Legal challenge to Government's Trojan Horse response is a gospel freedom issue

Published 15 August 2014  |  
Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Park View School in Birmingham, one of three schools inspected as part of the "Trojan Horse" investigations

Government proposals which could curtail free speech in our education system should be taken very seriously. And as Christians, we should be concerned that schools with a Christian foundation could be undermined by these plans.

That's why The Christian Institute is considering legal action against the Department for Education over dangerous new regulations for independent schools, free schools and academies.

Far from violating gospel values, as Anna Drew stridently maintains, The Christian Institute is defending the gospel in speaking out against these intrusive regulations.

Under the plans schools must actively promote "fundamental British values". But thanks to poor wording, schools could be exposed to vexatious legal actions motivated by political correctness. As has happened on numerous occasions, the Government has drawn up vague, badly worded and ill-thought out proposals that sound appealing but on closer inspection could have disturbing unintended consequences.

It is right that all pupils be respected, whatever their background. And all schools are already under a legal duty not to discriminate. But until now you've never been able to use discrimination law to sue a school over what teachers teach.

The Labour Party, when it put through the Equality Act, thought it would be nonsensical if a school could face a legal action over the content of its history lessons or over any other subjects on the timetable. So they excluded the contents of the curriculum from discrimination law. These matters were left to the professional judgement of teachers who are accountable to the head, and to the school's governors.

But under the new Conservative proposals, which are set to be rolled out to all schools, schools could be sued over what is being taught in class. That's because they will be put under a duty to "actively promote" legal rights on the grounds covered by the Equality Act.

Most vulnerable to legal threats will be schools with a religious ethos; those which have values which are out of kilter with secular orthodoxy or the fads and fashions of the educational establishment.

Anna Drew is clearly freaked out by the Daily Mail and the "shrill, self-serving, self-entitled, self-obsessed" people – like me – who read it. In fact if Anna had scanned the press, she would discover that the story was covered in greater depth in such papers such as The Guardian, The Telegraph and the Times Education Supplement. And the BBC gave more coverage than anyone.

It's too simplistic to write off the concerns as a Daily Mail rant or another Christian Institute campaign. Head teachers are deeply worried about the effect the proposals will have on freedom of speech. Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the new standards could cause teachers to be reluctant to discuss controversial topics, and result in limiting free speech rather than protecting it. He warned about the danger of "overregulation".

The Independent Schools Council has also voiced concerns.

The Department's own consultation document says that, as a minimum approach, organising "an occasional visit to places of worship would fall short of 'actively promoting'". Why should a Christian or a Jewish school be required to take its pupils round a mosque? The document continues: "Schools will be expected to focus on, and be able to show how their work with pupils is effective in embedding fundamental British values. 'Actively promote' also means challenging pupils, staff or parents expressing opinions contrary to fundamental British values."

It is evident that this is a total overreaction on the part of the Government to the Trojan Horse scandal. What happened in Birmingham, in certain state schools, was clearly wrong and there has been a failure of leadership on the part of successive Councils in Birmingham. It just doesn't follow that we need a massive education shakeup for academies, free schools and independent schools.

Anna Drew accuses us of scaremongering, but The Christian Institute does have some experience of helping Christians who have been discriminated against because of their faith. I am glad to say that sometimes even the courts agree we have a good case.

The atrocities currently occurring against Christian people in Iraq are, of course, deplorable persecution and our prayer is for this to end. But that doesn't mean we should ignore threats to free speech and religious liberty in our own country.

Colin Hart is director of The Christian Institute

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