Legislative Scrutiny: Equality Bill - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the Archbishop's Council Board of Education and the National Society


  The JHCR's work programme for 2008-09 includes consideration of recent school guidance documents issued by the DCSF as they relate to Articles 8 and 9 of the European Code of Human Rights. The documents cover aspects such as admissions, discrimination on grounds of religious belief and school uniform policies. In the main, two documents underpin the commentary. They are:

    — The Schools Admissions Code (2009); and

    — Guidance for Schools—The Equality Act 2006, Part 2: Discrimination on Grounds of Religion or Belief.

  This paper provides a commentary on these and related issues as they affect the day to day work of Church of England Schools.


  We (the Board of Education and The National Society) support the tenets and aspirations of equality legislation and frameworks that establish fairness. Our general approach is outlined in the Church of England's response to proposals for a Single Equality Bill for Great Britain (2007). Our schools seek to achieve full legal compliance and to recognise that legislation is only part of what is needed to address all aspects of sensitive and complex issues. In addition, therefore, we endeavour to establish working arrangements which achieve both Christian distinctiveness and clarity of values. The former are regularly assessed through the SIAS inspection arrangements and the latter are described clearly via a new website to be launched in May 2009.

  We view the various pieces of legislation and ensuing guidance as supportive of, and complementary to, our rationale for the Church of England's role as a major provider of schools. The current practice of describing all schools with a religious ethos as `faith schools' tends unnecessarily to polarise the distinction between different kinds of publicly funded schools and to gloss over the very significant differences which exist even among schools with a religious ethos. On the first point it obscures the fact that schools are all subject to the national curriculum, to inspection by OFSTED and to a wide range of requirements set down by the Department of for Children Schools and Families. On the second it does not do justice to the variety of approaches taken by the various faiths and denominations in relation to the balance between distinctiveness and inclusiveness.

  The Church of England is committed to providing schools that are distinctive and inclusive. That is why our schools continue to be for those of no faith, those of other faiths and those of the Christian faith. We remain determined to operate fairly, inclusively and with full regard to human rights.


  We welcome the opportunity to comment on some aspects of current operational practice as they affect the 4,800 Church of England schools. These are:

1.  Admissions

  We regard the Code as a significant and valuable improvement on previous unregulated practice. We fully support its propositions and procedures. The Schools Adjudicator recently noted that there was no wilful non compliance with the Code in our schools. We nevertheless recognise that there are still some features in a minority of admissions policies that need to be addressed.

  Practical issues usually revolve around oversubscription criteria and definitions of faith membership. These matters place significant responsibility on "religious authorities" (ie the Dioceses) and, whereas we have no difficulty with the underpinning concept of fairness, we would welcome greater clarity and definition. This will help to resolve the unease arising from the fear of litigation.

2.  Education in Accordance with Religious Belief

  We strongly support the right of parents to choose, and for pupils to have access to, schools of a religious character that matches their beliefs and faith. This assertion is based on a) our historical/cultural heritage (the Church of England has been a major provider of schools with a Christian distinctiveness for centuries) and b) the "right" established under Article 9 of ECHR.

  We recognise that in a multi-cultural and multi faith society there is a need to accommodate other faiths and religions and so we are active partners in cross faith ventures such as `Faith in the System'. We do, however, assert and defend the nation's Christian background. This leads to the desire to expand, develop and improve the C of E school sector. The main thrust of expansion is currently in the secondary sector where we aspire to create a secondary place for all families who want one. This is not a stance against equality but a definite move towards fair access as a right.

3.  Popularity of C of E Schools

  Our schools are undoubtedly popular and highly regarded both among Christians and non Christians. This is in part due to their distinctive ethos and general success in teaching and learning. It also suggests that there is a thirst for diversity and genuine choice. We will continue to support this appetite and view it as a key component of a culturally rich and diverse society.

  We also note that our schools often serve whole communities (eg inner city wards) and areas where real choice cannot be exercised (eg rural villages) and so we are constantly mindful of the challenge to achieve genuine inclusivity and respect for wide ranging cultural and family norms.

4.  Direct and Indirect Discrimination

  We are mindful of the fine line that our schools need to tread in balancing the rights of individuals and families with the right of organisations to express clear values and principles. The current guidance and codes provide a good framework and we endeavour to support our schools in exercising good judgement on sensitive matters.

5.  Faith Schools

  As noted above, although this term is now widely used in codes and guidance documents we do not find it helpful. It is too wide and vague in meaning and has fuelled an unhelpfully polemical debate. We continue to refer to our schools as "Church Schools" or "C of E Schools", terms which, though traditional are entirely compatible with equality and human rights concerns.

6.  Exceptions for Schools of a Religious Character

  Section 49 of part 2 of The Equality Act 2006 defines exemptions for schools of religious character. The associated guidance document elaborates on these in practice. We positively note that the guidance says "it was never the intention of part 2 of the Equality Bill to undermine [the role played by distinct religious ethos and character and the part they play in diversity of provision]".

  The provisions made in this section were strongly and correctly argued for at the time of the legislation and we see no case for reviewing them, still less changing them after such a short period of time. We recognise, of course, that exceptions can, unless handled wisely prompt schools to become inward looking. Our thrust is to ensure that Church of England schools continue to be outward looking We support them in achieving this through practical support guidance and training.

7.  Curriculum Issues

  Similar comments apply to those made in paragraph 6 above. The guidance provided results from a strongly argued case at the time of the legislation and meets our requirements. It enables schools to strike the right balance between their distinctiveness and the needs of the national curriculum. Schools are becoming increasingly adept at this and it would be wrong to consider changing the guidance at this early stage, particularly when such criticism as there is appears to derive from ideological objections rather than practical examples of difficulties.

8.  Collective Worship

  We fully support the provisions which require, under other legislation, pupils to participate in a daily act of collective worship which should be broadly Christian in nature. We accept the right of parents to withdraw their children from this activity. We recognise the additional features associated with independent schools and Academies.

  Taken as a whole we feel that the current arrangements remain fit for purpose. We would oppose attempts to change them.

9.  Exclusions

  We support the guidance on exclusions which regards this as a tool of last resort. We endorse entirely the legislation making it unlawful to exclude on the basis of religious belief (or lack of it).

  Exclusion of one pupil often involves a judgement about protecting the right of others to learn. Schools exercise this difficult judgement on a daily basis and we feel strongly that guidance and legislation must take an all round perspective on this issue. Both the best interests of the miscreant and the best interests of the whole school community must be protected, and this is implicit in the human rights code.

10.  School Uniform

  The current guidance is sensible and we advocate strongly to our schools that observance of the mores of various religious, social or racial groups is essential.

  We note, however, the need for pragmatism in this respect. If a pupils dress puts at risk safety, or the ability to fully identify a pupil, a judgement must be made on priorities and we feel more guidance on interpretation would be beneficial.

11.  Victimisation, Harassment and Bullying

  Our stance on these aspects is unequivocal and entirely in line with current guidance. These characteristics are not acceptable in a community based on Christian principles.

  We would not wish to see any change here, except to note that guidance and clarification would be helpful in the difficult cases where the accuser irrationally embellishes or uses false or exaggerated claims to achieve their own ends. Anecdotal feedback from schools suggests this form of reverse accusation is on the increase.

12.  Employment

  We fully support and provide guidance for our schools on current legislation and good employment practice.

  We are currently exercised by attempts in the new draft Code of Conduct for Teachers (GTC 2009) to enable school managers to discipline staff who may be acting out of conscience. This is a difficult area where the drive for community cohesion and equality may clash with issues of conscience. How, for example, should a teacher who on grounds of religious conviction is opposed to sexual relationships between people of the same gender be expected to handle such a subject in the course of teaching? Clearly with sensitivity and respect for the law. But to place such a person, of whatever faith or denomination they may be, in a position where they might be expected to promote a viewpoint that conflicted with their religious conviction is unnecessary and unwise.

  We would be happy to work with others to provide clear guidance on difficult ethical issues which can affect employment discipline.

13.  Disability, Race, Gender, Sexual Orientation

  We fully endorse current guidance on all these matters and suggest that they also encompass some of the difficult ethical balancing acts suggested in the paragraphs above.

  Balancing human rights requirements with legislative perspectives and guidance often leads to complex ethical dilemmas. We urge that more thought and guidance is required and would be pleased to contribute to discussions on this.

14.  Monitoring

  There is a need for increasing levels of "light touch" monitoring and evaluation of the issues described above. The current model of SIAS inspections used in Church of England Schools could be further developed to provide more information. Likewise, inspection techniques currently being developed by OFSTED to gauge the effectiveness of community cohesion policies could be developed for the purpose.


  Our experience and commentary is largely supportive of the current position and we feel the tension between the Code of Human Rights (articles 8 and 9) and current guidance is reasonable. The issue is one of practical management and wise judgement.

  We do feel, however, that at central level more work needs to be done to ensure parity of understanding between our schools, dioceses and the local authorities in which they sit. All too often we find on issues related to the special character of our sector, particularly for the voluntary aided schools, that local authorities act without due regard for the special provisions. This can have a significant impact on aspects covered in this paper which leads to misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict.

April 2009

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