The Accord Coalition for inclusive schooling has been joined by several major organisations in expressing grave concerns over the extent to which publicly-funded faith schools can currently discriminate against teaching staff.
Teaching unions, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Joint Committee on Human Rights are among those to back a change in the law for teachers in faith schools.
The move comes ahead of the debate on the Equality Bill in the House of Lords tomorrow (27 January 2009) on an exemption that allows taxpayer funded faith schools to discriminate far more in employment than private organisations with a religious ethos.
Accord (http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/ ) counts among its members the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the British Humanist Association and Christian thinktank Ekklesia. Accord is backing amendments to the Equality Bill that are also supported in full by the National Union of Teachers.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission supports an important part of the amendments that challenges an element of the law [Section 60 (5) of the School Standards and Framework Act] which the EHRC believes could contravene European regulations. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has raised similar concerns that the current laws for teachers in faith schools may be illegal.
The issue is that while a religious charity recruiting a new chief executive would have to show that any discrimination on religious grounds is a “legitimate” and “proportionate” occupational requirement, voluntary aided faith schools can discriminate against all teachers in recruitment, pay and promotion.
Teachers can also be dismissed for conduct that is “incompatible with the precepts” of the school's religion, with the definition of such conduct left to the discretion of individual governing bodies.
The amendments tabled by Baroness Turner of Camden seek to give teachers in faith schools the same protections as other employees in organisations with a religious ethos: while schools could still restrict posts by religion, they would have to be able to justify doing so.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain from the Accord Coalition, which campaigns for inclusive schools said: “Like 72 per cent of the public, I believe that it is wrong for schools to discriminate against teachers by their religion. These moderate amendments will not remove the ability of faith schools to select teachers by religion, but will give those teachers the same safeguards as employees in a religious charity could expect.”
Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), commented: “The current exemption means that a PE or maths teacher in a state funded faith school can be discriminated against to a greater extent than the CEO of a religious charity. That is a ludicrous situation that no one should support, whatever their view on faith schools in principle”.
Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) added:
“The government now has the opportunity to make sure that Britain’s law complies with European employment rules. There is no good reason why teachers should not enjoy the same protections as others who work in organisations with a religious ethos. It is not too much to ask that schools should have to justify discrimination against staff.”
The Accord Coalition was launched in early 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 and the removal of the requirement for compulsory collective worship but does not take a position for or against faith schools in principle.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the British Humanist Association, Ekklesia, Hindu Academy and British Muslims for Secular Democracy are among the organisational members of the Accord Coalition.
Accord's individual supporters include Christian clergy and lay people, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, humanists, Hindus and people from a wide range of backgrounds - including educationalists, theologians and scientists.