Council proposes to force children into faith schools

The NSS has backed a local campaign to save the only non-religious school in the West of the Isle of Wight from closure.

Isle of Wight Council is planning to shut Weston Primary school, the only community school in a twelve mile radius, because of a surplus of school places. Under the Council’s preferred option, two local faith schools would remain open.

Save Our School! Pupils at Weston Primary spell it out loud and clear

Jeremy Cangialosi, who has three children at Weston, told the NSS: “It’s the only community school in the whole area – so it would mean a complete loss of non-faith schooling and it would force parents to send their children to religious schools.”

The NSS has sent a detailed submission to the Council pointing out the legal implications of reducing diversity of provision and denying parents the choice to send their children to a non-faith school.

In an attempt to head off opposition to the plans, the Council and Church of England Diocese of Portsmouth have said they will support the change of All Saints Primary School from a voluntary controlled school to a trust school. While this may enable greater local community representation on the board of governors, it does nothing to affect the school’s religious character.

The Church of England has made clear its intention to ensure the religious ethos of their schools should flow through all subjects. The latest Church of England inspection report for All Saints Primary, where some pupils of Weston will be expected to move to, stated “Pupils are well aware that this is a church school” and quotes pupils saying “We think about Jesus a lot” and “In worship we light candles and reflect on stories we’ve heard”.

This report contradicts the claim made by the Chair of Governors at All Saints who, in a letter to local media, said “All Saints is a community school in all but name”.

An amalgamation of All Saints and Weston, which could create a new non-faith school was also considered by the Council. Governors at All Saints had originally indicated that they would accept the removal of the religious character of the school. However, the only way to remove religious character is to close the existing school and open a new school. Under current Government policy there is a likelihood that this could lead to the establishment of an Academy – something the council is keen to avoid.

The Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth has been less co-operative however, and informed Isle of Wight Council that it wished to continue voluntary aided Catholic provision where this currently exists on the Island.

Ofsted has judged Standards at Weston Primary to be significantly higher than the two faith schools which were also considered for closure.

In its letter to the Council, the NSS accused it not only of failing in its duty to secure diversity of provision, but also in its duty to ensure that proposals contribute to raising local standards of provision. The letter noted that the closure option preferred by the Council was the worst possible one for equality, potentially rendering Weston staff to discrimination in applying for jobs at neighbouring schools that would not apply were either of the other two schools to close.

Guidance on the closure of maintained schools states that proposals “should not have the effect of unreasonably extending journey times or increasing transport costs, or result in too many children being prevented from travelling sustainably due to unsuitable routes”. However, a local questionnaire of parents with children at Weston found that 37.5% said they would either relocate, home school or travel to Newport, some 12 miles away. The same survey found that only 7.5% of parents would be happy to send their children to the neighbouring faith schools.

Stephen Evans, Campaigns Manager at the National Secular Society commented: “It is clear that the closure of the only community school in the area will cause real and significant hardship to parents who wish their children to be taught in a non-faith school setting, and are simply not prepared to accept them being taught in a school with a religious ethos.

“The strength with which many non-religious parents hold such convictions should not be underestimated.”

To justify closing the sole community school in the area, Isle of Wight Council have cited guidance that privileges faith schools and gives them special protections against closures. The guidance states: “decision-makers should not normally approve the closure of a school with a religious character where the proposal would result in a reduction in the proportion of denominational places in the area.”

Stephen Evans commented: “The guidance clearly does not rule out the closure of such schools. This is not a ‘normal’ situation as the closure of Weston would completely eradicate primary school provision for the non-religious and all other non-Christians in the area.

“Again we see an excellent community school being sacrificed so that faith school places are protected – and again it is the non-religious who lose out. As long as our political leaders allow religion to play such a major role in our education system, this sort of problem is inevitable. Isle of Wight Council must be mindful not to ignore the rights of the many parents who do not want a faith upbringing for their children. The closure of Weston school would effectively force children into religious schools and that is simply unacceptable.”

The NSS has also raised concerns that material published by the Council may have misled or failed adequately to inform those responding to the consultation and advised it to take legal advice, as the NSS had done.