Transfer of schools to academies in breach of European law

The National Secular Society (UK) has complained to the Government and the European Commission following legal advice that the transfer of both community and faith schools to academy status is likely to be in breach of the European Union Employment Directive.

The many non-religious staff in community schools have important statutory protections against discrimination on the grounds of their religion or lack of it. This includes not being required take religious education lessons or conduct collective worship, something that is likely to be important if this in contravention of their beliefs, or lack of them. All this protection is lost when these schools are converted to academies, which is what the Government wishes to be the norm.

At present, there is a 20% limit on the proportion of staff who can be required to be religious in a “faith” school controlled by local authority, of which there are around 2,500. In the current Education Bill the Government intends to raise this limit for such schools transferring to academies to 100%, and remove the protection for the non-religious staff.

Keith Porteous Wood Executive Director of the National Secular Society said: “The statutory protections on which the jobs of hundreds of thousands of non-religious teaching and support staff depend will be clandestinely removed when they transfer to academies, the new norm. Staff should be treated with equal respect whatever their faith or lack of it, and not forced into pretending to hold beliefs that they do not have, in order to retain their jobs. This has the potential to be the most serious erosion of religion and belief employment rights of staff that I have ever seen, it is even more disgraceful given that these academies are funded by the taxpayer, not religious bodies.”

The legal advice was provided by the Head of Public Law at prominent city lawyers Beachcroft LLP who specialise in education. It concludes: “in respect of each of voluntary aided, voluntary controlled [the two main types of faith school] and community schools converting into academies, there are strong grounds to believe that the Government’s proposals are a breach of its legal obligations to protect teachers (and others) from discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, set out in the Directive.”

Accordingly, the National Secular Society has also complained formally to the European Commission which is responsible for the enforcement of EU directives. The last time it did so, this resulted in the UK Government being disciplined by Brussels, a process which it has not yet completed but could end up in the European Court of Justice.

The NSS has also asked the Government to make the necessary legislative changes to remedy these problems in the Education Bill which has just started its passage through Parliament.