“Will Ofsted start policing thought crime in schools?! wailed a headline in the Catholic Herald on 13 December. The magazine was responding to an Ofsted report that shed some light on faith schools.
The report found that “there are schools spreading beliefs…that clash with British values or equalities law’”. That “in a handful of schools inspectors found instances of sexist and sectarian literature”. And that ‘in even more extreme cases, children are being educated illegally in unregistered settings.” Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, later commented that current powers were inadequate when it came to dealing with unregistered schools and mentioned the need for a database of children who are not included in mainstream education.
While socialists defend the right to freedom of religious expression, as part of a broader defence of free speech, we do not hold any truck with the idea that parents and priests have a right to force religious education on children or that any religious body should have a say in how schools are run.
The Catholic Herald complains that “a society that prizes tolerance must surely allow people the right to have a traditional view of marriage”. But wrapped up in this defence of the right to hold an opinion, is something quite nasty and more damaging.
Bigoted views about same-sex relationships being less valid than heterosexual ones should not be expounded to students as truth, and certainly not by people whose opinions carry weight within a school community. It would be a good thing if bigots were unable to venture into schools to spread their oppressive, sex-negative shaming as morality handed down from the great monster in the sky. I’m doubtful though that the Catholic Herald has anything much to worry about for the moment.
The criticism Ofsted makes becomes woolly when it strays into the territory of “British values”. As the 2014 article by Sean Matgamna (Solidarity 327) argues, “much of the government’s talk about ‘British values’ is ‘spin’ rather than something that has or will have substance to it. The government lists among those values ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’ for those of different faiths. When a school is run by vigorous, convinced, ardently religious people, mandating ‘moderate’ values is either an infringement on religious freedom, or a nonsense, or both.” It is not possible to square the circle of having religious schools that must conform to vaguely defined “British values”. Those shifting values, infinitely redefinable, inevitably come in to conflict with the unbending dogma of serious religious people.
The only rational solution is to remove religious influence from schools entirely; not in the name of dangerously vague “British values”, but in the name of secularism. Education must be secular. It must provide a space in which children can develop, learn to think and reason, free from the damaging, fearful and self-punishing ideologies pedalled by most faiths.
It should deal with religious studies through thoughtful, informed comparison of their different histories, sacred books and core beliefs. Let the devout pedal their nightmares of a monster that rains fire and death on whole cities whilst simultaneously loving us in the open arena of public debate; not in the institutions that should support children to grow up as free, critically-thinking individuals.