Where have all the children gone?

“We are lucky enough to live in a country and in a time in which one child going missing makes national news and provokes public outcry. And yet, when the children from almost an entire religious community go missing from the education system, year on year and by their thousands, our reaction and the reaction of our Government is to do almost nothing.”

There are a great many injustices embedded in the faith school sector of our education system. And as the Government moves to drastically increase the extent of religious discrimination and segregation in our schools, these injustices are only becoming further entrenched.

But which injustice is the worst? In a system that allows schools to discriminate against children on the basis of their parents’ religious or non-religious beliefs, forces countless parents to lie about their religion just to get their children into a local school, and requires children to compulsorily worship a god they likely don’t believe in, it can be hard to pick.

An insight into life in an illegal religious school

In truth, however, the answer is ‘none of the above’. The greatest injustice present in our system relates to the thousands of children that we know are absent from it, and the total lack of any meaningful action to address this.

The problem of illegal religious schools in this country is one that has received increasing attention in recent years. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has been the driving force behind much of this, working with former pupils of these schools, and with government officials and journalists from the print and broadcast media, to ensure that the issue never falls too far from the top of the agenda. Not before time, the relevant authorities have started to take an interest too.

Oftsed’s outgoing Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has now written to the Education Secretary four times to outline his findings and concerns over illegal religious schools, and for the first time Ofsted have a dedicated team focused on identifying and investigating these schools. Local authorities like Hackney and Birmingham are no longer turning a blind-eye to these issues, or passing the buck when challenged on their inaction. Instead, they are carrying out their own investigations into illegal religious schools, and through the Local Government Association asking Government for more powers to intervene where they suspect children are not receiving the mainstream education they are entitled to. Even the Department for Education (DfE) has started taking some responsibility, introducing provisions to prosecute the proprietors of illegal religious schools and to clamp down on supplementary religious schools that may also be operating illegally.

But for all the increased attention and concern, the perception remains that this is a problem that’s still shrouded in secrecy, hard to identify, hidden from the eyes of the authorities and the arm of the law. This perception is not correct. This is a problem well known to us.

Last week the Institute for Jewish Policy Research published a report entitled ‘The Rise and Rise of Jewish schools in the United Kingdom’. Here is a graph from the report showing strictly orthodox boys by age in secondary schools in Stamford Hill, Manchester, and Gateshead (the three areas in England with the largest Charedi communities):


The drop off in attendance at age 13, represented by the blue bars on the graph, is clear to see. As the report notes:

‘An estimated 1,400 strictly Orthodox children aged 11-15 years are being educated in Jewish schools or yeshivot which are not included in the Department for Education’s school census… Indeed, about half of strictly Orthodox boys aged 11-15 years do not appear in the strictly Orthodox school system. The issue is not as extreme, but still exists, at the younger ages within this range: about one-third of the boys aged 11-13 are not found in the data on strictly Orthodox schools.’

This, I hope you’ll agree, is shocking. But when the report was published last week, the only headlines it received related to the rise in the number of Jewish children attending faith schools. None of the articles covering the report mentioned the missing children or the schools not included in the DfE’s census.

There’s more where this comes from too. The graphs below are from an Independent article earlier this year, showing the number of Jewish children in full time education in Hackney according to the Department for Education’s school census. Hackney is thought to be home to as many as 30 unregistered Charedi schools:

Spot the difference

Again, you can see the problem here immediately. At the age of around 12/13, Jewish boys all but disappear from full time education.

Now you might ask how we know that when they disappear, they disappear into illegal religious schools. The answer is simple. No one has ever made any attempt to disguise this fact. Take as an example a report from 2007 produced by the Board of Deputies of British Jews:

“It can also be observed from Table 1 that the attendance figures for boys from Years 8 through 11 show a dramatic fall-off to almost zero. This is due to boys leaving these schools around the age of bar mitzvah in order to attend yeshivot (seminaries for young, unmarried men).”


This is a public report, drawing on official data from the Department for Education, which openly and uncritically acknowledges that when boys in the strictly Orthodox community reach their early teens it is normal for them to start attending illegal, unregistered schools and for the entirety of their education from there on in to be focused exclusively on the study of scripture. And before you begin to wonder what is wrong with this – deeply religious schools serving deeply religious communities – take some time to read about what these places are like from the former pupils who have shared their experiences on this site.

We are lucky enough to live in a country and in a time in which one child going missing makes national news and provokes public outcry. And yet, when the children from almost an entire religious community go missing from the education system, year on year and by their thousands, our reaction and the reaction of our Government is to do almost nothing. That has to change.

FSA team

Share this piece on Facebook and Twitter.

Deliver us from evil: ‘gay deliverance’ in an English Christian school

“It leaves me angry that I and other LGBT students are being failed, not only by ACE’s bigoted curriculum, but also by the inspectors who are supposed to ensure the quality and equality of our education.”

Accelerated_Christian_Education logoYou may not have heard of Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), and you may even be unaware more generally of the existence of a number of schools in the UK that teach their children a fundamentalist, isolationist, and homophobic Christian ideology of one kind or another.

ACE originated in America in the 70s, but there are now over thirty schools using the ACE curriculum in the UK and Ireland under the umbrella group Christian Education Europe, and it is also used by a not insignificant number of parents who home-school their children. Needless to say, all of these schools are private, and are thus only subject to Ofsted’s less-discerning eye, the one it uses to ignore the things that would likely result in investigations and press headlines if they were found to be taking place in state-funded schools. Indeed, to read inspection reports of ACE schools is to wonder why the inspectors turn up at all, and this is especially true when it comes to the schools’ teaching about same-sex relationships and the LGBT community.

One report we’ve seen, freely available for all to see, notes uncritically, ‘Pupils are taught that same-sex relationships are sinful’ before limply adding that pupils are nonetheless ‘supported to consider and accept that not everyone within the wider society will agree’.

It’s no wonder then that former pupils of these schools feel let down. Campaigner and former ACE pupil, David Waldock, said: ‘It leaves me angry that I and other LGBT students are being failed, not only by ACE’s bigoted curriculum, but also by the inspectors who are supposed to ensure the quality and equality of our education.’  

But if what appeared in that Ofsted report represents the dialled-down, family-friendly version of the homophobia that ACE schools foist on their pupils, reserved only for when an inspector is watching, one shudders at the thought of what is said on the topic behind closed-doors, when only God is watching. Unfortunately, we now know.

Posing as a Christian parent of a gay son, journalist Martin Williams called an ACE school to say he was moving to the area and wanted to know if they could help a boy ‘overcome’ his homosexuality. The response was alarmingly accommodating.

After some initial chit chat about the ethos of the school and its approach to same-sex relationships, during which time the teacher expressed her apparent incredulity that ‘the curriculum in the states [state schools] is very focussed on the alternative family, which means that you can have gay parents and it’s absolutely fine!’, the conversation turned to what the inspectors wouldn’t have seen:

Journalist: Do you – as a school or as a church – do you do deliverance at all? I mean, in terms of helping people get through things like…’

Teacher:‘We do. But we don’t do it here in school. If there is a need for that then I would say that the family needs to make an appointment with the pastors and do it outside school hours. I’m not against it, I believe in it, it’s just that we have to be sensitive because obviously we wouldn’t want a deliverance going on in a room and then have Ofsted walk in! [Laughs] That would be a bit awkward to explain.’

It would indeed. She went on:

Teacher:‘When something arises and there’s a need to [do] deliverance, a special prayer, I will take the children out of the building. Obviously parents will always know about this. I’ll take them into the church’s premises and they’ll be prayed for over there instead of having it done in the school premises. It’s just because we need to be aware that it’s, because we have children from Seven Day Adventist especially, they don’t practise this side of things, so we have to be sensitive towards that as well. So if they was to say anything, we don’t want the school to be under the focus of Ofsted for doing anything like that.’

In other words, the sensitivity required when performing a ‘deliverance’ on a gay child is reserved here for the Seven Day Adventists who, despite stating on their official website that ‘homosexuality is a manifestation of the disturbance and brokenness in human inclinations and relations caused by the entrance of sin into the world’, apparently draw the line at the ‘pray the gay away’ approach.

At this stage, it’s worth explaining what deliverance is. In strictly definitional terms, the word means ‘the action of being rescued or set free’, but in this context, it’s more accurate to describe it as the expulsion or casting out of demons or evil spirits, which is the terminology most regularly used when describing the work of so-called ‘Deliverance Ministries’. In common parlance, notwithstanding those who split hairs over the distinction, the word exorcism about sums it up. Unsurprisingly, deliverance ministries are far more commonplace in America than they are in the UK, but even here, finding places that openly offer this service is just a simple Google search away. The relationship they seem to have with certain schools, however, is not something they advertise. If they haven’t already, both Ofsted and the Department for Education must look into this immediately.

2016-05-13-lw-v1-ace-memeBut if this shocks you – and I would hope it does at least a little bit – then you are clearly unfamiliar with what is in the ‘workbooks’ used by ACE schools, known as Packets of Accelerated Christian Education or PACEs. One snippet from a PACE we were shown states ‘it is as unreasonable to say that homosexuality is normal as it is to say that murder or stealing is normal’, and, as if by this stage the level of fear or repression is not high enough, the book also reminds pupils that ‘in Old Testament times, God commanded that homosexuals be put to death’.

It is clear, then, that these views are by no means those of just a few schools or a few teachers. Indeed, this is a message that comes from the top. In an article from 2014, the founder of Christian Education Europe Arthur Roderick bemoaned ‘the imposition of “equality concepts” that require children to accept various alternative lifestyles that dishonour the God who made us’.

In spite of the woolly response of Ofsted inspectors to such open displays of homophobic teaching, or indeed the unabashed honesty of the workbooks on this score, this is almost certainly illegal. Whilst the Equality Act 2010, which affords faith schools a whole host of freedoms to wilfully discriminate on the grounds of their religion, states that nothing contained within the school curriculum itself is subject to its prohibitions, it crucially adds that ‘the way in which the curriculum is taught’ is covered by the Act and schools are obliged to ‘ensure issues are taught in a way which does not subject pupils to discrimination.’

Given that ‘self-instruction’ is at the heart of ACE schools’ pedagogy, as is stated on the ACE website and reflected in the fact that Packets of Accelerated Christian Education are described as ‘worktexts’ or ‘workbooks’, rather than ‘textbooks’, the line between the content of the curriculum and its delivery is more than just blurred in ACE schools, they are, in effect, one and the same. To be clear, this leaves pupils like David Waldock in the unthinkable position of having to teach themselves that what they are is evil and perverse, of having to sit in silence and compare themselves to murderers and thieves.

Extract from a Packet of Accelerated Christian Education (PACE)
Extract on homosexuality from a Packet of Accelerated Christian Education (PACE)

So though it’s no less devastating, it isn’t surprising to hear David say ‘I experienced problems with my mental health and self-esteem’, nor to know, as he explained, that ‘the school handbook also referred to homosexuality as an example of immorality which would result in immediate expulsion’, with ‘the curriculum calling it “a perversion of God’s plan”, and strongly linking it to HIV/AIDS’.

Remember, all this is going on in English schools, and the rampant homophobia in these settings is something about which both Ofsted and the Department for Education must at least be aware. More than that, almost all ACE schools are graded as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and reports from inspectors abound with phrases like ‘They clearly know right from wrong’, ‘Pupils’ moral awareness is good’, and even ‘[there is] a genuine aura of tolerance and respect for all’.

Unfortunately, all that we know about these schools tells us that quite the opposite is true. The attitudes they promote foster intolerance in a great many of their pupils, and condemn many others at least to a childhood of anxiety and repression, but very possibly to an entire lifetime of it too. There is simply no place for this in our schools, and it’s long past time that Ofsted recognised this.

FSA team

Share on Facebook or Twitter.