Teaching union defends its calling of faith schools to account

By staff writers
May 3, 2007

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), which has produced a position paper calling for significant changes in policy relating to faith schools, has defended its stance after accusations of unfairness in the Church Times newspaper.

The 160,000-strong ATL (formerly the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association) has a strong denominational school constituency. It “acknowledges the many strengths of faith schools” but describes serious concerns about cohesion, diversity, accountability and discrimination in selection and employment.

These concerns, the union points out, are issues consistently raised by parents, teachers and educationists from both religious and non-religious backgrounds. ATL’s paper identifies the challenges and makes suggestions for change. The union believes any further public money should be conditional on reform.

“What we want is for all children to have equal access to good local schools which promote equality – of belief, sexuality, race, gender – so our children grow up with a respect and understanding of other people”, says policy adviser Alison Ryan.

However in an earlier report the Church Times, a weekly newspaper with close ties to the Church of England, claimed that “significant opposition to the policy paper” existed in the union.

It also suggested (30 March 2007) that the paper’s drafting had been less than fair and open, and quoted Canon David Whittington, head of school development at the C of E Board of Education describing it as “dogmatic and anti-libertarian”.

But ATL’s Alison Ryan has refuted these claims. In a letter published in the Church Times (27 April) she says that the union’s paper on faith schools “was the culmination of a year’s consultation and discussion…We had input from teachers working across the schools sector, including the whole range of faith schools, and the final paper reflects this.”

She continues: “As a democratic organisation, which encourages debate and discussion among members, we know that they will not all share the same views. Members understand that the majority view will prevail. In this case, the final faith paper was approved by over two-thirds of executive committee members – our governing council.”

Anglicans and Catholics have complained that they were not specifically consulted. But the document’s authors say that it is a position paper, not a closing word. The debate goes on.

Ms Ryan says the ATL did not give a draft of the faith paper to any outside organisation before publication, but she points out that a range of bodies including the Church of England Board of Education, the London Mosque and the National Secular Society, saw an earlier paper on faith schools and the state at the 8th Inter-Isles Forum.

She writes: “ATL’s paper fully acknowledges the many strengths of faith schools. However, the majority of our members think these schools should be more accountable if they are to continue being state-funded, and have concerns about the role they play in promoting community cohesion.”

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers held a well-attended meeting on 3 April about faith schools at its annual conference, before Easter. Neither the Church of England nor the Catholic Education Service chose to send representatives.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, who spoke at the meeting along with Andrew Copson, education advisor for the British Humanist Association (BHA), said: “ATL is to be congratulated for its courage in raising necessary questions about publicly-funded faith schools in a thoughtful and constructive way.”

He added: “The churches should engage positively with the concerns of a wide section of the public, rather than trying to portray them as anti-religious sniping by a minority. Many Christians and people of other faith backgrounds oppose selection on the grounds of religion and discrimination in employment practices. They are also worried about the growth of segregated education. These are serious issues.”

Faith schools currently get grants from the state of up to 90% of the costs of school buildings and 100% of the running costs.

As a result of selective admissions pupils in faith schools are less likely to be entitled to free school meals, and are more likely to have English as their first language than the national average in schools across England, research suggests.

As well as discriminating in school admissions in favour of children of parents who attend churches linked to schools, many faith schools are allowed to discriminate when they are employ staff.

Voluntary-aided faith schools can stipulate the beliefs of all their employees, and the fully local authority funded voluntary controlled faith schools are allowed to determine the faith of their head teacher.

ATL is calling for the level of school autonomy – over admissions and the curriculum – to depend on the school promoting community cohesion. It is also urging no extension of rights to be given to faith schools to refuse to employ staff on the basis of their religious belief. And it says schools which discriminate against potential pupils and staff should no longer be allowed state funding.

ATL's position statement on faith schools can be accessed here.

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