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Archbishop of Canterbury admits to forcing the Prime Minister to abandon crackdown on illegal religious schools

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby (Image: FCO)

The Archbishop of Canterbury has admitted to personally lobbying former Prime Minister David Cameron to drop proposals aimed at tackling illegal, extremist religious schools and safeguarding the children with them.

During a debate on education in the House of Lords, the Archbishop conceded that such settings were ‘abusive, ill-maintained…[and] indoctrinated children in an unhealthy way’, but cited the potential bureaucracy for Sunday schools as reason enough for him to leave things as they are.

Humanists UK, which has led the campaign in recent years for greater action on illegal schools and vigorously supported the Government’s proposals, has stated that the Archbishop’s position demonstrates either an ignorance of or a lack of empathy for the children trapped within such places. It has worked closely with numerous whistleblowers and victims of these schools.

In November 2015, the Government proposed to tighten the regulation of ‘out-of-school education settings’ in an effort to tackle the problem of religious supplementary schools ‘promoting intolerance’ and failing to encourage children to ‘respect those of other faiths and beliefs’. The proposals were welcomed at the time by Humanists UK, among others, as an overdue move towards bringing about the closure of full-time illegal religious schools, many of which pose as supplementary schools to avoid regulation.

In Friday’s debate, Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Lord Storey noted that the Government has yet to respond to the consultation on these proposals. Speculating that pressure from the Church may be behind this ‘deafening silence’, Lord Storey commented, ‘Perhaps the archbishop might reflect on the opposition of the Church of England to any regulation of out-of-school education. Agreeing to the registration and light touch inspection of out-of-school settings is surely a small price to pay for ensuring that young people are safe.’

In response, however, the Archbishop said:

‘Our problem with such regulation is not that we are in favour of bad abusive ill maintained schools where children are indoctrinated in unhealthy ways. I think it would be strange if we were. Our problem is the sheer burden of the bureaucracy. The way that the rules were put forward a couple of years back – and I had some pretty robust conversations with a few people including the previous prime minister on this – would have ensured that everything down to really quite small Sunday schools in villages around the country would have found themselves having to be registered.’

Despite this, it is broadly understood that the proposals were designed specifically to exempt the vast majority of Christian Sunday schools from regulation, while capturing the growing number of madrassas and yeshivas known to provide particularly intensive teaching and to espouse fundamentalist or extremist views. This was as the proposals only focused on settings with pupils attending for more than eight hours a week. In any case, the Archbishop’s refusal to even work towards reform of any kind, instead opposing reform outright, is devastating for the pupils at the illegal schools.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Jay Harman commented, ‘For two years the Government has failed to move ahead with its proposed crackdown on illegal religious schools, despite repeated warnings from Ofsted about the safety of the children within these places. Now we know why.

‘That the Archbishop wasn’t willing to entertain any regulation at all is shocking and reveals both a lack of empathy for these children and a callous opposition to even basic safeguarding in the education system. The Archbishop should review his position immediately and join the broad coalition of civil society groups who urge reform.’


For further comment or information please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigner Jay Harman on

Watch the full debate and the Archbishop’s comments:

Read Humanists UK’s previous news item ‘Government reportedly dropped illegal school regulation following Church of england lobbying’:

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

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