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

How religious selection in schools brings misery to parents and children

‘my child should not be penalised and put at the bottom of a long, long list just because his parents don’t have a particular belief. This just seems all so, so wrong’

The Fair Admissions Campaign aims to end religious selection in schools
The FAC aims to end religious selection in schools

Every year, hundreds of thousands parents find themselves unable to get their children into their local schools due to the religiously-selective admissions criteria that many of them employ. On its own, this is little more than state-funded religious discrimination, but it also has the corollary effect of unfairly limiting the choice of vast swathes of the population who are either of the ‘wrong’ religion, or who aren’t religious at all. Of course, this can be more of a problem in some areas than it is in others.

Take, for example, the case of one mother from Farnham in Surrey, who got in touch with the Fair Admissions Campaign, a group set up to bring an end to religious selection:

‘Of the 10 schools closest to us, only 2 do not require you to attend Church or follow the Christian faith. My daughter was rejected by the 4 schools we listed and instead placed in the worst school in our area. It is a failing school that has been placed in special measures and we have heard of numerous accounts of parents removing their children due to bullying. We chose to live here because of the schools and to be close to one set of parents. At the time we made that decision, neither of us were aware of the admissions policies.’

She went on to say that ‘to judge a FOUR YEAR OLD on her religious beliefs is ridiculous.’ 

Regrettably, limits to parental choice of this kind are extremely common. In Kensington and Chelsea for instance, around 60% of places are subject to religious criteria:

‘My wife and I have been going through the process of applying for a primary school place for our son.  We live in Kensington and Chelsea.  Forced to take a close look at how the system worked, we were appalled to see the distorting effect that faith schools had on our choice.  We’re not fans of the concept in general but were particularly aggrieved when it became clear that, because all even half-decent schools in K&C are oversubscribed, we had less choice of taxpayer-funded schools than someone whose child was a Catholic, has been baptised, etc.  Any of those people can of course apply to a non-faith school and get an equal chance of a place to us but the converse is not true.’

Unsurprisingly, parents of the wrong or no faith are disproportionately disadvantaged by such criteria. The consequences of this are well-documented, as is attested to by this mother:

‘Like many parents, my nearest three schools are faith schools which are able to prioritise church-going children over non-church-going ones (two Christian, one Catholic). They are always heavily oversubscribed…Speaking to other parents, I’ve confirmed what I thought were simply my negative suspicions – parents attending church purely to get a place at these schools. They begrudge their lost Sundays, but they do it.’

Unwilling to do the same, she was forced to apply for a place at a  school with no religious character further away from home and, in her own words, ‘cross my fingers, expecting to spend 2012/3 in appeals’.

As it currently stands therefore, the system rewards parents who lie about their religion in order to get their children into school, with a recent poll suggesting that as many as 36% of parents have done this or would be willing to. Conversely, the system penalises and drastically limits the choice of parents who rightly feel uncomfortable with this. As this particular mother put it, ‘my child should not be penalised and put at the bottom of a long, long list just because his parents don’t have a particular belief. This just seems all so, so wrong’.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the Fair Admissions Campaign website in July 2015. 

Creationist teaching was commonplace at my state school

“teachers made blatant attempts to conflate evolution with the uglier aspects of human nature. Parallels between Darwinism and Nazism where rife”

2016 05 13 LW v1 Emmanuel 1In 2002 the British Humanist Association (BHA) received complaints about alleged creationist activities at Emmanuel College in Gateshead, a secondary state school which reportedly was presenting the theory of evolution as ‘a matter of faith’. The BHA organised a letter from 43 scientists and philosophers to the Prime Minister, but at the time neither the Government nor Ofsted moved to address the concerns. Here, a former pupil who recently left the school recounts her experience of the kind of teaching that led to the controversy.     

Christian teaching was pervasive, and the personal beliefs of the staff were regularly aired in some bizarre contexts. A physics teacher told my class that we should remember that the red wire electrical circuit was ‘positive’ as it was the same colour as the blood of Christ.

Evolution was taught in biology under duress. The staff made it clear that this part of the curriculum was delivered only because it is legal obligation. Much was made of the phrase ‘theory’; the word was abused and manipulated in an attempt to convey evolutionary science as intellectual speculation. Instead of explaining how in scientific parlance a theory is a convergence of multiple independent conclusions, it was disingenuously used as a slur.

On many occasions teachers made blatant attempts to conflate evolution with the uglier aspects of human nature. Parallels between Darwinism and Nazism where rife. Their depiction of philosophical implications of accepting evolution as fact yet another act of intellectual dishonestly.

Emmanuel embraced Young Earth Creationism and Biblical literalism. The events of Genesis were portrayed as historical fact; though in hindsight, they never clarified which version of the creation myth was cannon. The library was well stocked with the likes of Ken Ham, and a discredited geologist lectured on the ‘evidence’ within rock strata for a global catastrophic flood.

Every day started with either an Evangelical assembly or Bible study. Sometimes the staff showed shocking naivety. One lesson focused on Ephesians 5, which commands women to obey their husbands. Subjugating 50% of the populous based on some sort of genital apartheid is God’s will, we were told. Some of us read on, uninstructed, to Ephesians 6:5, which entreats slaves to obey their masters. When one of us asked why slavery is no longer endorsed by society, we were told that this verse must be read in historical context. Why one exhortation is context-bound and the other isn’t was never revealed.

Sixth form students were obligated to take a non-UCAS credited course known as PTE: Philosophy, Theology and Ethics. Ostensibly this was a mind-broadening exercise to help young people navigate a morally complex world. The reality was that it was Christian propaganda that culminated in an interview to determine our moral standing.

There was little anti-Semitism, but on one telling occasion the religious studies teacher (holding a degree in theology) informed the class that Jews believe the goyem (non-Jews) are Hell-bound. Given that Judaism has little to say about the afterlife in general, this is disconcerting.

Homophobia was actively practised. We were taught that to be gay was a sin that would condemn a soul to Hell. I personally had moved to Emmanuel to escape homophobic bullying in my previous school, so I already had a well-developed sense of self-loathing. Within my first term I developed anorexia nervosa; while I recovered without any lasting physical damage, I endured problems around eating and body image for 10 years after. To attribute my eating disorder to this toxic environment alone is facile, but it certainly was a significant factor.