The defining feature of David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester yesterday was its emphasis on the Government’s counter-extremism strategy, and within that, his announcement on the tightening of regulations around religious "supplementary schools".
“There is nothing wrong with children learning about their faith, whether it's at madrassas, Sunday schools or Jewish yeshivas," he said. "But in some madrassas, we've got children being taught that they shouldn't mix with people of other religions; being beaten; swallowing conspiracy theories about Jewish people. These children should be having their minds opened, their horizons broadened, not having their heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate."
The proposals outlined in Manchester would force all religious supplementary schools in England that teach children for more than eight hours a week to register with the Department for Education, and they would then be subject to inspection. If the schools failed to meet required standards, or if they were found to be "teaching intolerance" to use Cameron’s preferred wording, they would be "shut down".
The issue of religious supplementary schools, and more specifically of madrassas – Muslim schools that are often part of a mosque – is one that has been high up the agenda in recent months. In July, the PM delivered a speech in Birmingham on the subject of extremism, and focussed a lot on the need to improve integration in the education system, and dismantle the religious silos which have increasingly become features of it. Indeed, it was during his speech there that he first signalled his intent to crack down on the radicalisation which is believed to take place in madrassas.
We must of course wait for further details, but these initial plans can only be welcomed. When it comes to the education and development of our children, it is absolutely vital that there is transparency in what is being taught. That is as true for the normal school day as it is for the hours outside of it, and tightening the inspection regime for these supplementary settings is the right thing to do.
But setting aside the proposals themselves, there is real cause for concern in the constant use of madrassas and Muslim schools as the only examples of fundamentalist or extremist teaching. The Government must recognise that indoctrination and intolerance are found in schools of all religions, and constantly focussing the rhetoric on the Muslim community allows other religious educational settings to escape attention.
It is underreported, for instance, that thousands of Jewish children in strictly Orthodox yeshivas grow up learning no English, cut off from the rest of society and taught to fear or even hate those outside their immediate communities. It is underreported that a huge number of children continue to be fed homophobic and racist doctrine in a variety of Christian settings. Earlier this year a Christian school was even placed in special measures after failing to tackle homophobic bullying.
Nor is the issue confined to these supplementary schools. The inspection regime of mainstream faith schools remains woefully inadequate, and provides far too much cover for the kind of intolerant and unbalanced teaching that the Government is seeking to address. In state-funded faith schools, religious education – a subject more important than any in engendering tolerance, respect and mutual understanding amongst young people – is still not inspected by Ofsted, but rather by someone chosen by the school themselves.
In the private sector, the oversight is even worse. By way of example, despite having been founded by the Focus Learning Trust (FLT), the educational wing of the fundamentalist Christian sect the "Exclusive Brethren", the School Inspection Service (SIS), which is one of only two accredited independent school inspectorates in England, is solely responsible for the inspection of all FLT schools. These arrangements are clearly insufficient in safeguarding against abuse and indoctrination, and not just in madrassas and Muslim schools.
So while the PM is absolutely right that the teaching of intolerance must be stamped out, he must extend his concern to educational settings of all kinds and all religions where such teaching takes place. These new inspection arrangements need to reflect this, and the Prime Minister’s rhetoric ought to as well.
Andrew Copson is Chief Executive of the British Humanist AssociationReuse content