Broaden Horizons Not Close Minds: Britain’s New Rules Challenge Christian Schools

Dec. 10, 2014

Intersection

Analysis of current issues involving law, religion, and society, led by Barry W. Bussey, Director of Legal Affairs.

Broaden Horizons Not Close Minds: Britain’s New Rules Challenge Christian Schools

A lot can happen in a year. In November 2013, Trinity Christian School in Reading, a  large town in Berkshire, England, was given a good rating by the inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted).[i] The Ofsted motto is “raising standards, improving lives.” The school was found to have teachers who “nurture their pupils, expect high standards and challenge pupils to achieve well in all areas of the curriculum.” Furthermore, the Ofsted inspector stated that the pupils were “well prepared for life in modern, multicultural, democratic British society through the teaching of the Christian principle to ‘love thy neighbour’.”[ii] However, that was 2013. In 2014, the Ofsted inspectors were not pleased. Trinity is now classified as not adequately promoting “British values.”

During the 2014 inspection, the school was subject to the revised Independent School Standards that came into force on September 29, 2014.[iii]  The new rules require schools to “actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”[iv] The new rules also encourage respect for other people as outlined in the Equality Act 2010.[v]

John Charles, Chair of the Governors at Trinity, wrote a letter to the Secretary of State for Education in which he expressed concern over the inspection. Charles was particularly troubled about the Ofsted inspector’s suggestion that Trinity may be subject to closure unless the school

  • invited representatives of other faiths to lead assemblies and lessons (to demonstrate respect for different beliefs and faiths);
  • provided evidence of changes to curriculum to demonstrate that the school “actively promoted other faiths”;
  • actively promoted the principles of the Equality Act 2010, making sure that it did not promote or disapprove of any particular lifestyle.

Furthermore, the school would need to understand that simply promoting the Christian principle that all people are equal before God and have inherent dignity as human beings was not enough to demonstrate compliance to the Standard.[vi]

Charles could not understand how such a change in thinking could take place within a year. He noted that Trinity aims to “encourage pupils to serve and respect other people, appreciate different cultures and ideas and equip them for life in society.” However, the comments made by Ofsted, as a result of the new regulations, undermined the school’s aims and, if enforced, would prevent Trinity from teaching in accordance with their Christian foundation.[vii] Charles also noted the inconsistency that religious protections in the Equality Act 2010 were now taken away by the new standards.

The Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, is not swayed by the opposition. She stated, “Schools should broaden horizons not close minds . . . and should encourage pupils to respect other people even if they do not agree with them. I should have thought this is a principle with which the vast majority of people would agree. All schools of whatever type have a duty to protect young people and to ensure they leave school fully prepared for life in modern Britain.”[viii]

What is this new policy suggesting? Is it saying that it is no longer appropriate to allow religious communities to run and operate schools in accordance with their own faith traditions? For example, is it now against public policy for Christian schools to teach pupils the Christian worldview and its ethical principles (including sexual ethics) as a basis of truth? Must we now accept that only a broad relativistic understanding of religion is acceptable for schools—even private schools?

This British experience is reminiscent of recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions involving parents opposed to exposing their children to ideas and philosophies inconsistent with their religious beliefs. So far the Supreme Court has sided with provincial educational authorities. In Chamberlain v. Surrey School District,[ix] the school trustees sided with the parents who did not want same-sex relationship books in an elementary school curriculum; however, the Court did not agree. Justice McLachlin rejected the parents’ concern over the cognitive dissonance that would occur with parents teaching one religious belief at home and the school teaching an opposing view in the classroom. According to the Court, “[t]he cognitive dissonance that results from such encounters is simply a part of living in a diverse society. It is also a part of growing up. Through such experiences, children come to realize that not all of their values are shared by others.”[x]

In a more recent case, S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes,[xi] the Court was of the view that “exposure to some cognitive dissonance is arguably necessary if children are to be taught what tolerance itself involves.” The Court made it clear that while parents are free to pass on their personal beliefs, there are societal realities that differ from what children may be taught in the home. According to the Court, “the suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education.”[xii]

Both of those Supreme Court of Canada decisions dealt with public schools. Would a Court dealing with a private religious school allow more space to maintain its religious environment and ethic? Or would it seek to impose the majority’s religious worldview?

I suggest that what makes “the multicultural reality of Canadian society” possible is the fact that we allow cultural groups to maintain their own religious identity  separate and apart from the whole. When government forces homogeneity using concepts like “British values” or “Canadian values,” it first has to define what those are and subsequently force those meanings on groups who may not agree. In my humble opinion, that is not a definition of multiculturalism that respects diversity and allows religious groups to flourish. There has to be a way of allowing diverse groups the opportunity to be true to their religious identity and communal life even when their views and practices do not conform to the new homogenizing ethical norms. That is the challenge, I suggest, in broadening the horizons and preventing the closed minds of our bureaucratic state on what it means to be free.

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[i] http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/about-us

[ii] Ofsted, Inspection report: Trinity Christian School, 13–15 November 2013, online: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/provider/files/2296141/urn/138968.pdf, at p. 5.

[iii] 2014 No. 2374 EDUCATION, ENGLAND The Education (Independent School Standards) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2014, Online: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2014/2374/pdfs/uksi_20142374_en.pdf

[iv] Independent School Standards, para. 5(a).

[v] Independent School Standards, para. 5(b)(vi).

[vi] John Charles, Letter to Rt. Hon. Nicky Morgan, dated October 24, 2014. Online: http://www.christian.org.uk/TrinityChristianSchool-letter.pdf

[vii] John Charles, Letter to Rt. Hon. Nicky Morgan, dated October 24, 2014.

[viii] Sian Griffith, “Faith schools ‘must teach gay rights,’” The Sunday Times, November 2, 2014, Online: http://cda.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Education/article1478678.ece

[ix] Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36, 2002 SCC 86, [2002] 4 S.C.R. 710

[x] Chamberlain v. Surrey School District, at para. 65-66.

[xi] S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes, 2012 SCC 7, [2012] 1 S.C.R..

[xii] S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes, at para. 40.

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