Ministers have been called on to review an English law that allows faith schools to discriminate against teachers due to their sex, marital status or sexuality.
The British equalities body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), wants the Department for Education to review the School Standards and Framework Act.
The act allows schools to dismiss or refuse to hire teachers if they believe their conduct is incompatible with a school’s religious ethos – even when this conduct is protected under the 2010 Equality Act.
This month, it was reported that Lyndon Strong, acting headteacher at St Mary’s Catholic Primary, in Hampshire, was told by the Bishop of Portsmouth that he had to leave his job, because he had been divorced. He was also informed that he could not apply for the permanent headteacher post.
Accord Coalition, a campaigning group for inclusive education, has collated cases of other teachers affected by the existing laws (see box, below).
The EHRC said: “It is important that we ensure teachers are able to pursue their careers without unjustifiable limitations being placed upon them.”
Under existing law, voluntary-controlled schools are allowed to consider “fitness to preserve and develop the religious character” of a school when making head appointments, while voluntary-aided schools are allowed to consider “conduct incompatible with the precepts or with the upholding of tenets” of the school, in relation to all teaching staff.
An EHRC report published earlier this month, Religion or belief: is the law working? concluded that these exceptions “seem to go beyond what is lawful in the EU Employment Equality Directive”.
A spokesperson from the National Secular Society echoed the EHRC’s concerns, saying: “The degree to which discrimination against teachers is tolerated in state-funded faith schools would be totally unacceptable in all other areas of public life.”
The society has called on the government to amend the current law relating to the employment of teachers, “to ensure that they cannot be unreasonably discriminated against on religious, or any other grounds, in faith schools”.
Paul Barber, director of the Catholic Education Service, pointed out that 49 per cent of teachers in Catholic schools do not share their school’s religion.
“You don’t have to be a Catholic to work in a Catholic school,” he said. But he added that the EHRC report recognised it was important that senior leadership roles – such as headteacher and head of RE – should be reserved for practising members of the school’s religion.
However, a DfE spokesperson said that current legislation was compatible with EU directives and that it would be up to an employment tribunal to decide whether individual schools had acted unlawfully. “It is important that faith schools are able to maintain their particular religious ethos,” he said. “Employment, equality and human rights law applies to the employment practices of all schools, which must act reasonably and proportionately.”