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Schools: Reforms — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Lord Farmer Lord Farmer Conservative 3:45 pm, 29th January 2015

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lady Perry on initiating this end-of-term debate on school reforms.

I want to touch on one aspect of the Government’s school reforms which has not been touched on today—namely, promoting fundamental British values. To avoid all doubt, I wholly subscribe to the values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. How could I not when these values originate from Judaeo-Christian belief, which has been foundational to our own society over many centuries, and, indeed, to my own life?

I cannot lay claim to an A-level in history, but I know that values deriving from these, such as equity, are salient in the Magna Carta, the 800th anniversary of which we are celebrating this year. It is precisely because they come from these ancient foundations that I was a little surprised when in a recent speech the Education Secretary stated:

“Fundamental British values are the attributes that have in this century and the last, made our country one of the greatest forces for good. They’re the values that bind us together, that mean despite the many differences in our nation, we’re united as one people”.

She may have had very good reason for putting them in that timeframe in her speech, but if they really are such a recent invention, where is their validity? I do not think that we should avoid acknowledging their strong link to a long-standing moral and religious framework, even though many hold to them without those core underlying beliefs. I say this because recent press reports suggest that they may be becoming a stick with which to beat Christian and Jewish free schools.

It is essential that we do the best we can for children by being utterly intolerant of poor educational standards. I am closely involved with an ARK Church of England state academy in Camberwell—in Harriet Harman’s constituency—of which I am the sponsor governor, because I am passionate about education, not least as an engine for social mobility. However, the British values agenda concerns me more than a little because, while admirable in theory, ensuring that schools are promoting these values is actually very difficult.

I am not convinced that Ofsted inspectors are particularly well suited to making the careful and nuanced judgments necessary to bring about the outcome that we all desire, which is the well rounded education of all our pupils, whatever their background. For example, at a free Christian school—which I shall not name because the inspection is being appealed—one Ofsted inspector allegedly asked 11 and 12 year-olds, “What is evolution? Do you believe in this or God?”. That question is not only completely lacking in insight, as many Christians believe in both, but also seems to be questioning of belief at best and intolerant of belief at worst, and therefore contrary to what have been labelled “British values”.

Obviously, I want all our children to benefit from attending schools where people are not discriminated against on any basis, be it colour, sexuality, religion or anything else, and where any evidently discriminatory attitudes are challenged by staff or other pupils. However, it is vital that we not do this in such a way that means thought is being policed. Are we not in danger of trying to make windows into young people’s hearts and secret thoughts—to paraphrase Queen Elizabeth I—in fear that an abundance of them will overflow into overt and express acts and affirmations?

Freedom of speech, something that has recently and tragically dominated the news, is also in danger of being diminished. Will—or, indeed, can—Ofsted ensure that when children and young people express racist or other unpleasant attitudes, teachers are taking the time to help students understand what lies beneath such utterances rather than simply telling them, “You mustn’t say that”? We have all been in the position where we have said something that has betrayed a flawed view of another person. Discussing why we see things the way we do can often lead to greater self-awareness than if we were simply told, “You shouldn’t think like that”. It is important to make it clear when an injustice has been served against someone or a group, but there is a fine line between challenging and policing thought. How will Ofsted be able to determine whether that line is being crossed in the cut and thrust of school life?

In conclusion, I am a little surprised to find myself quoting Tony Blair, who said:

“We need religion-friendly democracy and democracy-friendly religion … Those of us inspired by our faith must have the right to speak out on issues that concern us and in the name of beliefs derived from our faith”.

There are many highly respected Ofsted inspectors who are fervent Christians and devoted adherents of other faiths. In this brave new world of inspecting for British values, we need to ensure that they are consulted, so that we get the nuance I talked about earlier as right as possible. I ask that they are also drafted in to advise when a faith school has legitimate and well documented grounds for challenging this area of inspection. Otherwise, the Department for Education, through the way in which it deploys its eyes and ears on the ground, could be unintentionally failing to uphold its own British values.