Chief inspector: English schools need to address extremist elements

Debate in the House of Commons in London. Photo by Catherine Bebbington/Creative Commons

LONDON (RNS) — As the country grapples with religious extremism, Britain’s Parliament has turned its focus toward an increasingly fraught space: English schools.

Parliament’s highly influential education select committee heard Wednesday (March 7) from England’s chief inspector of schools, whom some appreciate for her frankness on the issue and others accuse of unfairly singling out Muslims.

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman made headlines at a conference last month for her remarks after a clash between educators and Muslim parents.

Speaking to members of Parliament on Wednesday, Spielman reiterated her concerns about religious extremism in English schools and said her inspectors had found in some private Islamic schools that children had been shown films of people being beheaded and that they had been taught that it is acceptable for men to beat their wives.

Although these most extreme examples were found in private schools that were not properly registered with authorities, Spielman also expressed concerns about state schools.

That British parliamentarians have chosen to intervene in the issue signifies how much anxiety surrounds it — in education circles and British society at large. Educators have come into conflict with conservative Muslim parents who want their children to be able to observe religious practices even in secular state schools. The parents accuse the schools of thwarting religious expression.

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman. Photo courtesy of

The politicians’ decision to summon Spielman — head of the Office for Standards in Education — before the select committee followed her public comments warning of grave tensions in schools over religion, particularly Islam, and her urging of head teachers to promote a “muscular liberalism.”

On Wednesday she told MPs that what she meant by this was: “Living British values … If we tolerate deeply intolerant practices and culture, we are not living British values,” she said.

Spielman said inspectors had found in schools “books by people who are banned from entering the country, books promoting very concerning practices.”

She also called Britain’s education system “unusually permissive” and called for inspectors to have more oversight of unregistered schools.

Spielman’s earlier comments on the conflict between religious and British values were made last month at a conference on education organized by the Church of England. There she expressed support for a London head teacher who had tried to ban girls under the age of 8 in her school from wearing the hijab and to stop children fasting on school premises. That teacher had been called a racist and likened to Adolf Hitler in a spoof video. The school’s governors overturned the ban and made her apologize.

Spielman, in the same speech, also warned of extremists using education “to isolate and segregate, and in the worst cases, to indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology.”

After Spielman’s comments, her critics accused her of intolerance toward Islam and of conflating culturally conservative Muslims with extremists.

As freelance writer Samira Shackle wrote in The Guardian: “Spielman’s speech made a big leap from the debate about children wearing the hijab, to extremism. It is a leap that is made all too often by public officials, particularly when it comes to education. We see it time and time again: any policy question that relates to Muslims is immediately framed as an issue of terrorism, fundamentalism or a failure to integrate.”

Big Ben, right, and Houses of Parliament on the River Thames in central London in February 2017. Photo by Martin Hots/Creative Commons

The Muslim Council of Great Britain responded to  Spielman’s remarks: “Ms. Spielman continues to issue a disproportionate number of public statements about Muslims and apparent links to extremism.”

Although Islam is now Britain’s second-largest religion, Muslims still make up a small share of the population: 4.4 percent, or 2,786,000 people. But with very few Islamic schools and the Muslim population concentrated mainly in inner cities, especially London, the student bodies of some secular state schools have become almost entirely Muslim.

She has won support for her outspokenness. Her predecessor as chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, warned that given the profound changes in British society, schools need official guidance from government over whether girls should wear the hijab in class.

Wilshaw told the BBC: “The (U.K.) has enormously changed. When heads want to change things, they have now to take into account deep-seated and sincere feelings. … The government needs to step in.” He also warned that government ministers were too reluctant to act: “There is a reticence and it’s leaving head teachers alone, isolated and vulnerable.”

The National Secular Society, one of Britain’s leading organizations favoring more secular public spaces, has also expressed concerns that teachers aren’t given the support they need when faced with parents who want a more religious school culture.

Its education and schools officer, Alastair Lichten, said: “It is possible to come down on either side of the argument about religious dress in schools, but the haranguing of teachers who make the decision is a real problem.”

Spielman’s agency also wants to investigate the activities of religious organizations that offer education to children out of school. While this would include madrassas, offering instruction to Muslim boys, it would also encompass that most traditional of English institutions, the Church of England Sunday school, where children are taught Bible stories.

But the Church of England is resisting any changes to the law that would allow her agency’s inspectors to investigate, perceiving it as an infringement of freedom.

In 2016 a government proposal that all groups caring for children for more than six hours a week be inspected was dropped after an intervention by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Church leaders then feared that snap inspections could lead Anglicans to be targeted by inspections devised as counterterrorism, with Anglican teaching flagged up on matters such as gay marriage and gender roles flagged as extremist.

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Catherine Pepinster


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  • Religion has no place in any public school.. The UK has to follow the US Establishment Clause example and toss Christianity, Islam or any other religion out of government funded schools.

    Ironically Islam in UK schools is exactly what US evangelicals want for US public schools, except replace Islam with conservative Christianity

  • Yup. Religion and school, and in fact, religion and any institution, are a bad combination. In fact, if we could remove religion from humanity entirely, all the better.

  • “…whom some appreciate for her frankness on the issue and others accuse of unfairly singling out Muslims.”

    Yeah, how dare she ignore all those terrorist acts committed by liberal Anglicans.

  • The Establishment Clause would certainly bar the kind of doctrinal inspection of religious schools Spielman is proposing. Additionally, if you want the UK to follow the Establishment Clause, do you want them to follow the Free Exercise Clause as well? Because that would likely bar schools from prohibiting the wearing of a hijab, or students from fasting.

  • OK guys – a little info.

    Within those schools controlled by a local authority’s Education Authority the RE (Religious Education – not Religious Instruction) syllabus is locally determined. There is a requirement for each Education Authority to take advice from a specialist committee called a SACRE – Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education.

    Most non-religiously controlled schools also use the LEA syllabus – probably because
    a) they are highly regarded and
    b) they require a lot of effort.

    SACRE’s, by law, are made up of four voting groups – each group will vote on proposals and the group’s majority vote gets to cast one vote in the final round (of four).

    By law the groups comprise

    1 – The Church of England’s SACRE members.
    2 – SACRE members sponsored by other religions and, sometimes, non-faith world-view organisations.
    3 – Teachers – sponsored by the various teaching profession unions.
    4 – Local Authority (say County Council) representatives.

    The Syllabus is reviewed every few years.

    The purpose of the syllabus is to educate children about religion – dependant upon age that may be fairly simple comparisons of different views and practices about a topic common to religions (I was once invited to talk about how Humanists pray), or morph into discussions about morality and personal responsibility. I was part of a group who were privileged to hear from a co-ed sixth-form group (17-18 years old) about their RE studies – Plato got mentioned four times – God once.

    Remember that this is a country where over 50% of adults claim no affiliation with any religious group – and my experience suggests that most teaching staff responsible for delivering the RE curriculum are not religious believers.

    Remember also that those who are religious are not overwhelmingly members of any particular religion or faction. Even the established church (a complication the US does not have) only claims that 6% of the population meet its definition of active membership.

    So – this is a country with a majority who are not religiously aligned (some are “spiritual but not religious”), where sillinesses such as pretending that young-earth creationism is in any way a fit topic for schools to teach are, almost, irrelevant and where most of those delivering a subject which is about being aware of and understanding differing religious practices without endorsing any one (or indeed endorsing religious belief). As a consequence –
    please understand that the challenges, problems and practice are so different to what Americans may consider normal that any comments will run the risk of being, at best, ill-considered.

    I’m thinking of comments such as “Religion has no place in any public school”.

    I concur entirely if the meaning of “Religion” is the practice and selling of religion over non-religion or of any particular brand of religion –
    I disagree entirely if the meaning is that the academic study of different cultures (which effectively means religions to a large extent) should be excluded.

    And please don’t tell us what we have to do with our education system – advice is welcome but instruction from a country with a public system that rates so far behind ours on almost all international scales, where children regularly become the target of murderous gun-toting misfits and where syllabi are routinely threatened with mandated content that is counter-evidential and beyond rational support – you will deservedly be, at best, ignored and at worst jeered at.

    I think we could do better – the world has changed (at least the UK’s bit of it) since the SACRE system was invented by cowardly politicians in 1985 and I think it’s time that RE joined every other subject in having a national curriculum – but that is a debate (and the role of the established church) which will rumble on for some time before reaching a sensible conclusion.

  • So UK faith schools are really not denominational and do not provide religious instruction? They simply do a comparative religion curriculum, correct?

    Can a student choose to attend a religious school, yet opt-out of the religion oriented classes?

    I’m still skeptical…Religious schools should be able to teach what they want if they don’t accept public money…this seems the ideal solution.

  • Caveat – I am not particularly expert in these matters. I have a little knowledge but there are proper online resources that are more authoritative.

    The schools causing concern are almost exclusively private schools.

    Many public schools (as opposed to Public Schools which are fee paying business entities such as Eton College; they tend to provide some scholarships and bursaries – sometimes said to be the only way to improve their academic results) are run by academic trusts which are sometimes allied to a particular faith or sect – but they are inspected and must conform to national guidelines – including their teaching about religion though they may have a specific ethos – usually Anglican or Catholic, sometimes Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Sikh. I seem to recall that we even support, to our shame, a couple of Steiner schools.

    Those with an ethos don’t concern me much. I know from statements made in Synod etc. that some clerics see schooling as the key to future income/bums on seats but the evidence* suggests that is wishful thinking.

    As to privately funded schools teaching what they like – they largely do but must not break the law in respect of the human rights of their pupils – nor must they encourage discrimination. They may not teach creationism as a science subject, they may not separate the sexes unlawfully, they may not use materials that spread hatred of other people/faiths/cultures and they must teach a curriculum which enables the pupils to live a normal life in the UK. Teaching should encompass the use and understanding of English, respect for people not of their faith, repudiation of sexual discrimination (including gender identity and sexual orientation). This is where some more extreme religious schools fail, they refuse to acknowledge anything other than simple male/female stereotyping, encourage violence against non-believers, limit knowledge to that found in sacred texts etc. etc..

    FWIW I think that any religious involvement in the running of a school is against the interests of the state – it, by definition, exacerbates diversity and confirms tribal allegiances (I refer any doubter to Northern Ireland).

    Part of the problem is that our earliest universities were founded as places to produce priests. Religion has always sought to bend young minds to acceptance and prevent critical thinking outside a narrow framework it controls. Its effectiveness is probably limited – but like most poisons none is safer than a little.

    *In Ireland about 95% of school pupils learn in RCC controlled schools – often taught by nuns and with a crucifix on the wall in every room. The Bishop of Dublin pointed out that the age group of those that voted most heavily against the RCC’s position on same-sex marriage consisted of those that had most recently spent twelve years being educated in RCC run schools.