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Independent Faith Schools

Volume 497: debated on Thursday 22 October 2009

On 9 March 2009, I informed the House that I had asked Ofsted to carry out a survey of independent faith schools’ work to promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development. The purpose of the survey was to gather evidence on current practice with a view to considering whether the independent school regulations on SMSC are fit for purpose. The survey focused on practice in faith schools in view of the particular context a faith ethos provides.

Ofsted has today published the results of the survey. It found that practice in all of the 51 schools visited was at least good with pupils demonstrating a strong sense of identity and belonging to their faith, their school and to Britain; and with a clear commitment to promoting the values of good citizenship. Ofsted has concluded that the current regulations are fit for purpose but recommends various ways in which we can work with the sector to improve pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development further and support consistently high standards across the sector.

I very much welcome the report. I asked Ofsted to carry out this survey because some concerns had been expressed about whether all independent faith schools were effectively preparing pupils for life in British society. While we will always take any specific allegations very seriously, this survey shows that the regulatory regime for independent schools is fit for purpose and that provision across the sector is good.

I would like to thank the schools and the representatives of different faith organisations who took part in Ofsted’s survey. I look forward to working with them and with other practitioners from across the sector to take forward Ofsted’s recommendations and promote excellent opportunities for all pupils.

Ofsted has made recommendations in three areas:

1) Provide greater clarity in the meaning of the five strands of the SMSC regulations.

The independent school regulations are designed to offer flexibility to allow schools to provide a distinctive education in line with their faith ethos while at the same time preparing pupils to lead successful lives as responsible citizens in wider British society. While schools want to retain this flexibility, Ofsted has found that they would welcome greater clarity about what is meant by aspects of the regulations.

I will be setting up a new independent schools practitioners group to work with us on revised guidance to promote consistently high standards right across the sector. This will include encouraging schools to provide pupils with opportunities to learn about the different cultures and faiths practised in the UK, alongside developing a deep understanding and sense of belonging to their own community.

2) Encourage more interfaith and partnership working between independent schoolsand with the maintained sector.

Ofsted has found that some of the best practice occurs where schools work in partnership with local communities and with other schools to support the professional development of staff and build mutual respect and understanding.

There are lots of excellent examples of good partnership working already taking place. I have asked Pat Langham, Chair of the Independent-State School Partnership Group (ISSP) for that group to consider how the sector could encourage this further.

Around 70 faith schools from the maintained and independent sectors are already embarking on linking projects through the DCSF funded national Schools’ Linking Network (SLN). Last week I announced an additional £50,000 support for the national Schools' Linking Network to work in partnership with the Three Faiths Forum to provide high quality advice and training for Local Authorities and schools to encourage successful interfaith linking projects and links between maintained and independent schools.

3) Ensure teaching resources are accurate and unbiased.

Religious Education (RE) has a very important role to play in promoting cohesion through developing understanding of different faiths and cultures and exploring the role faith plays in society, and it is important that teachers have access to high quality and accurate resources. In a minority of the schools visited, Ofsted found that while the pupils’ understanding was good, there were examples of inaccurate or biased materials being used to teach about religions.

We know that the availability of high quality resources for RE is an issue in both maintained and independent sectors and I would urge all schools to review the resources they are using. As part of a drive to improve RE provision in all schools, we have commissioned Warwick University to carry out research to look at the RE materials that are currently being used. This work will help to inform work with the RE council, local RE curriculum advisors, teachers and schools to make sure that all pupils have access to high quality learning materials. We will publish this research in the New Year.