Opinion Former Article

BHA and local campaigners to clash with Government in High Court over new religious schools

On Thursday and Friday, the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign (RISC) are to take their fight to stop the opening of two highly discriminatory Voluntary Aided (VA) Catholic schools in Richmond upon Thames to the High Court. The case is of national importance, not just because it is the first ever case taken against a new school because of religious discrimination, but also because the Department for Education (DfE) has intervened with an interpretation of the law that works in favour of the decision to approve the schools and against the Government’s Coalition Agreement to work for more inclusive school admissions.

The case centres on a new law which the BHA and RISC believe means that instead of working with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster to set up near-100% selective Catholic VA schools outside of competition ‘by the back door’, the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames should have sought proposals for Free Schools, through a form of competition adjudicated by the DfE. The Council did not do this because Free Schools are not allowed to select more than 50% of pupils on religious grounds and the Diocese wants to be able to go to 100%. The Diocese is expected to convert the schools to Academies a couple of years after they open, as they are already doing with some existing schools.

RISC’s primary interest in the case is because it believes all new schools in the borough should have religiously inclusive admissions policies. Last year, RISC organised a petition which was signed by 3,367 borough residents, asking the Council ‘to ensure that every state-funded school opening in the borough from now on is inclusive, so that no child can be denied a place in a good local school because of the religion or belief of their parents’.

RISC spokesperson Jeremy Rodell commented, ‘It simply is not right to set up yet another state school that will be able to discriminate against local children because of their parents’ beliefs. We want to see no faith-based selection, regardless of who runs the schools. But a 50% limit would be a lot better than 100%. It’s especially important in the local context of increasing pressure on places at good secondaries. If the Council’s decision goes ahead, Catholic parents will have a far wider choice of secondary schools than non-Catholics. And the Council will have given away a 125 year lease on the only currently-available site for a highly discriminatory school when we know sites for more new schools will soon be needed. No-one wants to exclude children of Catholics. All we are fighting for is fairness.’

The BHA shares RISC’s position on admissions, but is primarily concerned about the process by which the schools were approved to open. Research by the BHA earlier this year showed that almost two-thirds of maintained faith schools to open over the last five years did so outside of competition versus fewer than one in six other schools. Furthermore, religious schools were 100% successful in gaining approval to open when they pursued this route, versus under half of other schools. At the same time, only 35% of religious proposals in competition were successful versus 47% of other proposals. In addition, changes to the law effective from 1 February all but shut down the possibility of opening schools outside of competition except for Voluntary Aided religious schools. This gives religious groups an even more privileged position.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘The decision by Richmond Council to approve these schools is part of a national pattern of religious groups conspiring with Councils to get preferential treatment again and again. It is time that we challenge this practice of new religious schools opening outside of competition, and hopefully set a precedent that establishes a level playing field in which proposals to establish schools are treated equally, with the same level of scrutiny, whether religious or not.’

Referring to the Government’s intervention in the case, Mr Copson continued, ‘The Coalition Agreement commits the Government to “work with faith groups to enable more faith schools and facilitate inclusive admissions policies in as many of these schools as possible.” If the Department for Education’s intervention is successful, it will directly contradict this commitment – as well as go against his own Free School policy. The result will be increased discrimination in the state school system.’

Notes

For further comment or information contact BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson on 07534 248596 or at andrew@humanism.org.uk.

A survey by the Accord Coalition published on Monday found that 73% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that ‘state funded schools should not be allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions policy’, while only 18% disagreed. Read the BHA press release, ‘In week of High Court case, new survey shows overwhelming majority against religious selection in schools’: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/1141

A more in depth briefing of the legal underpinnings of the case is available to journalists upon request.

Read the previous BHA press release, ‘High Court agrees to hear first ever legal challenge to new “faith” schools because of religious discrimination, Government applies to intervene against BHA’, 4 October 2012: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/1122

Read the previous BHA press release, ‘New BHA research reveals most new ‘faith’ schools opening “by the back door”’, 27 April 2012: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/1029

Read the Coalition Agreement: http://www.direct.gov.uk/prod_consum_dg/groups/dg_digitalassets/@dg/@en/documents/digitalasset/dg_187876.pdf

Read more about the British Humanist Association’s work on ‘faith’ schools: http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-schools/faith-schools

Read the BHA’s table of types of school with a religious character: http://www.humanism.org.uk/_uploads/documents/schools-with-a-religious-character.pdf

Visit Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign’s website: http://www.richmondinclusiveschools.org.uk/. For further comment or information contact Jeremy Rodell 07798 935569 or email communications@richmondinclusiveschools.org.uk.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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