Strictly Orthodox independent schools may escape sanctions if their only failing is not explicitly teaching respect for LGBT people, as a result of new advice issued on Tuesday by the Department for Education.
The DfE, following a year-long public consultation on standards for independent schools, says it has attempted to “strike a balance” between equality requirements and the concerns expressed by some faith groups.
Teaching respect for LGBT people should be part of the independent school curriculum, the department’s latest advice makes clear.
But in a potentially significant move, the government says that “enforcement action will not normally occur if there are only one or two unmet requirements” from the standards.
That decision, it says, will depend on “the severity” of the shortcomings, including the extent to which children’s safety is at risk.
The government says it was reacting to “widespread concerns that a school could be closed, even if there were minor breaches of one or two requirements in a standard.”
It does not spell out whether it would regard failure to refer to sexual orientation as only a minor breach of the standards.
But it noted that a “significant proportion” of concerns about enforcement action had come from the Charedi community.
In its guidance, the DfE says it will be insufficient for schools to encourage respect for other people simply “in a general way”.
Schools are expected to pay regard to the “protected characteristics” set out in the Equality Act which include sexual orientation and gender reassignment.
But they can do so in an “age appropriate” way - a qualification which may enable independent Charedi primary schools to avoid having to refer to LGBT issues.
A school will “not necessarily have to address all of the characteristics in every group in its teaching,” the guidance state.
In career advice, children should understand that “any gender can fulfil almost any role in society”, with “very few exceptions” such as a minister in some religions.
In another contentious area for some faith groups, the DfE says that while creationism can be taught, it must be not be presented as based on evidence “similar or superior” to scientific theories.
The guidance also notes that some faith groups use “forms of ostracism” against community members whose actions they disapprove of. Schools “should endeavour to minimise the impact of this upon children when they are at school,” the DfE says.
Most of the negative reaction to the guidance during the consultation centred on two issues - the equality requirements and creationism, the DfE said.
One Orthodox Jewish respondent warned, “No amount of enforcement would force us to send our children to another independent or state school, and the only outcome would be thousands of children without a school”.
The government said it did not believe schools should be able to "pick and choose" which standards they complied with.
But although it promised stricter enforcement action against schools which failed to comply with standards, its suggestion that it would not act if there were only one or two “minor” breaches may give some respite to Charedi schools.