The government’s new Education Bill has been criticised as a vehicle for the proliferation of religious discrimination in the state-maintained school system.
MPs began to debate the Bill in the House of Commons on Tuesday 8 February 2011. It gives the Secretary of State a new power to permit widespread discrimination in employment in state-maintained religious Academy schools which have ‘converted’ from voluntary controlled status.
Voluntary controlled schools with a religious character are permitted to ‘reserve’ up to a fifth of teaching posts for teachers of the ‘right’ religion.
While this rule applies to such schools which take on Academy status, the Bill allows the Secretary of State to disallow this and permit discrimination against any teacher in the new Academy school, representing new and potentially wide discrimination against teachers.
The chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, commented: "We are worried that some schools are to be declared exempt from section 5 inspections without a definition being provided as to what criteria renders schools exempt.
"Schools should be transparent and accountable, especially at a time when some faith schools in particular have an agenda that militates against social cohesion and encourages isolationist attitudes amongst pupils," he said.
The Accord Coalition is an alliance of religious and non-religious groups seeking inclusive schooling and the reform of faith schools to ensure equal access, fair treatment and opportunity for all. It includes the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the British Humanist Association and groups and individuals from Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and other backgrounds.
British Humanist Association (BHA) chief executive Andrew Copson commented: "The Education Bill creates a new centralising power, giving the Secretary of State carte blanche to decide the employment rights of teachers in new local schools. Having up to a fifth of teaching posts reserved only for people who are of the ‘right’ religion is, in any case, deeply unsatisfactory."
"Extending the power for newly created state-maintained schools to discriminate against all teachers if they request it is deeply regressive and puts at real risk the employment opportunities for potentially thousands of qualified teachers throughout the country," he declared.
The Education Bill also reduces the control and scrutiny over school admissions, through removing the duty of local authorities to report on the admissions criteria of schools in an area and to establish an admissions forum.
It additionally curtails the powers of the schools adjudicator which can no longer make a modification to a school’s admissions arrangements, even in response to a complaint.
In November 2010, the schools adjudicator warned that faith schools' admissions rules are discriminating against poor and migrant children to favour those from the middle classes.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which argues that all schools should have fair and open admissions and employment policies, said: "It seems inexplicable and contradictory that, with one breath, the government should call for a more integrated and cohesive society, and on the other hand should include provisions in its Education Bill which make greater school segregation on religious, social and ethnic grounds more probable.
"Equally, the removal of the powers of the schools adjudicator to intervene and make changes in the face of parental complains about unfairness militates against transparency and natural justice."
Barrow added: "Schools are places where pupils should be able to benefit from a good social mix, and where practices of discrimination on the grounds of belief, as much as other human characteristics, are inimical to good educational and spiritual values."
Voluntary controlled schools with a religious character make up around a quarter of all primary schools, putting the employment rights of primary school teachers at particular risk.
Andrew Copson said: "It is unbelievable that, at the same time as the government is encouraging a proliferation of faith schools, including religious Academies and free schools, it is proposing to reduce local control over, and proper scrutiny of, admissions criteria and practices. Without tightening up the rules rather than relaxing them, we are setting ourselves up for even more discrimination in admissions and more division of children and communities along religious, socio-economic and even ethnic lines."