Sunday schools protected in key religious freedom victory

The Government has abandoned plans to register and inspect out-of-school education settings, announcing this in a report on their call for evidence released today. In so doing, they have taken an important step to protect religious freedom.

In deciding not to pursue their proposals to register settings that teach for more than 6 to 8 hours a week, the Government have acknowledged the concerns in the 73 per cent of formal responses which rejected this proposal. Responses to the call for evidence also highlighted deep reservations about Ofsted having a role in investigating out-of-school settings: around 75 per cent of responses disagreed with this proposal. The Government noted that these responses ‘expressed concerns about Ofsted’s capacity, expertise and neutrality in dealing with such settings.’

The Evangelical Alliance spoke up when the call for evidence was made more than two years ago. We pointed out the unintended consequences of the initial proposals for civil society, such as many church activities like Sunday schools and youth groups being subjected to government regulation and inspection.

We welcome the Government’s response, and the intention to make use of existing powers to tackle important concerns around safeguarding and health and safety, ensuring that children are protected and cared for. Importantly, these plans do not now immediately threaten civil liberties by creating a new regulatory regime of inspection.

Dr David Landrum, director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, responded to the announcement: “As we expected, the report shows how strongly faith groups, parents and others feel about proposals to register and regulate out-of-school settings, and in particular about the role of Ofsted. Indeed to many these proposals, which were launched by former education secretary Nicky Morgan, represented a classic example of religious illiteracy. These proposals would have had a profound effect on religious freedom and fundamental human rights, and consequently we welcome the news that the Government are listening to the concerns of those who responded.”

Freedom of religion or belief benefits both people of faith and no faith. Indeed, it is the litmus test for a free society. The Government has rightly seen that churches and the activities they provide are a positive force for society and not a threat they need to regulate. As an alternative, the Government is proposing targeted interventions, using existing powers as part of a multi-agency approach. However, the Evangelical Alliance will retain a watchful eye on other proposals concerning new powers or defined standards for those who operate out-of-school settings that may replicate these misconceived proposals that had the potential to create state-sanctioned religion.

Dr Landrum continued “Christianity has been an incredible force for good throughout British society, and it still is today. Freedom of religion is essential for this vital work to continue and grow in the future, and also for the work of so many other groups and organisations in civil society.

“We also look forward to working with the Government to tackle radicalisation and violent extremism, especially through the role that local churches can play in building stronger communities.”

Daniel Webster 

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