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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

NSS challenges faith school employment discrimination in the Lords

Amendments to the Education Bill initiated by the NSS were debated this week in the House of Lords. They were designed to reduce the extent to which discrimination is permitted against non-religious teachers by the law against teachers in faith and community schools.

The amendments tabled by NSS honorary associates Baroness Turner and Lord Avebury concerned legislation that discriminates against teachers who do not share the faith of the school. This includes the repeal of Section 60(5) of the School Standards and Framework Act which permits 100% discrimination in voluntary aided faith schools and is widely thought by lawyers to be incompatible with the European Employment Directive.

At present, the law permits teachers of the “wrong” faith or none to be discriminated against in all schools with a religious character – a third of all state schools.

Another of the amendments we worked on with supportive peers sought to maintain existing protection for community school teachers who do not lead worship or teach religious education when these schools become academies. Such protection is being eroded by the Education Bill.

Baroness Turner described the amendments as being “drafted with a view to protecting teachers and ensuring that they have legislative cover in line with the European employment directive and our equality law.”

Many of the amendments are in accordance with legal advice given to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which agrees with the NSS that existing and proposed legislation falls short of the minimum protection for teachers. It is regrettable that the EHRC kept the opinion to itself for nearly three months, particularly as this was while the Bill was considered by the Commons’ Bill Committee.

In support of the amendments, Lord Avebury said; “If I were to go through the whole list of alleged violations and potential violations of the European [employment] Directive, which were identified by counsel, we should be here all night.”

The Bishop of Hereford led the opposition to our amendments. Without any apparent irony, he accused Lord Avebury of not coming from a “neutral” position on this issue. In a clear misunderstanding of secularism, the Bishop said that Lord Avebury’s association with the NSS “puts the noble Lord very much within the faith spectrum”.

The Bishop of Hereford argued that the most important thing was that faith schools were able to sustain their ‘religious character’. He said “Governance, employment, admissions, denominational worship and denominational religious education are the mechanisms by which the trustees, via the governing body and the religious authority, are able to ensure that the terms of their trust are being carried out.”

In reply to the Bishop, Lord Avebury said “He was suggesting that because I was an honorary associate of the National Secular Society, I was in some way trying to undermine the dual system [state funded faith schools], when all I am trying to do is to ensure that the trusts which administer faith schools do so in conformity with both European directives and with the European Human Rights Act.”

In closing the debate, Baroness Turner told the House “like most secularists, I also believe in equality. We also believe in freedom of religion. All we object to is that beliefs that we and other people do not share are simply imposed on us whether we like them or not. That is really what a lot of this is about. These amendments seek to protect the position of people who do not share a religious point of view but who nevertheless may be very good teachers.”

As is the custom at Committee stage, Baroness Turner withdrew the amendments, but not before Lord Hill, speaking on behalf of the Government, promised a detailed response to the legal points and a meeting at the next stage of the Bill to discuss issues raised by the NSS.

Read the full Hansard transcript of the debate

Watch the debate on Parliament TV (starts at 01:29:45)

Published Fri, 16 Sep 2011