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Church of England criticised by Ofsted for obstructing crackdown on illegal religious schools

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

The Church of England has been criticised by Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman for frustrating Government efforts to regulate unregistered schools, many of which are religious. Speaking at a Church of England conference yesterday, the Chief Inspector stated that tackling illegal religious schools ‘requires changes to legislations’, and that ‘it is a matter of regret that the church has resisted changes’. Humanists UK, which leads the campaign nationally for greater action on unregistered schools and has previously rebuked the Church for its obstructive role in this area, urges the Archbishop of Canterbury to heed Ofsted’s advice.

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 designed to try to avoid inspection of Sunday schools, by only requiring Ofsted to inspect settings attended by individual young people for more than eight hours a week. They were welcomed at the time by Humanists UK, which stated that the move would go a long way towards bringing about the closure of full-time illegal religious schools, many of which only pose as supplementary schools to avoid regulation.

However, despite conceding that such settings were ‘abusive, ill-maintained…[and] indoctrinated children in an unhealthy way’, the Archbishop confessed during a debate on education in the House of Lords late last year that he had personally opposed the proposals. He cited the potential bureaucracy for Sunday schools as reason enough for things to be left as they are. The Government is yet to respond to the consultation on the proposals and is understood to have dropped them at least until mid-2019.

Responding to this position yesterday, Spielman stated:

‘These institutions, some of which operate as illegal schools, use the opportunity to – in the words of the former Prime Minister – put “poison in the minds, hatred in hearts” of young people. They need to be tackled.

‘[But] if we are to tackle this practice effectively, we will require changes to legislation. It is a matter of regret that the church has resisted changes. This is not about infringing religious freedom: no one is proposing a troop of inspectors turning up at Sunday schools. Instead, it is about ensuring that the small minority of settings that promote extremism are not able to evade scrutiny.’

The Chief Inspector is by no means the only public figure to have rebuked the Church in this way. In the House of Lords in December, Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson Lord Storey called out the Archbishop for pressuring the Government into its ‘deafening silence’ on illegal religious schools, commenting that ‘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.’

These remarks echo calls made by Humanists UK in a letter to the then Minister of State for Vulnerable Children Edward Timpson MP last year, which drew attention to the gaps in the current legal framework that are preventing effective action against such schools. Evidence submitted by Humanists UK in response to a consultation on unregistered schools conducted by Hackney Council has since been taken forward in the form of recommendations for Ofsted to be given greater powers and for the registration of home education so as to identify children who may be missing education.

Humanists UK Education Campaigner Jay Harman commented, We have been working with former pupils of illegal schools to campaign for reform and provide Ofsted with valuable information about their operation. The experiences of these young people, which are characterised by indoctrination, isolation, and abuse, have been widely reported and if the Church is not yet aware of them it ought to be. We would urge the Archbishop once again to take the lives of these children seriously and join us and Ofsted in calling for what is now long-overdue reform.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Jay Harman at or on 0207 324 3078.

Read Humanists UK’s previous news item ‘Archbishop of Canterbury admits to forcing the Prime Minister to abandon crackdown on illegal religious schools’:

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

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