Why we must start regulating religious schools

Parents who send their children to madrassahs or yeshivas have no guarantee that they are being cared for responsibly

 

As the captain of a cricket club, I occasionally pick young people to play in my team. Rightly, I had to be checked by the Disclosure and Barring Service to do this, and my fellow team-mates who coach our juniors have to complete additional safeguarding training. It seems fair enough to me – if parents are signing over their children to my supervision, they want to know I am accountable.

I was shocked to learn that parents who send their children to madrassahs or yeshivas are not afforded such courtesies, despite the fact that children are often under the duty of care of these institutions for more than six hours each week. Schools, or anyone who works with children for over 18 hours each week, are regulated, but these out-of-school settings are not.

The Department for Education has just closed the consultation period for new proposals to register, inspect, and, if necessary, sanction these institutions. The proposals want to protect young people from inadequate premises, unsuitable staff, poor management, corporal punishment, and the promotion of ideas that undermine British values or promote extremism. All of this is absolutely necessary in my book.

When Quilliam goes in to schools, we try to promote a ‘primary prevention’ approach. That is, not making an assessment of a child’s vulnerability or referring people to the Channel programme, but instead promoting things like human rights and critical thinking that can help everyone. However, there is little point in promoting such positive measures, unless we can guarantee a minimum standard for all young people that ensures they are safe when being educated. I am adamant that this must go for out-of-school settings as much as schools and colleges.

Beyond the physical safety of all young people, it is important to ensure that all children are given the best opportunity to actively contribute to society and are prepared for life in Britain in 2016. This means they should be protected from those who actively promote extremism, whose opposition to the universality of human rights does not prepare them at all.

It is therefore absolutely uncontroversial to see counter-extremism as safeguarding, and I welcome proposals that class promoting extremist views and undermining our fundamental values as unacceptable in these settings.

This basic level of oversight is not ‘snooping’, but taking overdue action that protects young people from harm. The majority of institutions which provide great services can take advantage of the extra resources and the opportunity to show how good their teaching is to parents and young people, how much they care about people attending their classes, and show the authorities that they are committed to the wider community.

The aim of these proposals is not to shut down madrassahs, yeshivas or Sunday schools, but rather to regulate them and safeguard all children. Therefore I would expand the measures available to schools after Ofsted inspects them – rather than focusing on shutting down premises that fail inspections and banning teachers from working with children in the future, I would urge compulsory courses to help them be better. Even at a basic level that must be good for the volunteers and staff who run these institutions.

But for those institutions that are the worst offenders, it is right that the government has recourse to sanction them. We know that the values, good and bad, instilled in young people stay with them for the rest of their lives and it is unacceptable that intolerance, bigotry and extremism have prospered in these ungoverned spaces. Not simply because such views may precede more violent extremism, whether carried out in Britain or abroad, but also because of the immeasurable impact these worldviews have on community cohesion, integration, and societal wellbeing.

The opposition of many religious schools to all counter-extremism work, without any engagement with the debate, acceptance of the scale of the problems and their various causes, nor a proposal of alternative solutions, will hold back those who run out-of-school settings. If we can agree on nothing else, we should at least be able to agree that the safety of all children is important and that we should actively take steps to give them the best start in life.

Jonathan Russell is head of policy at Quilliam

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