‘Government inaction on illegal faith schools very nearly killed these children’

“Sadly, to those of us who have been through the illegal Charedi education system, none of this is at all surprising”

dover‘When they were plucked to safety, the schoolchildren were still in high spirits apparently unaware of the danger they’ve been in’ noted the ITV reporter who sounded rather perplexed.

This story which has been widely reported over the last few weeks, understandably caused some bafflement among reporters. How did a class of 34 school-children from London along with their two teachers walk past ‘nine warning signs’ on their way to the bottom of the cliff? None of whom ‘were dressed in any attire that you would associate with clambering over rocks’.

Sadly, to those of us who have been through the illegal Charedi education system, none of this is at all surprising.

The lack of basic teaching in English meant that neither the students nor the teachers (born and brought up in the UK by the way) had any of the grasp of what the words on the warning signs meant. Moreover, the notion of rising tides would be an alien concept to these boys because the teaching on science or geography is considered ‘evil’ for the role it plays in causing these pupils to question the sanctity of ancient religious scriptures.

So where are the authorities in all this?

The initial response by a PR firm hired by the school, was that they were a trip organised by an unknown community centre, which has no registered records anywhere and seems to have popped into existence only after this tragic incident.

A subsequent investigation by The Independent and British Humanist Association (BHA) found that these pupils and their teachers were in fact from an illegal unregistered school and had simply lied about the community centre. The full report can be found here:


Particularly shocking is the finding that ‘the teachers put the children’s lives in further danger because, once they realised they were at risk of drowning, they initially contacted community leaders in Stamford Hill, north London, instead of contacting authorities for fear of the illegal school being discovered.’

This illegal school has been known to the authorities for many years and yet no concrete action had yet been taken to shut it down.

The most disturbing outcome of this incident is highlighted in the final paragraph of the report:

‘A spokesperson for Hackney Council told The Independent they do not have any legal powers to close the schools and are conducting an investigation into the incident. They stated that they believed the children were from a school rather than the community centre but said that the school is not an illegal secondary school but a nearby legally run private primary school. After it was highlighted that this was not possible as the children in the incident were not of primary school age and sources outside the school site had confirmed it was the illegal school involved, Hackney Council declined to comment further.’

An anonymous former pupil of an illegal Charedi school being interviewed by the BBC last year

The primary school in question is a registered religious school about half a mile away from the location from the illegal secondary school who took these boys on the treacherous trip.

It is astonishing that Hackney thought it realistic to make such a claim. According to the latest 2016 Department for Education census, the primary school which Hackney tried to claim these boys belonged to has no pupil above the age of 11 and isn’t registered to take anyone older than 11 anyway.

If these 34 pupils were indeed from the above school, they would have all been aged 10 or 11. Yet all the boys on this trip (as seen in the reported images) were clearly older and were dressed in the traditional Charedi clothing worn only post Bar Mitzvah (above the age of 13).

There are serious questions which must be asked, not only about the lack of action to shut down this illegal school for so many years (which would undoubtedly have been responsible for the deaths of these children were they less fortunate), but also why Hackney Council originally made a fictitious claim about the alleged school to which these boys belong?

This is why the work of the BHA is all the more critical in continuing to apply the pressure and hold authorities to account so that the well-being and rights of the children trapped in these schools, as I once was, can be protected.


Ofsted’s ‘whack-a-mole’ approach to private Muslim schools is necessary but short-sighted

“Every single month, and it tends to be more regular even than that, a new story appears of a school in England, for reasons of religion, badly failing its pupils”

Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw

Last week Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw sent the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan a letter expressing his concern about the ‘urgent and escalating’ problems caused by unregistered faith schools. As with his previous letters on this issue, Sir Michael focused primarily on Muslim schools, in line with Ofsted’s clear policy of prioritising the Government’s ‘Prevent’ and Counter-Extremism strategies in its work.

Unlike his previous letters, however, this latest missive rightly points out that problems are not simply confined to unregistered Muslim schools operating illegally and outside of the system, but to fully registered independent Muslim schools too.

This is not before time.

In January of this year, for instance, an independent Muslim school in Tower Hamlets, east London, was reported for having books in its library that ‘promote inequality of women and punishments, including stoning to death, which are illegal in Britain’ and which ‘undermine the active promotion of the rule of British law and respect for other people’.

In February, a similar school in Luton was found to be ‘undermining British values’ as a result of its ‘unequal treatment of girls and boys’. Not only were girls found to ‘not have the same access to laboratory facilities that the boys have’, but they were also ‘limited to knitting and sewing’ in design and technology classes.

In March, a private Muslim school in Dewsbury was investigated for teaching an ‘extreme form of Islam’ which, according to Sky News, included the distribution of literature which ‘warn[ed] Muslims not to adopt British customs’  and claimed that ‘Jews are engaged in a conspiracy to take over the world’.

In April, a school visited by inspectors was reported to be segregating male and female staff and governors during meetings ‘through the use of a dividing screen across the middle of the room’, something which Sir Michael also wrote to the Education Secretary about so as to highlight the fact that similar policies appear to be in place at a number of other independent schools around the country.

In May, inspectors moved to shut down a school in Staffordshire after being alerted to the fact that children were being put ‘at risk of exposure to extremism and radicalisation’. Similar action was reported in relation to illegal schools in London, Birmingham, Luton, and Wolverhampton.

In June, Ofsted reported that at a school in Birmingham inspectors had discovered ‘a large number of copies of a leaflet containing highly concerning and extremist views, such as “Music, dancing and singing are acts of the devil and prohibited”’. The same school was previously criticised for the segregation of male and female governors.

By now, you get the picture. Every single month, and it tends to be more regular even than that, a new story appears of a school in England, for reasons of religion, badly failing its pupils. And this is by no means a problem exclusive to Muslim schools. A similar exercise could just as easily have been carried out with regard to Christian or Jewish schools, as has been evidenced by the previous blog posts uploaded to this site.

It’s also worth saying that for every school mentioned here, there are clearly a number of Muslim schools that are delivering an education with which, rightly or wrongly, Ofsted have no problem. The point, though, is that in any system which allows schools to be subject to so significant a degree of religious influence, as our system does, offences are going to be committed and they are going to be committed often. It is inevitable.

It is therefore clear that whilst the Government must of course continue to pursue a counter-extremism strategy – and in doing so it naturally justified in focussing its attention predominantly on Muslim schools –engaging in a game of ‘faith’ school whack-a-mole, which deals only with problems as and when they arise, can never be successful. If it really wants to solve the problem of extremism and intolerance in the classroom, it must be proactive and widen its scope, acknowledging once and for all that dismantling the freedoms afforded within the ‘faith’ school sector as a whole is the only way forward.

FSA team

What are the UK’s ‘New Christian Schools’?

cee-colourlogoMost people are unaware that the UK has a movement of private evangelical schools similar to those in the USA. They refer to themselves as the New Christian Schools, and the first (The Cedars School, Rochester) opened in 1969. It is difficult to give a precise number of the schools, because there is no official body to which they are all affiliated, and some of them are not members of any larger group. Sometimes the schools have been set up to serve only a particular local religious community, and do not advertise outside it. The largest group is the Christian Schools Trust (CST), which currently has 33 member schools. Outside of the movement, these schools are best known for teaching creationism, and for their opposition to the 1998 ban on corporal punishment in private schools.

The founders of the New Christian Schools were concerned that their attempts to raise their children as Christians were threatened by attending mainstream schools (even mainstream faith schools). They wanted the religious philosophy of the schools to match their homes. “We were working hard to instil Christian values into them at home,” writes Sylvia Baker of Trinity School, Stalybridge. “Did we really want all those values to be challenged as soon as they stepped into school?”

Professor Geoffrey Walford was the first academic to study the New Christian Schools seriously. He observes:

These schools share an ideology of Biblically-based evangelical Christianity that seeks to relate the message of the Bible to all aspects of present day life whether personal, spiritual, or educational. These schools have usually been set up by parents of a church group to deal with a growing dissatisfaction with what is seen as the increased secularism of the great majority of schools. The schools aim to provide a distinctive Christian approach to every part of school life and the curriculum and, usually, parents have a continuing role in the management and organisation of the schools.

The New Christian Schools usually charge much lower fees than elite private schools, and teachers, if they are paid at all, earn very low salaries. They tend to see their work as a calling from God, and make sacrifices to achieve this vision. The founders of the Christian Schools Trust, Sylvia Baker and David Freeman, have written a book called The Love of God in the Classroom which gives a good insight into the nature of the schools. One academic paper summarises the book this way:

The new Christian school movement is grounded in belief in the God who takes the initiative within the lives of the people of God to bring to fruition the purposes of God. Here is the God who communicates with individuals and with groups through the word of scripture, through pictures and words of prophecy. Here is the God who authenticates the message through answered prayer, through healing, and through the release of the necessary finances.

Reading Baker and Freeman’s book, it becomes clear that a number of the schools’ founders believe that God speaks to them. At the Cedars’ school, for example, the authors recount a conversation between Betty Harris, the school’s founder, and God. Betty had just employed a property surveyor to inspect a building that turned out to be unsuitable for the school:

As she left the building and went out of the gate, [Betty] talked to the Lord, voicing how puzzled she felt about what had happened. “Why should the surveyor have spent all that time doing a thorough survey that you, Lord, knew wasn’t going to be needed?” Straight away the reply came.

“Because there was someone in the house that day who needed me. I want you to learn from this that each child is precious in my eyes and that no trouble is to be spared in the training of my children, in prayer and in the care that I am asking you to give them.”

“Thank you, Lord,” said Betty, “and what shall I do now?”

Most of the New Christian Schools are not part of a denomination and do not accept any label beyond ‘Christian’. In his judgement on a court case brought by several New Christian Schools, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead observed:

The claimants claim to speak on behalf of a ‘large body of the Christian community’ in this country … The claimants are reticent about the name, organisation and other particular beliefs of the group of which they are members, stating only they are all ‘practising Christians’ and that there are 40 schools conducted in accordance with these beliefs.

Accelerated Christian Education

Although the first school was founded in 1969, by 1980 there were only about ten schools. By 1990, according to Walford, there were nearly 90. Part of the reason for this expansion was Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), which arrived in Britain when Emmanuel Christian School, Fleetwood, opened in 1979. ACE is a US import in which students receive most of their education working individually at desks facing the wall, separated by vertical screens. There do not have ‘teachers’ in the conventional sense, but ‘supervisors’. If students need assistance, they raise a flag. Students complete worksheets called PACEs (Packets of Accelerated Christian Education), which incorporate Biblical lessons and Bible memorisation into every academic subject.

A row of four wooden desks, each separated by vertical screens. A child sits at each desk wearing a blue sweater.
An ACE learning centre. Image: YouTube.

A number of ACE’s features made it suitable for rapid expansion. Because the students largely teach themselves from worksheets, there is no requirement for expert teachers. This means that small schools, which could not afford a range of specialist teachers, can get by with just one or two supervisors, who do not necessarily need qualifications. It means that a wide range of ages and abilities can be taught in the same room. It was cheap, too: in 1984, ACE’s UK distributor said, “‘To commence an A.C.E. school we inform parents that they will probably need £2,500 – £3,000 to set up. It costs £600 to come on to the A.C.E. programme and then there are the curriculum materials on top of that.” ACE schools could be operated in church buildings during the week, so there were often minimal building costs.

Today, ACE is distributed by Christian Education Europe. CEE’s website currently lists 30 UK schools, of which two are also CST members.

Williamson case

In 1999, corporal punishment was banned in English schools. The New Christian Schools saw this as an infringement of religious liberty. They practised corporal punishment on the basis of such Bible verses as Proverbs 23:13-14:

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.

In response to the ban, the Christian Fellowship School, Liverpool, started a legal challenge that was supported by 50 other New Christian Schools. Christian Education Europe hosted a protest rally in London, at which the guest speakers were Garie and Marie Ezzo. This prompted a Newsnight investigation into the Ezzos, who advocated spanking children up to five times a day from the age of 18 months, and whose advice on withholding feeding from ‘disobedient’ children had been linked with failure to thrive in infants. At the time of writing, CEE still sells the Ezzos’ books on its website (to which I am deliberately not linking).

The legal challenge to the spanking ban was defeated in the European Court of Human Rights and then in the Lords. Of the outcome of this case, the Christian Schools Trust comments:

The upshot had been a ruling which they regarded as very unsatisfactory and which seemed to confirm their fears that it was becoming increasingly difficult to fulfil the purpose for which the new Christian schools had been established, to provide a setting in which children could be educated according to a Christian, rather than a secular, worldview.

I trust I am not alone in being concerned that these schools feel that hitting children is an important component of a ‘Christian worldview’.

List of Christian Schools Trust (CST) member schools (as of June 2016)

Bethany School — Sheffield
Bradford Christian School
Bournemouth Christian School
Christian Fellowship School – Liverpool
Covenant Christian School – Stockport
Emmanuel Christian School – Oxford
Emmanuel Christian School – Leicester
Emmanuel School – Walsall
Emmanuel School – Derby
Emmaus School – Wiltshire
Grangewood Independent School – London
Hope House School – Barnsley
Immanuel Christian School – Westerleigh
Immanuel School – Romford
Jubilee House Christian School – Nottingham
Kingsfold Christian School – Preston
Leeds Christian School of Excellence
Lewis Independent Christian School
Mannafields Christian School – Edinburgh
New Life Christian Academy
Plantings School – Plymouth
Regius Christian School – Edinburgh
Springfield Christian School – London
Sunrise Christian School – Glasgow
Tabernacle School – London
The Christian School – Takeley
The King’s School – Witney
The King’s School – Basingstoke
The King’s School – Harpenden
The River School – Worcester
The Vine Christian School – Reading
Trinity Christian School – Reading
Trinity School – Stalybridge

List of CEE (Christian Education Europe) affiliated schools (as of June 2016)

Branch Christian School – Dewsbury
Carmel Christian School – Bristol
Christian School of London
Emmanuel School – Exeter
Excellence Christian School – London
Faith in God’s Word – Peterborough
Greater Grace School – Chester
King of King’s School – Manchester
The King’s House School – Windsor
Kings Kids Christian School – London
London Christian Learning Centre
Luton Pentecostal Christian Academy
Maranatha Christian School – Swindon
Nursery Moksliukus – London
New Hope Academy – London
New Life Academy – Hull
Oxford Christian School
Paragon Christian Academy – London
Phoenix Academy and Nursery – London
Promised Land Academy – London
Redemption Academy – Stevenage
Regents Academy – Louth
Seed of Light Christian Academy – Manchester
The Lamb’s Christian School – Birmingham
The Vine Christian School – Reading
Zion Christian Academy – Luton
Bridgend Christian School
Cardigan Christian School
Living Rivers Christian School – Ballymena
So He Cares – London

Jonny Scaramanga also blogs at Leaving Fundamentalism.