Secularists claim Floreat merger could lead to ‘faith schools by stealth’

National Secular Society warns merger between secular and religious MATs could 'sneak in religion through the back door'

Will Hazell

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Plans to merge a secular multi-academy trust (MAT) with a Hindu one could lead to “faith schools by stealth”, the National Secular Society has claimed.

On Tuesday, Tes reported that Floreat Education Academies Trust, a secular MAT comprising three primary schools, is in merger discussions with Avanti Schools Trust, a MAT that operates five primary and two secondary Hindu faith schools.

The talks were prompted by concerns over Floreat’s financial sustainability.

Floreat’s founder, the Conservative peer and Department of Health minister Lord O’Shaughnessy, said the merged organisation would be “probably…be the first mixed MAT of its kind in terms of having the denominational and the secular schools”. He said this would fulfil a “long-term ambition” of his trust.

However, in a press statement published this afternoon, the NSS voiced concerns about the move, which it said could result in “faith schools by stealth”.

Stephen Evans, the NSS’s chief executive, said the amalgamation “risks further blurring of the distinction between secular and faith schooling".

"This will inevitably allow religious enthusiasts greater control over secular schools,” he said.

“The non-religious are already a marginalised majority within state education. Secularism, rather than multifaithism, is needed to address this."

'Sneaking in' religion

The NSS said that a merger between a secular and religious academy could provide an opportunity to “sneak in religion through the back door”. It has written to the regional schools commissioner for the South East and South London, Dominic Herrington, highlighting its concerns.

“Although Floreat founder Lord O’Shaughnessy has stated that the Floreat schools will retain their existing ethos following the merger, the NSS is unconvinced that this will be the case,” the letter states.

“Being a smaller trust currently experiencing financial difficulties, Floreat is in a weaker position than Avanti and is likely to find itself the ‘junior partner’ in all decision-making processes.

“Inclusion of Avanti trustees on the board controlling the Floreat schools will inevitably allow those with an agenda to promote a faith ethos to easily do so in the formerly secular schools.”

In the letter, the NSS points out that the Hindu Education Authority which runs Avanti has an “explicit agenda to evangelise the Hindu faith”.

The NSS also claims Avanti might use the legal requirement for “an act of collective worship” in state schools as a “back-door means to impose its religious practices on the Floreat schools, without the schools necessarily being registered with a religious character or ethos”.

The letter asks the RSC to “ensure the merger will not be permitted to take place if the Floreat schools’ secular status is found to be under threat”.

A spokeswoman for Floreat said: “As we have made clear, the proposed merger is based on a shared set of values and moral purpose. The notion of a mixed-MAT is an exciting one that will enable both us and Avanti to thrive and flourish. Our three Floreat Schools will continue as Floreat, with their own unique identities, and retaining their non-faith designated status.”

Avanti have been contacted for comment.

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Will Hazell

Will Hazell

Will Hazell is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @whazell

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