The full text of the decision of Mr Justice Sales in the High Court on the recent case brought by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign (RISC) against proposals for two new discriminatory Roman Catholic schools has today been published.
RISC and the BHA sought to challenge plans because a new law (‘section 6A’) states that ‘If a local authority in England think a new school needs to be established in their area, they must seek proposals for the establishment of an Academy’ (which in this context, means a Free School). This would have been preferable from the BHA and RISC’s point of view because such a school could only select up to 50% of pupils on religious grounds, whereas the current plan is for the schools to select up to 100% of pupils on that basis.
The BHA and RISC believed that the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, the Council where the schools are to be based, had made repeatedly clear that they thought the new schools were needed. The BHA and RISC thought this because:
- The Council purchased a site for the schools, at a cost of £8.45 million, and immediately invited the Catholic Church to put forward proposals for its use. In a press release announcing the purchase, the leader of the Council, Conservative peer Lord True, said ‘We have a growing need for more school places in the Twickenham area. This administration is acting decisively to address that need.’ The leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition grouping on the Council had to agree to this purchase for it to take place, and only did so because the Council told him that the site would be used to meet the need for additional school places.
- When the Council consulted on what to do with the site, Lord True said in a press release that in the consultation document, ‘we have provided a full background as to why a Catholic secondary school is necessary in this borough’.
- In the consultation document, under the heading ‘The Council’s position to date’, the Council had a section entitled ‘Requirement for a Catholic school in borough’.
As a consequence, the BHA and RISC believed that the Council was wrong to ignore the new law in approving the schools. They also believed the consultation on which the decision was based, and the Council’s statements and actions in the preceding months, led respondents into believing that the Council thought the schools were needed.
However, Mr Justice Sales concluded that ‘in my view… it is clear that Lord True was not addressing the technical question of “need” as that term is used in section 6A, but was speaking more generally about the desirability of introducing Catholic schools into the borough. ’ Mr Justice Sales defined ‘need’ in the section 6A sense as being stronger than a Council merely thinking it beneficial to set up a new school, and accepted the Council’s arguments that in spite of Lord True’s statements, in this case it only thought the schools were beneficial, but not actually needed. Mr Justice Sales also concluded that the statements were unlikely to have misled the public.
Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove intervened in the case and last month it was revealed that Vince Cable, the MP for Twickenham, where the new schools will be based, wrote to Liberal Democrat Schools Minister David Laws, saying that the intervention in the case against the BHA and RISC broke the Coalition Agreement. The Agreement commits the Government to ‘work with faith groups to enable more faith schools and facilitate inclusive admissions policies in as many of these schools as possible.’
RISC coordinator Jeremy Rodell said, ‘Anyone who has followed this locally knows that the leaders of Richmond Council have been arguing for 18 months that there is a compelling need for this highly exclusive Catholic school. They have given away to the church the borough’s only currently-available site, despite rapidly growing demand for secondary school places in the coming years. It is deeply disappointing that they have been able to persuade a judge that they did not think this school was “needed” and that they did not lead local people to believe that was their position.’
BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘As a result of Michael Gove’s intervention into this case, this ruling gives religious groups carte blanche to collaborate with councils to open fully selective schools outside of competition. This highly undemocratic, highly discriminatory route is already in practice the easiest way in which religious groups can open new schools and now it has the seal of approval from a Government whose Coalition Agreement should mandate the opposite. The ruling has not just failed to progress inclusivity in schools, but in fact it has set the whole debate back, leading to more discrimination in the school system than before.
‘We are heartened by Vince Cable’s support for increased inclusivity, and by a recent survey showing that the public opposes faith-based selection in state schools by more than four to one, but naturally disappointed not to have been successful in this case. Nonetheless, the coverage generated around the case was fantastic, and we will continue to find ways to give expression to the widespread public support for an end to religious discrimination in our state institutions.’
The BHA and RISC have decided not to appeal the ruling, not only because of the costs but also because any appeal would come too late to affect the Richmond schools, which are due to open in September 2013.
Read the full judgement: http://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Richmond-judgement.pdf
Read the previous press release, ‘Vince Cable accuses Michael Gove’s officials of breaking Coalition Agreement on ‘faith’ school admissions’: https://humanism.org.uk/news/view/1150
A survey by the Accord Coalition published on 12 Novemberfound that 73% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that ‘state funded schools should not be allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions policy’, while only 18% disagreed. Read the Accord press release, ‘Nearly three quarters of the British public disagrees with religious selection in admissions at state funded schools’: http://accordcoalition.org.uk/2012/11/12/nearly-three-quarters-of-the-british-public-disagrees-with-religious-selection-in-admissions-at-state-funded-schools/
Read the Coalition Agreement: http://www.direct.gov.uk/prod_consum_dg/groups/dg_digitalassets/@dg/@en/documents/digitalasset/dg_187876.pdf
Read more about the British Humanist Association’s work on ‘faith’ schools: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-schools/faith-schools
Read the BHA’s table of types of school with a religious character: https://humanism.org.uk/_uploads/documents/schools-with-a-religious-character.pdf
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.