Ofsted to regulate church youth work?

Rob Horner

Posted: 15 December 2015

The following is an opinion piece written by Rob Horner, Barrister at 3 Paper Buildings and an LCF member. This article can be viewed with all links through to references by clicking here.

"And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise." (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

If you are involved in, or have children who are involved in church youth groups or summer holiday camps, the recent Department of Education (DoE) consultation on 'Out-of-School Setting Education' is of relevance to you.

A broad scope…
The DoE is proposing to introduce an Ofsted administered system of regulation for institutions 'providing tuition, training or instruction to children aged under 19 in England that is not a school, college, 16-19 academy or registered childcare provider'.

Within the Church context, this would appear to include Sunday School Groups, Church Youth Groups, Summer Camps and Student Work (for at least a proportion of the freshers).

The consultation paper proposes to focus resources on settings 'where children receive intensive tuition, instruction or training out-of-school', with 'intensive tuition' including anything where an individual child attends a setting for more than 6 to 8 hours a week. Out-of-school settings operating in school holidays are cited as an example. It would appear that church youth groups where youth attend on more than one occasion a week: i.e. services, youth group on Friday, bible club on Sunday also have the potential to fall within the remit of 'intensive education'.

…covering far more than extremism…

The consultation paper acknowledges that the proposals are concerned with more than just extremism, to include 'keeping children safe generally from the risk of harm, including emotional harm' and 'the wider welfare of children who attend these [out-of-school] settings'. Reference is made to health and safety concerns, including children being taught in premises which are over-crowded, cramped, dirty, lacking in fire escapes etc., as well as safeguarding concerns including lack of suitability checks on staff and the potential for extremist views to be taught.

…to include what is taught

Whilst the consultation paper asserts that the proposal is 'not about regulating religion or infringing people's freedom to follow a particular faith or hold particular beliefs', it does acknowledge that the proposals are seeking 'to ensure that those who work in positions of trust and influence with children and young people respect those with different faiths and beliefs and do not, in expressing their individual beliefs, promote intolerance against others'.

The paper specifically sets out 'Undesirable teaching' as being an area in which activities would be prohibited, for example 'teaching which undermines or is incompatible with fundamental British values, or which promotes extremist views'.

The degree of intervention has the potential to be significant

The key features put forward by the proposal include:

  • A requirement on those providing the out-of-school setting education to register.
  • A power for a body to inspect settings 'to ensure that children are being properly safeguarded'.
  • A power to impose sanctions where settings are 'failing to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, which could include barring individuals from working with children and the closure of premises'.

Terms included within the paper such as 'British values', 'mutual respect and tolerance', 'intolerance', 'promote intolerance against others' and 'emotional harm' provide a wide scope of interpretation. Much will depend on the guidance given to those charged with policing the system and how they apply it. There is at least uncertainty as to the extent to which the freedom to hold and express biblical truths remains protected.

The importance of a clear, constructive and swift response

Few would disagree with many of the stated aims of the paper. Given the failings in child welfare in the out-of-school setting in the past, many will agree that some system of protection is appropriate.

However, a number will be concerned that the proposals represent state regulation or religious teaching and many will share the concern that the proposed measures have the potential to limit the freedom to teach the bible to our children and young people.

It is to be noted that Churches are already subject to regulation by the Charity Commission, which includes the requirement to have a safeguarding policy in place for children's work and to carry out criminal records checks on those involved.

The message of the gospel is clear: 'Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved'. This message can cause offence even when put forward appropriately, with gentleness and respect. It is important that the freedom to teach biblical truth is safeguarded. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission said recently in relation to the Lord's prayer advert, "there is no right not to be offended in the UK".

It is, therefore, important for Christians to respond to this consultation clearly and constructively, considering matters such as:

  • Which settings should be covered: The threshold for settings to fall within/be excluded from the scope of the proposed measures.
  • The workability of the proposals: How the registration requirement could operate in practice and the implications for providers and local authorities, to include the burden of policing such a scheme.
  • The safeguarding of the freedom to teach biblical truth: The manner in which the prohibited activities are defined, how this guidance is to be interpreted and applied.

The deadline for response is 11 January 2016, so time is short.

Responses can be registered by visiting www.education.gov.uk/consultations, by email to outofschoolsettings.REVIEW@education.gsi.gov.uk, or by post to Out-of-School Settings: Call for Evidence, Department for Education, Sanctuary Buildings, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BT.