The Accord Coalition for inclusive schooling has issued a stark warning over the lack of proper regulation for the government’s proposed new Academies.
The Conservative - Liberal Democrat administration's new Academies Bill, which enters its second reading in the House of Lords on Monday 7 June 2010, proposes to allow new Academy schools to opt out from teaching the National Curriculum.
The Bill will indirectly allow all taxpayer-funded schools with a religious character that become new Academies to have wide ranging power to discriminate in employment and admissions on religious grounds.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, the chair of the Accord Coalition - which seeks to reform faith schools to make them fair, inclusive and non-discriminatory - commented: "In the Government’s eagerness to give schools far greater operational freedom, they appear to be also freeing them from regulations that help ensure the education they provide is properly balanced, broad and does not promote extreme views."
"For example," he said, "the National Curriculum currently requires maintained schools to provide basic sex education in biology and prevents them from teaching creationism in science. Allowing new Academies to opt out of the National Curriculum will mean they no longer have to abide by such safeguards’.
Dr Romain continued: "The Bill also gives any school with a religious character that becomes an Academy the same legal status as an independent school with a religious character. It means they will be exempt from several aspects of equality legislation and allowed to discriminate against applicants and staff that teach in their schools on the grounds of religion. A more accurate name for these ‘exemptions’ is ‘discrimination’ – they should be done away with altogether, not extended further to a large number of state funded schools."
"Furthermore, the Government has said that schools rated as “outstanding” will be “pre-approved” to become Academies and will never have to face an automatic Ofsted inspection ever again. In 2007 a legal duty was placed on all maintained schools in England to promote community cohesion. It was introduced specifically to mitigate the damage that sectarian schools can have on community cohesion. Compliance with the duty is assessed by Ofsted and so it is very worrying that new Academy schools will no longer be required to show that they are improving community cohesion," said the Accord chair.
He added: "However good a school is now, it is ludicrous that it should be permanently exempt from Ofsted inspection. No school should be afraid of inspection, and the promise of being free from supervision is a reckless invitation to drop standards."
"The Government urgently needs to amend its own legislation and provide an insurance that the creation of new Academy schools will not allow more discrimination on basis of religion in our schools, and that the education they provide, including the Religious Education, is truly broad and balanced," said Dr Romain.
In a related development, parents groups are beginning to organise locally to oppose the switch to academy status in a number of areas, fearing that they will lose benefits and support from the work of Local Education Authorities.
Critics of the government's policy, which claims to be about greater choice, includes teaching unions. They say that the response of local people could be a "big test" for the Secretary of State responsible, Michael Gove.
"The rhetoric is about parental and community involvement," an inclusion campaigner told Ekklesia. "But the reality may be rather different. It will be interesting to see whether Mr Gove ends up forcing these new arrangements on parents and children when it becomes clear to a wide range of people that they are about creating a two-tier system rather than genuine empowerment."
The Accord Coalition was launched in September 2008 to bring together religious and non-religious organisations campaigning for an end to religious discrimination in school staffing and admissions.
The coalition also campaigns for a fair and balanced RE curriculum, for pupils to receive Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education, and for inspiring communal assemblies instead of the requirement for compulsory collective worship. It does not take a position for or against faith schools in principle, but seeks to encourage people of different outlooks to work together on a positive reform agenda.
Accord's growing list of members and supporters include the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the British Humanist Association, the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, members from across the political spectrum (including the three largest parties in parliament), and individuals from a range of religions and beliefs.