12 January 2017
One year on: Sunday schools still under threat
One year after the government consultation on out-of-school educational settings – which would include Sunday schools and other church activities – the government have confirmed it remains their plan to introduce a system of regulation.
The government plans would require registration with the threat of inspection looming for any setting where children attend teaching or training for more than six hours in a week, even if that only occurs once a year. Despite protestations from the government that they do not intend to target Sunday schools and church activities, this is exactly what the plans would do.
Speaking in the House of Lords this week Lord Nash responded to a question saying: "We have received 18,000 responses to our call for evidence and we are considering them carefully. We want a system that regulates out-of-school settings and works effectively, but is not overly burdensome, because we know that many of these settings are small and staffed by volunteers."
The Evangelical Alliance has opposed these proposals since they were first announced in late 2015 with an unduly swift consultation pushed out over Christmas. There are ample powers within existing legislation to cover legitimate government concerns in relation to safeguarding, health and safety, and terrorism.
Simon McCrossan, head of public policy at the Evangelical Alliance, commented: "We are encouraged that there were so many responses to this legislation as we, along with other organisations, highlighted concerns. The lack of a clear response from the government is leading to a great deal of uncertainty.
"It is not a matter of tweaking the current proposals - they need to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch. These plans could lead the way to a register of Sunday schools, and making the government the arbiter of what doctrine is or isn't desirable. Instead the government need to ensure freedom of religion is at the heart of their plans because it is a key British value. It is currently an after-thought at best.
"Theresa May said this week: 'When the state intervenes it intervenes effectively, it intervenes when it is right for the state to intervene.' We call on the prime minister to heed her own words and acknowledge it is neither right for the government to intervene to regulate Sunday schools, nor effective to do so."
Further concern was raised this week by the comments of Dame Louise Casey, the government's integration tsar. Addressing a parliamentary committee on the findings of her report and discussing the Trojan Horse scandal, she suggested that Christian schools may also be targeted for their teaching of biblical views on sexuality.
"I do not really have any view on which religion it is that it is promoting those sorts of views," she said: "but they are not okay, in the same way that it is not okay for Catholic schools to be homophobic and anti-gay marriage."
Casey went on to say: "It is often veiled as religious conservatism, and I have a problem with the expression religious conservatism, because often it can be anti-equalities."
McCrossan commented on her remarks: "Dame Louise Casey appears to conflate legitimate concerns about safeguarding and terrorism with trying to enforce new social norms on church schools.
"We won't tackle terrorism and violent extremism by stamping out religious freedom, we can't have school inspectors becoming regulators of peaceful religious doctrine."
The proposals to regulate out-of-school settings are part of the government's Counter-Extremism Strategy, in the Queen's Speeches of 2015 and 2016 proposals for a bill were included, but such a bill has yet to appear. The government has come under criticism for its loose and floundering definition of extremism.
McCrossan concluded: "Freedom of religion and speech is critical to a free and fair society. It should only be limited in the most extreme circumstances. The government seem genuinely confused as to how to proceed. We hope that Christians will continue to be alert to the seriousness of what is being proposed and that the government will listen to the concerns of faith groups and wider civil society."
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Notes to Editors
- The government's proposals on 'Out-of-schools education settings' can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/480133/out_of_school_education_settings_call_for_evidence.pdf
- Lord Nash's comments can be found here in response to a question from Baroness Deech: https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2017-01-11/debates/DB30E95B-8165-4766-9944-73B6776936C6/SafeguardingChildrenBoards
- Dame Louise Casey's remarks to the Communities and Local Government Committee and can be read here in response to Q29: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/communities-and-local-government-committee/integration-review/oral/44991.html
- MPs debated the government's proposals in a Westminster Hall debate on 20 January 2016: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm160120/halltext/160120h0001.htm
The Evangelical Alliance
We are the largest and oldest body representing the UK's two million evangelical Christians. For more than 170 years, we have been bringing Christians together and helping them listen to, and be heard by, the government, media and society. We're here to connect people for a shared mission, whether it's celebrating the Bible, making a difference in our communities or lobbying the government for a better society. From Skye to Southampton, from Coleraine to Cardiff, we work across more than 80 denominations, nearly 4,000 churches, 600 organisations and thousands of individual members and supporters. And we're not just uniting Christians within the UK – we are a founding member of the World Evangelical Alliance, a global network of more than 600 million evangelical Christians. For more information, go to www.eauk.org/join