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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Proponents of religious schools in South West London wear down the opposition

King Athelstan community primary school in Kingston upon Thames will assume a religious character in September when it enters a two year “loose-partnership” with a local Church of England school,St John’s Primary. Plans have also been announced for a consultation on a permanent ‘faith school’ status to start within six months.

The move follows an Ofsted inspection that branded King Athelstan school “inadequate” and gave it notice to improve, which it has. We understand it will leave no community primary school in the approximately seven miles to the borough south boundary.

Parents who don’t want a “faith education” for their children are up in arms.

Vicki Jones, whose daughter attends King Athelstan’s nursery, told the Richmond and Twickenham Times: “I know parents who have put King Athelstan down as a first choice because it’s a community school. You risk parents who want their children to go to community schools being alienated.”

Councillor Liz Green, executive member for education, said she was an atheist but could support King Athelstan changing status. She said: “It has had a poor reputation and struggled to be satisfactory for 20 years. If they [the children] get a better education that’s worth me going against my principle as [a better education] is much more important.”

If the school moves to voluntary controlled status, the church would appoint some governors, but not have a control and the council would still set admissions criteria and employ staff. The council said a soft federation would improve consistency of teaching, and the schools would share resources.

Jeremy Rodell, chairman of South West London Humanists, said: “The most important thing is that King Athelstan’s becomes a school where children will flourish. And improved leadership can make all the difference. That has nothing to do with religion, but if the best available way to achieve it in this case is a “soft federation” with the Church of England, then so be it. But we’d be concerned if that led to a change in the formal status of King Athelstan’s from a Community school to a Voluntary Controlled Church school, without going through the full consultation and controls that would normally be required, and without any safeguards being put in place.

“If that happened, it would mean that all the primaries in South Kingston would be church schools, with all the issues of selection and discrimination on faith grounds that this often implies. And, to judge from last year’s debate about the secondary school in North Kingston, we may then find the C of E claiming that 100% of South Kingston children going to Church primary schools means that parents want a Church secondary school!” said Mr Rodell. “Everyone wants good local schools, but there is no evidence that most people want more faith schools.”

Meanwhile in the neighbouring borough of Richmond upon Thames, the fight to stop the establishment of a Catholic school appears to have been lost. At a council meeting this week, the Borough Council approved the purchase of Richmond Adult Community College, in Clifden Road, Twickenham which has been earmarked to be turned into a Catholic school.

The authority has faced fierce criticism from the Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign, which claimed its plans for a new faith school were about “exclusivity and privilege” and contradicted its own policies on diversity.

However, Council leader Lord True denied the plans were contentious and said both Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors supported them at a council debate in April.

He said: “There are always naysayers who draw attention to themselves. There’s a minority of people with a doctrinaire position [on] voluntary aided schools. This is not just against a Catholic school, these people are opposed to Christian schools and denominational schools in any form.

“My answer is I simply disagree with those people and they are in my judgement a minority and in my experience hugely outnumbered by those who would like to see this school.”

When lobbying for the school, the Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, said: “I fully support the desire and aspirations of parents in Richmond for a Catholic secondary school. I understand that this is a matter which has been the subject of plans and wishes over a number of years, and that the local authority is keen to have, and is supportive of, such a project.”

What the Archbishop did not reveal was that when he was Archbishop of Wales he had said that gay people living in relationships should not be permitted to be teachers. In 2005 he told Wales on Sunday “It’s not just about somebody being a good teacher – it’s more than that. Someone living a life in manifest contradiction to the Church’s doctrine would not, in my view, be suitable to be employed by the Catholic Church. It would not give the right example to staff or pupils. When it comes to Catholic teaching, we expect teachers in all our schools to uphold the Catholic ethos. If someone is living a lifestyle which is in conflict to the moral teaching of the Church then there is a real difficulty.”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “Will the Archbishop be trying to impose his bigoted opinion about employing teachers when this school opens? Will the employment of gay teachers be banned by the school? This is a victory for discrimination and special pleading by religious groups anxious to push their teachings on to a captive audience in school – at public expense.”

Published Fri, 29 Jul 2011