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Secularists look to EU to rule on academy conversions

Secular campaigners have complained to the European Commission after alleging schools converting to academy status are breaking EU law.

The National Secular Society (NSS) has written to Brussels, claiming that the Government's Education Bill will strip teachers of their protection against religious discrimination if a school converts to an academy.

Religious voluntary controlled (VC) schools are currently allowed to insist that one-fifth of its teachers are religious. But, as reported in The TES last week, by converting to academy status these schools will be able insist that all their staff is religious.

The changes, contained in the bill, will see VC schools gain the same powers as voluntary-aided (VA) schools and the ability to give preference in appointments and promotions to those whose "religious opinions" match the school.

The society argues that because the Coalition aims to make academy schools the "norm" across England, thousands of religious schools will gain the new powers and therefore teachers' jobs will be in jeopardy.

In a letter to the European Commission, NSS lawyers Beachcroft state: "In respect of each of VA, VC and community schools converting into academies, there are strong grounds to believe that the Government's proposals are a breach of its legal obligations to protect teachers (and others) from discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, set out in the (EU) directive."

The Department for Education said the Education Bill would simply allow academies to mirror the switch from VC to VA that schools can already make.

But the NSS refutes this. "Our legal advice is clear that communities, voluntary controlled and voluntary aided schools converting to academies are all likely to breach the EU employment directive," the society's executive director Keith Porteous Wood said.

"The non-religious staff of transferring community school staff will lose important protections and discretionary powers."

A Church of England spokesperson told The TES last week: "All the bill does is appropriately carry forward conditions which applied in voluntary schools into academies. Nothing has fundamentally changed."

CATHOLIC SCHOOLS

'MEDDLING' JIBE TO WOO RCS

Catholic schools will be able to avoid "unsympathetic meddling" from secularists by converting to academy status, education secretary Michael Gove said this week.

Writing in this week's Catholic Herald, Mr Gove said a Catholic school would "remain true to its Catholic traditions" by opting out of local authority control. He also urged parents who supported academy reform to "make their voices heard" as schools consider the opportunity.

Mr Gove's comments came as Catholic Education Service for England and Wales gave the green light for schools to convert to academy status.

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