Heather Bellamy spoke with Simon Calvert, the Deputy Director for Public Affairs at the Christian Institute, about the turnaround, and whether it has any impact for wider religious freedoms.

Simon Calvert
Simon Calvert

Heather: Why were Ofsted looking to register and inspect out of school education settings, which would have included Church youth groups?

Simon: It was a proposal from the Department of Education. On the surface it was a response to concerns that there may be a tiny number of children who were essentially being taught violent jihadism. But instead of a focussed approach on that problem, the Government decided that it was going to register any institution or setting that provided any kind of education, instruction, or training for children, or young people, for more than six hours in a week.

They wanted to demand that they would have to register with the State and have to submit to inspections from Ofsted to check that they were promoting British values. That was always a crazy idea, but Ofsted swung behind it.

Thankfully, the Government backed down when it saw the immense problems that it was likely to cause.

Heather: So for those who don't know, what are 'British values' and what would they have been looking for in the inspections?

Simon: Well, that's the $64,000 question. On one reading, of course, British values just means things like democracy, the rule of law, and freedom of speech, that kind of thing. That is sometimes how it is expressed. But in practice, what we've seen over the years as this notion of British values has taken hold, especially in education, is that it often means promoting LGBT rights. So British values, as far as some Ofsted inspectors and others are concerned, is schools promoting LGBT rights. Not promoting dignity for all people and respect for all people, which is obviously a profoundly Christian value, but specifically promoting LGBT rights.

Ofsted has got into trouble over going into some schools, like some Orthodox Jewish schools, demanding that even quite young children are taught about gay rights. That is the problem with the idea of British values; it's a nice phrase as far as most people are concerned, but in practice it seems to be rather taken over by one particular agenda. That's why a lot of people are not comfortable with it. There are other reasons too why people are not keen on the concept of British values. But for us, that would be one of our main concerns.

Heather: I presume Ofsted, going in and inspecting churches, they wouldn't be well equipped to do that because they wouldn't know much about the Bible or churches or church youth groups?

Simon: Well, you've put your finger on it. There is a profound religious illiteracy right now in our public life, among politicians and civil servants and journalists. That's partly our fault; as Christians and churches we do have a responsibility to explain what we're about. But it is mainly a real indifference and sometimes an antipathy towards Christians and Christian teaching.

You can imagine uninformed Ofsted inspectors hearing Christians teaching children about eating the body of Christ and drinking His blood and thinking we're all cannibals. We're almost back to those levels of ignorance about what Christians believe.

Ofsted really started to push for power to register and inspect churches and all institutions that taught children for more than six hours, despite the fact, as you put it, that they're just not qualified to adjudicate on the teaching of Christian doctrine. That's why, when the Government made that proposal a couple of years ago, we got together with friends in other Christian organisations, like CARE and EA and others, and engaged in a concerted push to mobilise the Church to respond. And thankfully they did. 18,000 people responded to the Government's consultation on its plans to register out of school settings. The official report that came out recently said that 75% of those people were opposed to the plans. So we can be thankful that the Church responded in such large numbers, and we can be thankful that the Government did at least listen to them.

Heather: So is this effectively a victory for democracy, because Ofsted were obviously so intent on doing it? Have the Government backed down simply because so many people were concerned and expressed that concern?

Simon: Yes. I don't think it's just the numbers of people who were concerned, although that was clearly a shock to them. They just didn't understand. To be fair to them I think this illiteracy that I mentioned, was one of the reasons why they proposed such a draconian scheme. They didn't realise how draconian it would be. So I think it's not just the numbers, but it was also the strength of the argument. And it was not just Christians of course who were making the argument. There was a breadth of people who were concerned that this was a drastic and draconian State overreach.

Heather: Does this mean that churches and youth groups are going to stay fully free now, and continue to be independent of Government oversight? Or do you think there are likely to be other ways that this might come through in the future, in terms of achieving those original aims?