In addition to the faith schools that make up a third of all state-funded schools in England and Wales, there are a significant number of religious schools in the private school sector as well. Indeed, the majority of private schools in England and Wales have a religious character of some kind.
Private schools are not required to meet the same standards as state-funded schools and are subject to a significantly less rigorous inspection regime. As such, private schools are freer to influence various aspects of school life, such as their science or relationships and sex education curriculums, according to their religious ethos. This can lead to an educational experience that denies pupils some of the rights enjoyed by children in state-funded schools.
Children have the same fundamental rights concerning education regardless of the type of school they attend. Their access to accurate, evidence-based information shouldn’t vary according to whether they go to fee-paying or state-funded schools. We campaign for stronger regulation and inspection of private schools so as to bring their standards in line with the state sector and guarantee every child’s basic rights to a full and factual education. In recent years we have seen tremendous success in getting private schools inspected properly – for example, seeing the closure of a loophole whereby many faith groups inspected their own schools, and getting Ofsted to hold private schools to the same standards as state schools.
The European Convention on Human Rights affords parents the right to bring up their children in line with their religious beliefs. However, we believe that it is important to recognise the rights of children to form their own opinions on matters of religion and belief, and the duty placed on states by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
The UNCRC makes clear that ‘States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.’ It guarantees children ‘the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers’. It says they have the right to be prepared for ‘responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national, and religious groups’. And it further states that ‘States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.’
As things stand, however, many private religious schools infringe on these rights, particularly when it comes to religious and science education, to relationships and sex education, and to acts of worship. There is no obligation for private schools to teach balanced and objective religious education, and as a result they are free to teach from a narrow, faith-based perspective. Unlike state-funded schools, private schools are allowed to teach creationism, ‘intelligent design’, and other pseudoscientific ideas as valid scientific theories, and they don’t have to teach about evolution. And neither older pupils nor parents/carers on behalf of any pupils are entitled to opt out of collective worship held at private schools.
As a practical first step, we therefore campaign for private schools to be inspected and graded by Ofsted equivalently to state schools, and for equivalent action to be taken if they fail to provide a broad and balanced education in these areas (something they are not currently obliged to do). In recent years, Ofsted’s inspections have moved a long way in this direction, and the result is that many private faith schools have been failing their inspections when in the past they would have succeeded. This ensures that parents and others can get an informed picture of the quality of the teaching provided.
What we’ve been doing
- We have long raised concerns about the problems that exist in a variety of different types of private religious school and continue to support pupils of those schools in seeking change. In 2016, in conjunction with a number of former pupils of private and illegal religious schools, we launched the landmark whistleblowing and blogging website Faith Schoolers Anonymous. The site allows current and former faith school pupils to share their experience of the education they received. Since being launched the site has published testimonies from a number of current and former pupils at both private and state-funded religious schools.
- In addition to giving a voice to these pupils, we also work to ensure that their experiences are recognised by government. For instance, as a result of our lobbying Ofsted and the Department for Education, alongside testimonies of former pupils published on Faith Schoolers Anonymous Ofsted conducted several emergency inspections of Accelerated Christian Education schools. This led to the downgrading of nine such schools for failing to promote British values, including by failing to teach sufficiently about other religions and beliefs or promote respect for LGBT people. Testimonies relating to a variety of problems with Steiner and Charedi Jewish schools have ultimately led to similar outcomes, but we continue to work to ensure that poor Ofsted findings lead to real change or regulatory action.
- We have campaigned continually about the problems caused by rules allowing private schools to appoint their own inspectorates and its implications for their independence and impartiality.We raised repeated concerns about the Bridge Schools Inspectorate (BSI), which was previously responsible for inspecting private schools from either the Christian Schools’ Trust (CST) or the Association of Muslim Schools (AMS), until we brought about a change in the rules that caused its closure in June 2015, and the School Inspection Service (SIS), which was responsible for inspecting Exclusive Brethren and Steiner Schools and was itself closed in early 2019 following serious concerns about education and safeguarding in Steiner schools.
- In June 2015 we conducted an investigation into the Ofsted inspections of private Charedi Jewish schools, and particularly the level of inconsistency in the outcomes of those inspections. Our investigation looked at the reports of Charedi boys schools during the period 2007-2014 and found that Charedi schools were significantly more likely to be rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ when inspected by a member of the Charedi community, as compared to when they were inspected by a non-Charedi inspector. This reinforced concerns about the independence of inspectors, and as a result of our investigation the two Charedi inspectors responsible for the disproportionately favourable ratings were dropped by Ofsted. In 2017 we revealed that, without exception, every school was downgraded to ‘inadequate’ in subsequent inspections and put on an improvement plan by to meet the independent school standards.
- We regularly respond to Government consultations on the subject of independent schools and, following our response to one such consultation in 2018, recently organised an open letter to the Secretary of State for Education, urging him not to dilute the draft guidance on LGBT acceptance in these schools.
- Our work also covers private nurseries. In 2014 we identified nearly one hundred nurseries which were subject to concerns over their teaching of creationism as scientifically valid, or were failing to promote British values. As a result of the investigation, the DfE decided to ban creationist and extremist nurseries from receiving state funding. However, in January 2015 a follow up investigation by Humanists UK revealed that many of the nurseries were continuing to receive state funding in spite of the ban. We suspect that this is still the case today and is a situation that we are continuing to work to resolve.
We’re currently fundraising to keep our dedicated campaigner on faith schools and education. We’ve not yet raised her salary for the year ahead – you can help us do so by donating at our crowdfunding page.
You can help us by passing on any information or concerns you have about a private religious school in your area. If you are a current or former pupil at such a school and would like to report an issue or write about your experience, please email us.
You can also support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK