Academies may breach staff protection laws

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Faith schools that insist their teachers come from a specific religious background could be breaking EU employment laws, according to lawyers.

Law firm, Beachcroft LLP, claims that grounds exist in the proposals contained in the education bill, setting up academies independent of local authorities, that breach legal obligations to protect teachers from religious discrimination.

Education secretary, Michael Gove, announced plans last year to allow all primary, secondary and special schools in England to apply for academy status. As part of this, he plans to increase the quota of staff hired on religious grounds at the new academies from 20% to 100%, potentially forcing existing staff out of a job.

There are now 442 academies across the country, of which 171 are schools that have converted to academy status.

But the National Secular Society says it has taken legal advice which concluded that the transfer of community and faith schools is in breach of the EU employment directive.

Non-religious staff in community state schools have statutory protections against discrimination on the grounds of their religion, the society said. This includes the right not to have to take religious education lessons or conduct religious assemblies. It claimed that this protection is lost if a school becomes an academy.

Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said: "The statutory protections on which the jobs of hundreds of thousands of non-religious teaching and support staff depend will be clandestinely removed when they transfer to academies.

"Staff should be treated with equal respect whatever their faith or lack of it and not be forced into pretending to hold beliefs that they do not have, in order to retain their jobs.

"This has the potential to be the most serious erosion of religion and belief employment rights of staff that I have ever seen. It is even more disgraceful given that these academies are funded by the taxpayer, not religious bodies."

The society added that there is also currently a 20 per cent limit in the proportion of staff that a faith school controlled by the local authority can require to be religious.

It claimed that under the Education Bill making its way through Parliament, this limit would be raised to 100 per cent, removing protections for non-religious staff.

however, the Department of Education has said it is confident the proposals do not breach any domestic or European law.

The education bill is currently working its way through the Commons. MPs will begin scrutinising the bill on a clause-by-clause basis in committee stage on March 1st.

The society said it has written to both the Government and the European Commission setting out its findings and to make a formal complaint.

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