The High Court has rejected a challenge to the proposed merger of a Church of England school and a school without a religious character into a single Church of England primary. A non-religious family challenged Somerset County Council’s decision to merge the schools, arguing that the complete removal of all school places outside of Christian schools discriminates against non-Christians.
The Hon Mrs Justice Steyn DBE stated that she was ‘persuaded that the decision puts people in Ilminster who have no religious belief at a particular disadvantage because they will no longer be able to send a child to a non-denominational school in Ilminster for any part of their education, whereas there is a choice of three CofE primary schools in the town’. However, it was deemed ‘that any disadvantage is very modest, and justified and proportionate to the identified aims’. This was because there is already a lack of schools with their religious character in the area. Families currently face a decision between a local religious upper school or having to travel some distance to a secondary school of no religious character. The removal of a middle school of no religious character brings the decision forward to the end of year 6, which is the additional disadvantage the judge thought was ‘modest’. But this conclusion ignores the fact that the existing system may already be unlawful.
The Equality Impact Assessment carried out by Somerset County Council addressed the protected characteristic of religion or belief by stating that ‘the proposal would safeguard access to church schools in the area as there would be no loss of places’. Yet no similar provision was made for protecting the right to access education in schools without a religious character.
The challenge was part of a wider case against the Council’s decision to change its three-tiered education system to a two-tiered model. It has proposed to merge Swanmead Community School, the only school of no religious character catering to primary age pupils in the Ilminster area, with Greenfylde Church of England First School. The result will be to create a split-site Church of England primary.
The most recent Government guidance says decision-makers should ‘consider what would best meet the needs of the local community.’ Humanists UK believes this did not happen in the current case. The latest British Social Attitudes survey shows that 99% of young adults do not belong to the Church of England and yet the school provision in this area will become 100% Church of England.
The family intend to appeal the judgment.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager, Dr Ruth Wareham commented:
‘Every young person should have the right to a pluralistic education that champions their freedom of religion or belief. But sadly, in Ilminster, this will not be possible.
‘Somerset County Council should have used this process to ensure the school provision meets the needs of their communities. We very much hope that the family succeeds in their appeal, we will be supporting them all the way.’
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Read our most recent article on the High Court case against the faith school takeover in Somerset.
Read the full High Court judgment.
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