When for me community activism became more than a part time activity, around the turn of the millennium, one of the surprising revelations was the importance attached, by those who controlled how money was to be spent, on the subject of equality and diversity. After all, we do live (arguably) in a post Christian age and a multi-cultural society, and different groups: ethnic, religious and other, ought to better understand one another and get along. This seemed a pretty laudable aim, and I found myself playing my part. This included organizing diversity events, being on equality committees and writing a report titled “Missing Communities”. The other surprising revelation was the importance given by those who run the country to LBGT equality, evidenced more recently in legalizing same sex marriage, with attention now focused on transgender rights. Also, the BME population of the UK has grown considerably, and the most significant aspect, arguably, is that Islam has become more of an issue when it comes to keeping certain people happy.
In those early days, not wanting to overly rock the boat, I brought into that agenda, trying to reconcile it with my strong, conservative leaning, Christian views. Even so, my customary skepticism and anti-liberal bias has increased in recent years, especially when I retired and became a ‘free agent’. I still quite like the idea of disparate groups in society respecting and engaging with one another in order to further the interests of the common good. Yet, what I am increasingly finding myself resisting is being told by those who are unqualified to do so, if for no other reason than that they are wrong, to agree to notions that gay sex is ok or equivalent to sex between mixed sex married couples, Islam gets equal prominence as Christianity and our priorities as a country has to be to promote equality over security and diversity over national identity etc., and woe betide any who have the temerity to question the status quo.
I have looked on with consternation government attempts to promote what it sees as British values but impose these where they can, particularly as to what is taught in schools. I was interested to read an article by the Christian Institute titled: “Ofsted chief will ramp up ‘British values’ drive”. It begins: “The new head of schools’ regulator Ofsted has vowed to continue the Government’s controversial ‘British values’ drive. Amanda Spielman, who took over as Ofsted chief in January, used the recent terror attacks as evidence that a greater crackdown on different forms of extremism is needed. The Christian Institute has consistently raised concerns over the Government’s definitions of extremism and the vague and subjective nature of British values. The requirement to “actively promote” British values in schools was first introduced by the Government in 2014”. Then after articulating concerns, particularly of faith based organizations being vulnerable to the opinions of unsympathetic inspectors with the power to penalize them, it ends: “Since then, Ofsted inspectors have caused widespread problems for religious liberty in England, with aggressive questioning of teachers and pupils over their beliefs on same-sex marriage and transsexualism. In 2015, Durham Free School – which had a Christian ethos – was closed after it was deemed by Ofsted not to be meeting British values requirements. Inspectors were criticised after it emerged they had asked students aged 11 – 14 inappropriate questions relating to sex education and if they knew anyone who had been “born in the wrong body”. As part of its British values drive, the Government has proposed sending Ofsted inspectors into churches to inspect youth work”.
I get it that the government sees by promoting its ideas of what are British values it may lead to a more cohesive society. As a Christian, I believe bullying and bigotry is wrong and I accept many who don’t accept my Christian beliefs believe that too. I also recognize that I cannot impose my Christian beliefs on those who don’t share them. But then why should those who hold a different belief system impose their beliefs on me and my family? which is what these powers given to Ofsted can potentially do. It is right for my child to be told it is not acceptable to bully others, and here it is not just about sexual orientation and identity (so why restrict it?) or that he/she ought to respect those whose religious beliefs (or non beliefs) differ from those of his/her parents. What grates is if my child is told, and his/her teachers are forced to tell, that gay sex is equivalent to straight sex or promote gender neutrality, and worse still at a very young age, or all religions lead to God. I see the dilemma non-faith institutions are in – if they are unable to teach Christian values, then what is authoritative – who decides – surely not a morally corrupt government that allows fleeing refugees to drown in the sea as a deterrent or failing to fire proof protection to high rise flats in order to save money. As for faith institutions, while controls may be needed, especially if state funding is involved, surely the whole point of such institutions and why parents support these is that what is taught be consistent with their faith tenets.
I made a surprising discovery over the weekend. I go to a small church and I found out there are now three families in the church where the children are home schooled. I can’t say precisely the reasons but it is partly out of dissatisfaction with the school system, including concerns over the issues raised above. I feel fortunate, while there were some shortcomings, especially regarding values and ethos, at the schools my son attended, he was taught good manners, made to feel safe and was given a decent education. Even so, I still saw it as my duty to teach that which the schools can’t, don’t, won’t teach. I get it when government feels the need to step in when parents neglect their responsibilities (as some do) but the quandary faced is how to go about it and the fear is they will continue to ride roughshod over parents’ wishes. Some parents don’t have confidence in the state school system and, since they can’t afford to privately educate, they home school instead. I can’t help feeling instead of applying their sledgehammer to crack nuts ideas, the government ought to attend to the concerns I raise.