21 January 2016
MPs call on government to drop Ofsted Sunday school plans
The Evangelical Alliance has been campaigning against government proposals for the registration, inspection and regulation of out-of-hours settings, which would lead to Ofsted inspecting Sunday schools identifying, among other things, "undesirable teaching".
In yesterday's debate on the government's proposals, the junior education minister Nick Gibb confirmed that there had been more than 10,000 responses to the strategy, and we were informed prior to the debate that a majority of these responses were from Christians.
On Wednesday, Sir Edward Leigh MP led an unusually well attended adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on these proposals, where approximately 20 MPs from across the main parties universally condemned the government's proposals. You can watch the debate here.
Opening the debate, Sir Edward agreed with the government's intention and desire, but asked: "Why does tackling abuse and radicalisation in a very tiny number of madrassas mean that every voluntary group in England that instructs children for six or more hours a week has to register with the state?"
The Alliance would like to thank members for the large number that responded to the consultation and asked their MPs to attend Wednesday's debate.
Despite attempts by the government to provide reassurance, we continue to be concerned that their plans amount to the state regulation of religion.
As Labour MP Stephen Timms said during the debate: "I'm particularly uncomfortable about the idea that religious instruction should be placed under the authority of some vaguely defined British values administered by government officials."
He went on to note that one commentator had said: "The measure would, in effect, make Ofsted the state regulator of religion."
Commenting on bureaucracy the proposals could lead to, Conservative MP Cheryl Gillan said: "Surely it's verging on the ridiculous and should be swept away." While Jim Shannon, the DUP MP, noted: "We can't end up in a situation in which a Sunday school is declared a radical theatre."
MPs also spoke of the likely impact the proposed measures would have on volunteering through churches across the UK. Caroline Ansell, MP for Eastbourne, remarked: "If we bring Ofsted into this setting, we will decimate the number of volunteers who give hour on hour and add tremendous value to the young people they engage with."
During the government's response to the debate, Conservative MP Fiona Bruce interjected: "The proposals carry the risk of a so-called chilling effect on free speech, and they could shut down debate because of the fear, on the part of, say, youth workers teaching young people, of speaking on issues that might not be mainstream."
Concern was also raised that despite the draconian proposals the very groups the government intend to target would be those which did not register, with Graham Stuart saying: "Those who wish to teach in this extremist way will effortlessly elude any regulation system that we set up."
Nick Gibb MP, speaking for the government, said that the proposed offence of non-registration would make it easier to take swift action and that they would "have very real powers to tackle the settings that do not register".
Rob Flello MP summed up the mood of all speakers bar the government minister in saying: "The best thing the government can do, once and for all, is to bury this consultation."
Before the debate, The Daily Telegraph incorrectly suggested in its headline that the prime minister was exempting Sunday schools and 'one-off residential activities' following comments by Sir Michael Wilshaw that Sunday Schools and other church groups would have to register with the state.
While the PM states that government does not intend to regulate Sunday Schools, education minister Nick Gibb acknowledged in the debate that some Sunday schools would be caught by the proposals where a child attends a religious setting for an aggregate of six hours or more in a week and as a result the government are exploring options around 'dis-aggregation' – presumably a way the proposals can be worked to prevent Sunday schools being inspected through the accumulation of hours.
The Alliance considers that 'dis-aggregation' would add a further dimension of complexity and bureaucracy to already unworkable proposals.
It's difficult to envisage how a vibrant Church with multiple ministries and associated personnel might possibly manage the 'dis-aggregation' of youth work by location, activity, ministry, teacher or content.
We welcome the recognition by Nick Gibb during the debate that the out-of-school settings proposals achieve the very outcome the PM expressly wishes to avoid and we invite the government to immediately abandon these rushed proposals that are a fundamental threat to religious liberty.