Education Bill: Teacher discrimination challenged in House of Lords

Peers in the House of Lords this week challenged the level of discrimination permitted in ‘faith’ schools against non-religious teachers and those not of the faith of the school.

NSS Honorary Associate Baroness Turner of Camden tabled three amendments to the Education Bill which were worded in consultation with the National Secular Society. The first would have preserved teachers’ protection against discrimination on the grounds of their religion or lack of it when community schools convert to academy status. This long-standing protection includes not being required to take religious education and conduct collective worship. At present this protection is lost on conversion.

A second amendment sought to limit the discrimination permissible in voluntary aided ‘faith’ schools to positions where a “‘genuine, legitimate and justified occupational requirement” can be demonstrated. At present, such schools can apply a religious test in appointing, paying and promoting all teachers. This amendment followed a recommendation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s legal advisors as a minimum needed to be done to makeUK law compliant with a European working directive. The same amendment also sought to prevent religious reasons being used as a proxy for discrimination against a teacher because of his or her sexual orientation. The Lord Bishop of Oxford said he was “shocked at the very thought” that a faith school would ever do such a thing – but still opposed the amendment.

A further amendment sought to create a requirement to consult when proposals are made for a school to convert from a minority to majority faith representation on the governing body, as would happen when voluntary controlled faith schools convert to academy status.

The Government opposed all of the amendments, despite being provided with a dossier of legal opinions by the National Secular Society, challenging the compatibility ofUKlegislation with European law. Without Government support, Baroness Turner withdrew her amendments, which did not therefore go to a vote.

During the debate Lord Avebury, another NSS Honorary Associate, made clear that the elements of the School Standards and Framework legislation incompatible with European Law came about as the direct result of demands from the churches, especially the CofE. The amendments tabled in 1998 to insert the elements which we are now claiming are incompatible, followed a delegation to the Home Secretary led by the then Lord Bishop of Ripon and including members of the Roman Catholic Church and the free Churches. The then Home Secretary said their concerns about Church schools would be properly met, which they were.

Opposing Lady Turner’s amendments, the Lord Bishop of Oxford, Dr John Pritchard, head of the Church of England’s education board, insisted that faith schools must retain the ability to discriminate in all teaching posts in order to protect their schools’ faith-based ethos. However, his argument is fatally undermined by the many “faith” schools that maintain their ethos with only a small proportion of teaching staff being of the faith. This includes thousands of Voluntary Controlled schools (those controlled by local authorities) where they cannot require more than one in five of teachers to be of the faith. In total, 56% of teachers in Catholic schools identify themselves as Catholic and far fewer define themselves as practising Catholics, many of whom do not follow the precepts of their own Church. In the dioceses ofEast Anglia, just 36% are Catholic.

Lord Deben, wilfully misrepresenting the amendments, described them as “discriminatory”. The noble Lord clearly regarded the modest amendments to curb discrimination as an attempt to bring an end to faith schooling. He told the Chamber: “there is a new kind of illiberalism, which is very determined to remove from parents what for many of us is the most important element in education: we want our children brought up in the fear and love of our Lord.”

Responding to Lord Deben, Lord Avebury said “I have seldom heard a more hysterical and inaccurate speech than the one that we have just listened to”.

Baroness Garden of Frognal, speaking on behalf of the Government, dismissed the amendments saying: “We think the long-standing arrangements that provide for this are working well. The Government are therefore seeking to ensure that faith schools which seek academy status continue to have the freedoms they have previously enjoyed”.

She did however make clear that schools that attempt to use legislation concerning staffing at ‘faith’ schools, to justify discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation would be acting unlawfully.

An amendment to restrict the ability of converting voluntary controlled schools to increase the priority of religious criteria in their admissions policies was also tabled by NSS Honorary Associate Baroness Massey of Darwen. Again, this was opposed by the Government and did not go to vote.

Read the debate in full.

Also see:

Education Bill: Peers oppose proposals to make worship optional in schools