The FAQs: Counter-Extremism Policy and Sunday School in the United Kingdom

What is the issue?

On Wednesday, the House of Commons held debate on the registration, regulation, and risk-based inspection of what are known as “out-of-schools education settings.” In light of the Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham and the threat of students who radicalize and travel to fight with Islamic State, the UK government—as one aspect of its national counter-extremism policy—is taking a closer look at faith schools, private academies, and extracurricular education. Since late 2015, numerous evangelical organizations, including The Christian Institute, have registered strong reservations over how the implementation of counter-extremism policy could force churches to register (and accept government inspection of) Sunday schools and camps, and also how the working definitions of extremism and “fundamental British values” could clash with the teaching of orthodox Christian beliefs.

What has brought this matter to the immediate forefront?

Last week, Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief of the Office on Standards, Children’s Services, and Skills (Ofsted), the UK’s education inspection body, fielded a question on BBC Radio about the government’s recently concluded “out-of-schools education settings” consultation. When queried on the possible regulation and inspection of Sunday schools, Wilshaw responded, “We need to know if a Sunday school is being run. Is it registered? Is it being run properly by people that have been through proper safeguarding checks. And if that is done, then we are happy with that, and we will only go in when we feel that there is a need to do so.” Wilshaw’s remarks set off a flurry of criticism among a group of Conservative Party MPs, and the Telegraph later reported that Prime Minister David Cameron himself assured that what the government is proposing through its counter-extremism policy would not “regulate institutions teaching children for a short period every week, such as Sunday schools or the Scouts [or] apply to one-off residential activities, such as a week long summer camp.”

What is the Out-of-Schools Education Settings Consultation?

As stated in the UK’s recently released Counter Extremism Strategy, extremism can be taught and perpetuated in “supplementary” and/or “unregulated” school settings. Given this, between November 26, 2015 and January 11, 2016, the UK Department of Education held a public consultation, including a call for evidence, to assist the government developing a registration, assessment and inspection regime for out-of-school education settings. An out-of-school education setting is defined as “any institution providing tuition, training or instruction to children aged under 19 in England that is not a school, college, 16-19 academy or registered childcare provider”—to possibly include “anything which entails an individual child attending a setting for more than between 6 to 8 hours a week.” The document outlined a “light-touch” and “proportionate” registration program for such settings, and recommended that Ofsted handle inspections and investigations, which would be risk-based. 

What is the Counter Extremism Strategy?

With the seating in 2015 of the first Conservative Party majority government since 1992, David Cameron moved forward with putting a new stamp on UK national counter-extremism policy.  In October, the UK government released a new Counter-Extremism Strategy, which, in line with the 2011 Prevent Strategy and the Counterterrorism and Security Act of 2015, reiterated the importance of what is now known as “Prevent Duty.” It also previewed the government’s assertion that extremism and radicalization in both “supplementary schools” and “unregulated education settings” would need to be addressed.

What is the Prevent Strategy?

Prevent is the counter-extremism and counter-radicalization element of the UK’s four-part national counterterrorism strategy, known as Contest. Initially established in 2003, Contest is a multi-agency endeavor, which includes the use of the military, intelligence services and law enforcement to go after terrorists and terrorist organizations (Pursue); the shoring-up of critical infrastructure (Protect); improving the readiness of national emergency services (Prepare); and finally, the use of public education, advocacy and referrals of at-risk individuals in the fight against extremism and radicalization (Prevent, and its subprogram Channel).

The Prevent Strategy was revamped in mid-2011 following public consternation over politicization of the police, domestic intelligence collection, government accountability, and decisions about funding and partnerships with certain Muslim organizations. The 2011 Prevent strategy emphasized national oversight and coordination, a more careful evaluation of project funding, and an explicit marshalling of “British values” in the fight against extremism. As articulated in 2011, the Prevent strategy “respond[s] to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat we face from those who promote it; prevent[s] people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; and work[s] with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation which we need to address.”

What is Prevent Duty?

The Counterterrorism and Security Act of 2015 received Royal Assent in February 2015 and bolstered all of Contest’s constituent elements, including Prevent. Among other things, Section 26 of the Act enshrined what is now labeled “Prevent Duty” — a legal obligation on specified authorities, including schools and higher/further education (HE/FE) providers, to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” As of July 1, 2015, all schools and registered childcare providers (including nursery workers) in the UK fell under Prevent Duty requirements for “identify[ing] children who may be vulnerable to radicalization.” By September, schools and childcare providers were required, as part of Ofsted’s “common inspection framework,” to have Prevent Duty-related risk assessment, staff training and internet policies in place. 

What is the Extremism Bill and Extremism Disruption Orders?

Together with the new Counter Extremism Strategy, the Cameron government is also looking to introduce into Parliament a new Extremism Bill. It has not yet been introduced, but the Queen’s Speech following the General Election last May drew attention to some of the government’s plans for a new bill, including new powers to ban extremist groups, shut down their organizations, and limit their ability to disseminate media. Moreover, the Queen’s Speech previewed the introduction of Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) [see here]—akin to existing Anti-Social Behavior Orders (ASBOs) and Criminal Behavior Orders (CBOs)—the consequences of which could run the gamut from public speaking bans and limits on personal associations to imprisonment. Finally, the Extremism Bill is also slated to address employment restrictions for designated extremists, particularly involving work with children.

How does the UK government connect extremism and “fundamental British values”?

In Prevent (2011), extremism was defined as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” and also as “calls for death of members of armed forces.” This definition has been carried over into follow-on documents and local-level administrative guidance, and, most recently, informed the Out-of-Schools Education Settings Consultation—a stated goal of which was to ensure that teaching in “supplementary” settings is “compatible with, and does not undermine, fundamental British values.” In the Counter-Extremism Strategy, pluralism and equality are also referenced as part and parcel of “fundamental British values.” The question for many evangelicals in the UK is whether such definitions, together with the government’s plans for implementing counter-extremism policy, could be wielded in such a way as to monitor, marginalize, or even prosecute those who hold to historical, orthodox Christian theology—particularly with respect to marriage and the family.