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 private religious schools too. 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 more free 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.
We do not believe that a child’s access to accurate, evidence-based information should depend on the type of school they attend. We therefore campaign for stronger regulation and inspection of private schools so as to bring their standards in line with the state sector.
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, and to collective 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 younger pupils are entitled to opt out of any 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). This would ensure 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 May 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 and since being launched 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, we have met with the Department for Education on numerous occasions to bring to its attention the issues with schools that teach the controversial Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum. ACE, which originated in America but is now taught in over thirty schools in the UK as well as by a large number of parents who homeschool their children, has been accused by former pupils of espousing a fundamentalist, creationist, homophobic, and misogynistic Christian ideology. In 2016, as a result of our campaigning and the testimonies of former ACE pupils published on Faith Schoolers Anonymous, Ofsted conducted several emergency inspections of ACE 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.
We have campaigned continually about the problems caused by rules allowing private schools to appoint their own inspectorate, and the implications of this for the independence and impartiality of those inspectorates. In particular, 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 its closure in June 2015, and the School Inspection Service (SIS), which is currently responsible for inspecting Exclusive Brethren and Steiner Schools. In 2014, we were successful in securing a change to the regulations during a Government consultation on the rules surrounding such inspectorates, as a result of which inspectors now have to be independent not only from the school they are inspecting, but also from any association representing the school. This change was identified as the main factor in the BSI’s inability to continue operating. In November 2015, it was revealed that the majority of the private schools formerly inspected by the BSI had subsequently been judged to be failing by Ofsted.
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 that inspectors have not always been independent of the schools they are inspecting, and as a result of our investigation the two Charedi inspectors responsible for the disproportionately favourable ratings were dropped by Ofsted. Since the investigation was published, re-inspections have been carried out in almost every school previously inspected by one of the two inspectors. In 2017 we revealed that, without exception, every school was downgraded to ‘inadequate’ and put on an improvement plan by Ofsted so as to meet the independent school standards.
Our work also encompasses 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, something we are continuing to try and resolve.
We’re currently fundraising to keep our dedicated campaigner on faith schools and education. We’ve not yet raised her salary for 2019 – you can help us do so by donating at http://www.justgiving.com/nofaithschools.
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.