Faith schools don’t have rights, children do

Yesterday a state faith school in London called Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School was failed by Ofsted, following (though not entirely because of) an exposé by Humanists UK revealing that it had been redacting and censoring its textbooks to remove mentions of same-sex relationships, women’s rights, and various other aspects of modern society. The Ofsted report, which everyone ought to read, has provoked cries of a ‘secularist plot’, and not for the first time. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Let’s be clear about what the school was actually found to be doing. Ofsted found that school leaders: redact texts to remove references or images of men and women socialising together, detail on the persecution of LGBT people during the Holocaust, and images of women that show any bare skin on ankles, wrists, or necks; limit career advice in order to ‘deliberately [my emphasis] restrict the options available to pupils’ when they leave school; provide a ‘narrow curriculum’, focussing ‘narrowly on their own faith’, which fails to ‘prepare pupils adequately for life in modern Britain’; fail to fulfil their ‘statutory duty to provide sex and relationships education’; and ‘deliberately restrict pupils’ access to advice and guidance about how to keep safe in the world, including the redaction of helpline numbers from books.’

No doubt everyone will have their own views about which of these is worse, but surely we can agree that they all detract from the core purpose of a school – namely, to educate its pupils, promote their individual development and wellbeing, and ensure that when they leave the school gates, they are better equipped to make their way through life than when they went in.

On these grounds, Ofsted’s criticism of the school is entirely warranted. So why has the reaction been characterised more by conspiracy theory than concern for the children?

The answer is simple. Those who criticise the narrow, doctrinaire education provided by schools like Yesodey Hatorah do so because they believe that children have rights, and that these rights are inviolable regardless of where children are from or which religious community they were born into. Those who criticise Ofsted believe that religions have rights, and that it is reasonable to relegate the rights of individuals (children or otherwise) in order to accommodate them.

This difference of perspective is at the heart of the ongoing debate about the place of faith schools in society.

If you’re in the former camp, failing to teach children a broad, balanced curriculum, or teaching that men and women have defined and limited roles in society, are gross violations of the rights of individuals to freedom, choice, and dignity. If you’re in the latter camp, preventing a faith school from providing education in this way is a gross violation of the community’s rights, irrespective of what harm might be caused to the diverse set of individuals within it.

The problem is that if religions were to have rights at all (and they don’t – only people do), they certainly wouldn’t have the right to ride roughshod over the rights of their members – and, even more certainly, not the rights of their children. Make no mistake, there are girls and boys, mothers and fathers, LGBT people, and non-believers in these religious communities who do not share the views of their ‘leaders’, but whose ability to speak out, let alone leave, is almost entirely restricted. (It’s worth remembering at this point that Humanists UK was passed copies of this particular school’s redacted books by concerned members of the community who desperately want change, and that is what led to the Ofsted inspection.)

No one should expect the Government to simply sit back and allow this to continue, least of all in the schools that it funds. Fortunately it hasn’t been, and for those hoping that the proper scrutiny of faith schools will soon return to the low-water mark of recent decades, here is what the Government had to say in its Integrated Communities Strategy earlier this year:

‘We believe in a society based on shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities in which we respect and promote equal rights, particularly for those in isolated and segregated communities whose voices are too seldom heard. The government will always protect people’s legitimate rights – for example, to free speech, to hold traditional views and to practise their religion within the law – but we will not shy away from challenging cultures and practices that are harmful to individuals or restrict their rights and hold them back from making the most of the opportunities of living in modern Britain.’

There is no ‘secularist plot’ – not that ‘secularist’ is in any way a dirty word – only an emerging consensus that the rights of children trump the interests of religion every time.

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