody cases, where one parent has left, and yet Cafcass officers and the family courts might see a private Charedi school that has received a ‘good’ grade in an Ofsted inspection as being just as good as a state mainstream Orthodox school that has also received a ‘good’ grade, even though the two schools have been inspected to completely different standards.
Jonny Scaramanga, a former ACE student who is now doing a PhD studying experiences of ACE at the Institute of Education, talked about how pupils at ACE schools spend most of their time studying in walled cubicles in complete silence, with any interaction between them being frowned upon. Pupils are taught what the Bible says, and explicitly shielded from any ideas to the contrary. Jonny identified three problems, namely the political propaganda of the schools (with more right-wing views being taught as religiously correct), violations of the Equality Act (for example, pupils are taught that wives should submit to their husbands’ authority and that homosexuality is both abnormal and sinful), and the teaching of creationism. They are not entered for qualifications recognised by Ofqual or UCAS.
Again, Jonny identified the inexplicable problem that ACE schools get ‘good’ grades from Ofsted, something he identified as being partly because the people inspecting the schools often share their ideology, but also being because Ofsted has not been looking at the content of the curriculum in its inspections.
In closing the meeting, Lord Warner of Brockley, Chair of the APPHG commended the ‘stunning’ testimonies of the speakers and underlined three hugely important issues:
First, the issue of indoctrination, rather than education, taking place in schools, and the need to distinguish between the two.
Second, the issue of overlapping jurisdictions, with multiple government departments and agencies passing the buck and failing to take responsibility for ensuring education standards.
And finally, the role and failings of Ofsted. How has inspection of the school’s curriculum not been a central feature? We are pleased that Ofsted is currently considering whether to introduce a separate graded judgement in this area – our view is that it must do so.
Do you want the BHA to keep working hard to achieve these three goals? Then please help us be able to continue to employ our Faith Schools Campaigner today by donating to his salary for 2015 at http://www.justgiving.com/nofaithschools
For further comment or information, please contact BHA Head of Public Affairs Pavan Dhaliwal on firstname.lastname@example.org or 0773 843 5059.
Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on ‘faith’ schools: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-schools/faith-schools
View the BHA’s table of types of state school with a religious character: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/schools-with-a-religious-character.pdf
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.