Our Religious Freedom: Sunday Schools could still be hit by new inspection plans for out-of-school settings

19 April 2018

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Executive summary

  • The results of the 2015-16 consultation on compulsory government regulation and Ofsted inspection of all out-of-school education settings, including Christian Sunday schools were published on 10 April 2018.
  • The published summary of consultation responses inexplicably drew on just the 3,082 online responses to the consultation largely ignoring around 7,500 which were either posted or emailed. This raises serious questions in relation to the misuse of statistics, particularly as the published analysis admits that the latter were overwhelmingly negative to the proposal for compulsory regulation and Ofsted inspection of all out-of-school education settings.
  • Even the 3,082 responses that were considered were overwhelmingly negative towards the proposal and also reveal consistent and widespread distrust of Ofsted.
  • At the same time as this analysis of consultation responses was released, a separate set of measures was announced seeking to bring in similar regulation and inspection by alternative mechanisms  including: how out-of-school settings can be regulated using existing legal powers, running pilot inspection projects in specific geographical areas, a voluntary code of conduct for all out-of-school education settings (covering not only child welfare issues, such as safeguarding, but also issues such as “governance” and “teaching”) and collecting of further evidence towards bringing in future legislation to “regulate” all out-of-school education settings.
  • It is also stated that the justification for these polices is no longer concerned only with tackling extremism, but is to protect children from “all types of harm”.
  • It is clear that Ofsted is viewed by a great many of those who responded to the consultation in one of the following ways: as not acting neutrally or fairly, suspected by many as seeking to impose partisan social liberalism, or as a significant threat to freedom of religion in the UK.
  • For Ofsted, an organisation which was set up to be an impartial government regulator of school standards, the Department for Education’s own analysis of consultation responses makes devastating reading.


October 2015 , Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to require compulsory registration and inspection of all out-of-school education settings, in order to address concerns relating to the teaching of extremism in some mosque schools. However, he specifically stated that these proposals would also extend to cover undesirable teaching within any faith including Christian Sunday Schools:

“Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with children learning about their faith, whether it’s at Madrassa s, Sunday Schools or Jewish Yeshivas. But in some Madrassa s we’ve got children being taught that they shouldn’t mix with people of other religions; being beaten; swallowing conspiracy theories about Jewish people…”

Speaking about extremism, he then promised to require all supplementary schools of all faiths to register, be inspected and be forced to close if the government deemed them to be promoting “intolerance”:

“If an institution is teaching children intensively, then whatever its religion, we will, like any other school, make it register so it can be inspected. And be in no doubt: if you are teaching intolerance, we will shut you down.”

26 November 2015 , the government produced a proposal for consultation on how the policy should be implemented. The first 14 questions of the consultation were essentially a data collection exercise, asking respondents to provide information such as where supplementary education took place, how many children attend and for how long and what is taught. The questions that could more strictly be defined as consultation questions related to issues such as whether respondents agreed that six to eight hours per week represented “intensive education” and whether they agreed that settings meeting this threshold should be required to register with their local council.

The proposals met with very strong criticism from faith groups and MPs. Barnabas Fund produced a detailed response setting out three areas of concern:

a) the threat that the proposals posed to specific aspects of freedom of religion, highlighting that it would turn the clock back on freedom of religion more than two centuries to 1812, when the law requiring government registration of places of worship and religious instruction was repealed;

b) it would be impossible for the government to determine which out-of-school settings operated for six to eight  hours per week unless  registration of all out-of-school settings were made compulsory, regardless of how long children were present;

c) specific issues in certain mosque schools, related to physical abuse, due to the way some imams interpret a certain hadith (Islamic tradition).

Barnabas Fund delivered a copy of this report to the Education Secretary within 24 hours of the consultation being announced and released the report to the press a week later. The government then appeared to have shelved the proposal and did not publish the consultation after it concluded in January 2016.

1 February 2018 , the new Chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, revived the proposal, announcing in a speech to the Church of England’s Foundation for Educational leadership in which she implied that “a small minority” of Sunday schools might be teaching “extremism”:

“That is why I am afraid to say it is a matter of regret that the Church has resisted changes in the law to allow Ofsted to inspect these settings. 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. If we are to protect many of the tenets that the Church holds dear, we need the power to tackle those trying to use education to undermine them.”

14 March 2018 , the government published its Green Paper on community integration strategy with various sections prepared by different government departments. The Education section revived the idea of government registration and Oftsed inspection of out-of-school education settings and indicated that the government planned to run some pilot projects in certain geographical areas.

10 April 2018 , the Department for Education published two documents: a) The first was a report on the responses to the consultation on compulsory registration and Ofsted inspections of out-of-school settings conducted more than two years earlier. b) The second document presented a “ package of measures” intended to ensure children receive “the best possible education either at home or outside of school a series of measures”.

The consultation responses

The responses to the 2015-16 consultation on whether to introduce compulsory registration and Ofsted inspection of all out-of-school settings including Christian schools, makes devastating reading for Oftsed. The proposals were not merely overwhelmingly rejected by the vast majority of those who responded, but repeatedly referred to significant concerns and mistrust relating to Ofsted having been raised by many of those responding to the consultation.

Misuse of statistics

However, even more disturbing has been a disingenuous attempt to disguise the sheer scale of opposition to these proposals. More than 18,000 individuals and organisations responded to the consultation. Of these, 3,082 were submitted via the government’s online consultation website, approximately 7,500 were submitted equally legitimately by post or email and a further 7,500 expressions of concern were submitted in the form of petitions. However, in a quite extraordinary misuse of statistics, the 20-page summary of the consultation responses only deals in detail with the 3,082 online responses (whom it terms “respondents”) and merely summarises the remaining responses (whom it terms “correspondents”) on a single page. This is particularly concerning as that single page summary of the 15,000 “correspondents” admits that their primary concerns related to freedom of religion:

“The main themes from correspondents were similar to those raised in the online consultation response forms. The primary cause for concern was around the effect that the proposed regulation would have on out-of-school settings being able to exercise religious and other freedoms.”

It is also true, of course, that the restricted nature of the online consultation mechanism meant that organisations submitting the most detailed and well thought out responses were required to do so in other ways. Yet it is precisely these most detailed responses which have largely been excluded from the analysis.

Overwhelming rejection of the proposal

Even among the 3,082 online respondents there was overwhelming rejection of the proposal for compulsory registration and Ofsted inspection of all out-of-school settings.

  • Only 4.5% of people had any concerns about any out-of-school education settings they knew of and “Of those respondents who raised concerns, most expressed them in broad terms about out-of-school settings as a whole or the potential for there to be concerns about activities taking place in such settings, while others took the opportunity to express concerns about the impact of the proposed policy to regulate out-of-school settings” ( consultation question 13 , p6).
  • Only 14.4% agreed that the definition of “intensive education” should be six to eight hours a week - the threshold at which it was proposed to register and inspect ( consultation question 17 , p8).
  • Only 14.8% agreed that Oftsed should be able to investigate out-of-school settings that met the government threshold, with 74.6% giving an “No” (consultation question 20).
  • In response to the question “What impact do you think the proposed system for registration and inspection will have on out-of-school settings?” ( consultation question 21 , p11), the published consultation summary inexplicably fails to provide any numerical breakdown of the responses, but states: “Many respondents felt that the impact of the proposed system would limit religious freedoms and have a disproportionately negative effect on faith groups.”

Distrust of Ofsted

One of the messages that comes across very clearly in the consultation responses is that Ofsted is not trusted to act neutrally in relation to faith groups, is suspected by many of seeking to impose partisan social liberalism, and cannot be trusted to respect freedom of religion.

“Of the respondents disagreeing with the question, many said that registration of out-of-school settings with the local authority would be equivalent to state regulation of religion. They raised concerns over the impact of regulation on some groups’ freedoms to teach particular values or beliefs.” (Consultation response to question 17)

“Many respondents felt that the impact of the proposed system would limit religious freedoms and have a disproportionately negative effect on faith groups.” (Consultation response to question 21)

“The primary cause for concern was around the effect that the proposed regulation would have on out-of-school settings being able to exercise religious and other freedoms. In keeping with the themes in the consultation responses, many of the correspondents commented that the proposed policy would result in the state becoming a regulator of religious teaching in these settings and that the enforcement of fundamental British values may inhibit the religious teaching that currently takes place within them.” (Single page summary of the 15,000 responses sent by email or letter)

“Linked to this, a high number of correspondents commented that the definitions set out in the call for evidence – such as the definitions of fundamental British values, extremism and undesirable teaching – are not sufficiently precise. Many also expressed doubts about the suitability of Ofsted to inspect religious settings against these definitions.” ( Summary of the 15,000 responses sent by email or letter , p4)

Ofsted response to the consultation

The response to the overwhelmingly negative consultation responses has been twofold. It has been announced that the proposal for a new law to provide for compulsory government registration and Ofsted inspection of all out-of-school education settings, which would include Christian Sunday schools, has now been dropped.

However, at the same time as this announcement was made, a separate package of measures was also announced relating to “home education”. These are also referred to in the “Next Steps” section at the end of the published summary of the consultation responses. The measures apparently aim to create the same effect as the proposed new legislation i.e. the registration and inspection of out-of-school settings, by the following actions:

  • Examine “how existing legal powers” can be used to regulate out-of-school education

Examine “how existing legal powers (including, for example, health and safety, premises regulations, and general safeguarding provisions) can be best utilised alongside community engagement and outreach to intervene.”

  • Run pilot projects in specific geographical areas to “boost existing capacity to identify and tackle concerns in out-of-school settings where they arise, by supporting and working with a number of local authorities to demonstrate the benefits of multi-agency working, and share best practice on different ways of working together to intervene in settings of concern. Our intention is to make up to £3 million of funding available to selected areas for this work, so that we may support a number of local authorities to test innovative models of multi-agency working.”
  • Establish a voluntary code of conduct for all out-of-school education settings , including Sunday schools. The code will cover not only areas such as child protection, but also specifically include issues relating to governance and teaching: “Alongside this, we will consult on a voluntary code of practice, later this year, to set out clear standards for providers, explaining what they need to do in order to run a safe setting. This code of practice would cover what providers should be doing to meet their existing legal obligations that would be applicable generally, as well as setting out best practice on issues such as child welfare, health and safety, governance, suitability of staff, teaching and financial management.”
  • Highlight any out-of-school education settings which have not signed up to or follow the voluntary code of conduct. “We will also work with local authorities to provide more guidance for parents to support them in making informed choices when considering out-of-school settings for their children.” It should be noted that any voluntary list could only be meaningful if it required voluntary acceptance of some form of inspection, to ensure that the voluntary code of practice was actually being adhered to.
  • Find additional evidence to justify a new law by collecting more evidence on out-of-school education settings such as Sunday schools  “to identify any gaps in existing powers, which we would seek to address through future legislation, when opportunity allows”.

The role of Ofsted

It appears from the time line that the main driver behind the revival of this proposal has been Ofsted, in particular its new chief inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman.

Given the overwhelmingly negative response to the 2015-16 consultation it is extraordinary that Ofsted has chosen to pursue registration and inspection of out-of-school education settings such as Christian Sunday schools.

Why Ofsted is mistrusted

The distrust of Ofsted repeatedly referred to in the consultation responses appears to arise in large measure from sectarian attempts by social liberals to hijack the definition of “extremism” so as to include within it conservative religious views, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish or any other faith. This was, for example, evident in the 2016 Casey Review into community integration, which attempted to redefine extremism to include religious views “at odds with the views of mainstream society”. This flies in the face of the UK’s longstanding tradition of freedom of religion, one of our most important historic national values exemplified in the toleration for Nonconformists which developed progressively since the eighteenth century.

Whilst this issue runs much wider than Ofsted, it is an issue on which as a regulatory Quasi Autonomous National Governmental Organisation Ofsted should have observed a far greater degree of political neutrality. In fact, there have been significant concerns raised by a number of Christian and Jewish schools over the last few years as to the nature of the questions that Ofsted was asking their pupils, questions which suggested that Ofsted was seeking to judge them adversely for promoting socially conservative values in relation to marriage and sexual ethics.

This should have been tackled by the new Ofsted Chief Inspector when she was appointed in January 2017. It must be a matter of deep concern that, rather than tackling these discriminatory attitudes among some inspectors, she has heightened them by implying that even Christian Sunday schools may be promoting extremism (see quotation from her 1 February 2018 speech on p1 above). If the Chief Inspector of Ofsted genuinely believes that Christian Sunday schools promote “extremism” then she needs to say so explicitly, rather than implying it. She also needs to clearly state what she is defining as “extremism” and on what basis she is using this definition. Importantly, the Chief Inspector needs to explain what evidence she has that any Christian Sunday schools promote extremism. In March 2018, Barnabas Fund submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Ofsted asking similar questions to these. We have yet to receive a substantive response.

Why is Ofsted seeking to regulate religious institutions?

The government’s Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper published on 14 March 2018 contained sections prepared by a diverse range of different government departments. In general, the paper carefully avoided the restrictions on freedom of religion proposed by the Casey Review. However, the education section was noteworthy in being the only exception to this. This section set a policy goal of “better regulation of out-of-school settings” (p66). This somewhat misleadingly implied that out-of-school settings, such as Sunday schools, are currently regulated by the government. In fact, as the Green paper earlier (p34): “Currently, out-of-school settings are unregulated under education and childcare law.” It also pre-announced many of the proposals which were formally launched on 10 April – including examining ways in which existing legal powers can be used to regulate all out-of-school education settings; running pilot projects of this in specific geographical areas; and introducing a voluntary code of conduct for all out-of-school education providers which would cover not just child welfare issues but also issues such as governance and teaching.

No longer just about extremism

What is also clear from the published analysis of consultation responses is that the stated justification for compulsory registration and Ofsted inspection of out-of-school settings, such as Sunday schools, has subtly, but significantly moved. When David Cameron made his October 2015 speech, the sole justification for the proposal was tackling non-violent extremism. However, the “Next Steps” section of the summary of consultation responses states:

“We have always been clear, however, that our aim is to protect children from all types of harm, and not just from the harm caused by extremism.”

In other words it is no longer simply about tackling extremism, it is about extending the power of the state – or more specifically Ofsted – to regulate all areas of civil society that have anything to do with children or education.  Given the existence of safeguarding policies, what other kind of “harm” does Ofsted think is going to come to children in Sunday schools, for example?

©Barnabas Fund April 2018