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Schools Bill: Bishop of Carlisle raises religious-freedom concerns

22 July 2022

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THE protection of religious freedom was raised during a debate on the Schools Bill this week in relation to the right of parents to home-school their children without government interference.

During the continuation of the Report Stage in the House of Lords on Monday, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, supported a series of amendments on behalf of the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith. These took issue with recording on school-register reforms the “means” in which a child is being educated. While the Government had confirmed that this did not relate to the content or methods of home education, “the terminology remains unhelpfully ambiguous,” Bishop Newcome said.

He supported a further amendment that would protect “the institution of home schooling against any undue or unfair interference” and ensure local authorities respected protected characteristics.

“The way in which this Bill is framed could be seen to cast a cloud of suspicion on all home educators,” he continued. “Some parents are also worried that this register is the thin end of an invasive wedge that could lead to undue state prescription with regard to home schooling. . .

“There is a difference between the state being prescriptive in trying to mould individuals into a specific world-view and the liberal principle of allowing parents the right to determine the values and beliefs with which they want their children to be brought up. Many Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people of all faiths or none home-school on account of this. What is important is the principle that the State does not have the right, under normal circumstances, to supersede the rights of the parents in determining how they ought to raise their child.”

The “unhelpful” framing of the Bill had “harmed the prospective relationship between home educators and local authorities”, he concluded.

Supporting the amendments, Baroness Fox, a non-affiliated peer, told the House that, as Bishop Newcome had explained, “the cloud of suspicion being created that this is a potential assault on deeply held religious and philosophical freedoms is something we should all take seriously as democrats who support a free society.

“The suspicion that some home educators have of the State and the way that education is conducted is what we should be discussing in relation to this Schools Bill — if it were not such a basket case of a Bill that we cannot get anywhere on what we ought to be discussing, which is irritating.”

She continued: “We have a problem when many parents believe that the State cannot be trusted to educate their children. All sorts of controversial issues come up.” This might include a lack of trust in meeting a child’s needs or how sex and relationships is taught. “These are reasonable philosophical ideas to hold; they and religious freedom are things that we should be protecting in this House.”

Conversely, Lord Storey said that the Bishop “was right about parents’ rights and values, but society has to make sure that, when children are in schools which are not subject to any checks or inspections, they are not being taught the most appalling practices, which Ofsted highlights in its reports.” He knew of a case involving a Christian school that had been taken to court and closed down, he said, which the Bishop “would be horrified” by.

Responding, the Schools Minister, Baroness Barran, said that it “would be unfortunate” if the Bishop was right about the cloud of suspicion. “We have striven to be clear about the scope of the powers and when any new powers are required. We are of the view that local authorities’ existing powers are already sufficient to assess the suitability of the education being provided.

“Therefore, I would like to be clear that the phrase in the Bill ‘the means by which the child is being educated’ does not include the content of the education itself. I am happy to put that on the record. It is limited to matters such as whether the child is taught entirely at home or also attends education settings, which settings they are, and how much of their time the child spends there.”

The amendments were withdrawn.

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