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Schools: Indoctrination

Volume 788: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that children and young people are not being indoctrinated in schools.

My Lords, extremism has no place in our society. That is why we changed the law on the requirements on schools so that they have to actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. If there are any allegations of schools promoting ideologies or discrimination in the classroom, we will not hesitate to take action.

I hear what the Minister says, but I am sure that he will agree that we should not allow religious extremism to pervert our education system or narrow the minds of our children. When unregistered schools are closed down, they often morph into a form of home-school tuition. Is not the time now right to make sure that home tuition is registered?

My Lords, I note the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and indeed of the noble Lord, Lord Storey. In our debate on Second Reading of the Bill promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, we made it clear that we recognised the concerns that had led to the introduction of the Bill in the first place. That is why we are producing for consultation a revision of the guidance for local authorities which clarifies that their powers in relation to home education often go further than is appreciated. We expect to produce the draft guidance for consultation in the next few weeks.

My Lords, what consultations and discussions has the Minister had with the Security Service and with counterterrorism policing about the very high incidence of the children of people who are subjects of interest for counterterrorism investigations turning out to be home schooled? Does that not suggest that there is a prima facie case for much more substantial registration and regulation of that sector, in particular to avoid extremist grooming in very young children?

I note the noble Lord’s concern. We addressed many of these points in the debate on Second Reading of the Bill promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Soley. We have just received legal advice on the powers of local authorities to investigate children who are being home educated. It is clear that there are more powers, but I do not think that they have been clearly delineated and explained to local authorities. That is the point of the guidance that we will be issuing shortly and we will be looking for feedback from local authorities on it.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that all the main religions should be taught in schools and that, if a school is not doing that, it is a failing school? Should not the teaching of religion be in the context of today’s times rather than literally in the language of outdated texts so that they cannot be manipulated for the purposes of extremism? Does the Minister further agree that the teaching should focus not so much on customs and rituals but on the underlying ethos so that it becomes self-evident that the different religions are all pushing in the same direction?

My Lords, as all of you will know, faith schools play a very important part in the fabric of our state education. We have more than 4,000 Church of England schools and 2,000 Catholic schools. All the guidance around education and religion is about tolerance and understanding it in the context of our own society. The recent provision for the promotion of fundamental British values builds on that. As noble Lords may be aware, we now have specialist Ofsted inspection officers who look specifically for any incidence of where religion is not taught in that context.

My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on the Written Answer I received on 21 June last year, which admitted that the Government have no idea how much violent Islamic teaching is taking place in our madrassas, nor indeed how many of them there are; and furthermore, that the Government do not intend to find out, or do anything about it? Is that still government policy?

My Lords, between January 2016 and August 2017, with additional funding from us, Ofsted identified 125 unregistered schools. It visited 38 of those, 34 of which have now closed. Two more have closed since they were investigated and two are still under investigation. We have appointed I think 36 Prevent officers at the last count to support local authorities in areas of concern to provide advice to schools on exactly these areas. I am concerned about this. I am the department’s Minister with responsibility for extremism, so it is one of my main briefs. I believe we are doing a lot, and we continue to be alert to where more needs to be done.

My Lords, could the Minister say what support the Government can offer to head teachers who face difficulties when they come across extremism and indoctrination in their schools? There have been cases of intimidation and heads being prevented from doing their jobs. Could a support network and a hotline perhaps be set up to help them?

My Lords, in April 2015 we established a counterextremism helpline to avoid exactly the situation that the noble Baroness raises. Teachers can contact it for confidential advice. We have had more than 450 uses of this helpline from educationists and other members of the public.

My Lords, could the noble Lord give the House some statistics relating to the number of children who have been referred under the Prevent strand of the counterterrorism strategy from schools? Could he give details of how many have been referred and how many were then followed up with further action? Could he also give details of how many were within the last 12 months and how many within the 12 months before that? Could he also break it down between religious extremism and far-right extremism?

My Lords, unfortunately I do not have all that information to hand, but I will of course write to my noble friend.

My Lords, when schools close, is there any attempt by the Government to follow up where the students go to see whether they are simply going to other schools that reopen and teach in the same way?

My Lords, we introduced some statutory changes to requirements on schools quite recently. It is now a requirement that a school notify the local authority of what are called deletions from the register, whether the parent has formally notified the school of the destination of the child or not. Local authorities are made aware of closing schools in those situations.

My Lords, I remind the House that my wife is a Prevent adviser on further education. Will the noble Lord take the opportunity to commend the head of Ofsted for her very rigorous action in the last few months? At times the head of Ofsted might have welcomed more ministerial support for what she is doing, taking up the point made by the noble Baroness. I understand that Ofsted feels that to tackle the problems effectively it needs more powers. In the light of his response on home education, will the Minister look at whether legislative changes need to be made to give the chief inspector more authority?

My Lords, all these areas are always under consideration. I am meeting the chief inspector later this week and we have it as an agenda item.

My Lords, is it only Islam that is being reviewed as extremist or is there a concern that some other religions might also be extremist and, if so, which religion other than Islam is defined as extremist?

My Lords, we need to discern between extremism that indoctrinates for hatred and violence and those very conservative faiths that teach a very narrow curriculum; and, indeed, that is part of the job of the Prevent officers. It is not about pursuing one particular religion but about ensuring, as the noble Lord said earlier, that religion is taught in a tolerant way that is relevant to our society.