Headteachers at British schools overseas have warned that they could face imprisonment if they are forced to promote British values, including gay rights, as part of their lessons.
Ministers are consulting on plans to hold schools accountable using the same measures as the Independent School Standards, which require all institutions to “actively promote” British values, which includes tolerance of protected characteristics as set out in the Equality Act 2010.
This includes encouraging respect for gay, lesbian and bisexual people, even though the practice of homosexuality is illegal in certain countries, particularly the Middle East and parts of Central Africa. But all schools will need to adhere to the standards in order to receive the coveted “British School overseas” (BSO) Kitemark.
Schools minister Nick Gibb presented the new standards at the annual BSO conference in London last month.
However, some headteachers have urged the government to reconsider their stance on the matter. Steffen Sommer, principal of Doha College in Qatar, which is a member of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference group of top private schools, said that the move would have a “dramatic” effect on institutions that were based overseas, such as his.
He told TES: “This is not about a value judgement on our part. I agree with the values. It is simple – if that is what I am teaching in my school, I would be arrested immediately. There would be no two ways about it. As soon as people found out, which they would, I would be arrested.
“It is a very pleasant place to live, but we are talking about absolute monarchies here. It is run by Sharia law, so the law is very different than in the UK.”
Dr Sommer, who is vice-chair of the Council of British International Schools (Cobis), said that the problem was not limited to the Middle East. Schools in predominantly Muslim and Christian countries across the globe would struggle to apply the standards, he warned.
Mr Gibb said that while he understood the concerns that schools might have, the government could not be seen to have two sets of rules.
“That is the controversial aspect of the standards we are consulting on, the MP said.
“We debated this at the Department for Education,” he added. “But I think it is very important that we can’t have two standards of what counts as British values, one standard for British schools, and another in schools that carry the Kitemark, just because of where they are located. I do understand that this will present challenges for schools.
“We cannot issue a standard that doesn’t reflect the values of this country.”
Although voluntary, the government’s BSO Kitemark is very valuable for British schools operating overseas, as it gives prospective parents an official stamp of quality.
The international schools market is hugely competitive and worth billions of pounds. The demand has led to some of the UK’s most famous boarding schools, such as Eton, Dulwich College, Harrow and Repton, opening outposts overseas.
But Colin Bell, chief executive of Cobis, said that he had written to his members asking for their feedback and stated that any new standards must work in the “real world”.
“We have to be sure that these standards are fit for purpose and that they reflect what is going on in the real world – whether they reflect the prescriptive cultures and laws in those countries,” Mr Bell said. “‘If there is a teacher or curriculum that goes against those laws, then the school could find itself in very difficult water.”
Schools are being placed in an ‘impossible position’
When the government introduced a set of standards for British international schools in 2011, it was greeted as a major victory. School leaders had long called for an official Kitemark that they could use to attract prospective parents.
While schools would be required to open their doors to inspectors, it was a small price for such schools to pay in return for having a government-backed seal of approval. But according to Steffen Sommer, principal of Doha College, the government’s new proposals will leave many schools based overseas in an “impossible position”.
“We need the standards because there are a lot of schools operating overseas that are charlatans, essentially,” Dr Sommer says. “It means we can show to parents, particularly expat parents, that the services we offer are bona fide.”
Dr Sommer adds that the changes will not have the same impact on schools operating in Europe because existing laws there are already similar to those in the UK. However, making schools adhere to the government’s new standards in the more than 70 countries where the practice of homosexuality is illegal will cause a “major problem”, he warns.