THE NATIONAL SECULAR SOCIETY & JAMES BRUNT vs THE VALE OF GLAMORGAN COUNCIL

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“It is highly disappointing that the council, by its own admission, without any reference to religious demographics whatsoever, and without any attempt to predict future demand, has decided to increase the provision of faith school places in the Vale of Glamorgan.”


Yes. Rather disappointingly, we have been refused permission for a Judicial Review hearing; where we intended to assert that the Vale of Glamorgan Council breached not only its own Public Sector Equality Duty, but Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 and two significant European human rights Conventions. We additionally and specifically alleged that they failed in this regard largely as a result of their irrational methodology which fundamentally underpinned the decision to expand a Church in Wales faith school; as opposed to another non-religious, community school.

Our objections were specific and well-founded, and here, I attempt to explain the rationale behind them. Firstly, we argued, with logic and reason, that the Vale of Glamorgan Council failed to consider the impact of this decision on families of other faiths – including those of no religion – and that they used unjustifiable methodology to predict future demand for Church in Wales school places.

Throughout the Consultation and various Integrated Impact Assessments, the Vale of Glamorgan Council relied on a ‘calculation’ that demand for Church in Wales places would be 52% of the total requirement generated by new local housing developments; namely 69 out of 132 new primary places. This ‘calculation’ could not have been more primitive; the Council simply used existing provision as a proxy for determining future need, taking absolutely no account of actual levels of religious observance in the area, and making no attempt to ‘forecast’, whatsoever.

Essentially, 52% of current primary places in the Cowbridge Comprehensive catchment area were – at the time of the decision – in primary schools of a Christian character, and future demand was, therefore and incorrectly, extrapolated to be precisely the same. This is neither forecasting, nor is it rational, and it completely ignores that fact that provision in this catchment is already four times higher than the all-Wales average.

Further, given that over the last four decades, the percentage of the population identifying as Christian has fallen dramatically, and that the non-religious now constitute a majority, utilising historic demand as a proxy for future requirements is neither plausible, nor accurate. Moreover, it matters not what the figures are, in real terms, in 2018; merely being able to show that religious observance is not static over time, should be argument enough to at least compel any noble decision-maker to analyse these evolving trends; rather than discounting them entirely.

The National Secular Society and James Brunt vs Vale of Glamorgan Council

Further still, the Vale of Glamorgan Council, in a rather extraordinary response to a Freedom of Information request, went as far as admitting;

“We do not take religious demographics or data into account when predicting demand for religious schools.”

This statement is not contested by the Vale of Glamorgan, nor by the Judge who presided over the hearing. Nor did they contest our allegation that they failed to use any rational method – nor any method actually – to statistically predict future demand for primary places, using demographic or religious data.

We, however, did rather more research.

As one can appreciate from the following table, the provision of faith schools in the Vale of Glamorgan, and the Western Vale specifically, is extremely high.


Total Primary SchoolsChristian Faith SchoolsPercentage Faith

Cowbridge Comprehensive Catchment
10660%
Western Vale17741.17%
Pembrokeshire611727.87%
Conwy561526.79%
Monmouthshire34926.47%
V of G511325.49%
Wrexham661624.24%
Torfaen31722.58%
Cardiff1152420.87%
Denbighshire531120.75%
Flintshire741317.57%
Newport51815.69%
Merthyr Tydfil26415.38%
Gwynedd991212.12%
Neath PT61711.48%
Powys901011.11%
Bridgend57610.53%
Carmarthenshire10798.41%
RCT11087.27%
Isle of Anglesey4436.82%
Swansea9366.45%
Blaenau Gwent2214.55%
Ceredigion4624.35%
Caerphilly8311.20%

SOURCE: https://statswales.gov.wales/Catalogue/Education-and-Skills/Schools-and-Teachers/Schools-Census/Pupil-Level-Annual-School-Census

Further, from this data we can conclude that the all-Wales average faith school percentage at primary level is 14.13%, and, by expansion, that the provision in the Western Vale is three times that figure.

“It is therefore wholly obvious that there is no other local authority in Wales where the choice for those seeking non-religious primary education – as do I – is as restricted as the Western Vale.”

However, in isolation, these statistics, which seemingly indicate disproportionately high faith school provision, could be insignificant. Perhaps there is an unidentified cause? Perhaps the Vale of Glamorgan is significantly more religious than the rest of Wales?

No actually. It isn’t.

The Vale of Glamorgan, using data from the last census, has a Christian population of 58.1%, which is almost entirely analogous with the all-Wales average extracted from the same dataset, of 57.6%. [By every measure, these percentages have fallen significantly since 2011, but we will accept them here, for this purpose.]

SOURCE: https://statswales.gov.wales/Catalogue/Equality-and-Diversity/Religion/Census-2011/religion-by-populationcharacteristic-localauthorit

Once these statistics are analysed in parallel with the geographic incidence of faith schools, and without considerable effort, one can easily contend that the provision of schools of a religious character in the Western Vale is already disproportionately high; and, by extension, that any argument for additional community school places is, after all, rather well-founded.

So, given that that religiosity in the Western Vale is almost identical to the national average, and that faith school provision, at 41.17%, is almost three times the all-Wales figure, a significant conclusion-jump is required to approve more faith school places.

For any rational decision maker to contend that additional faith schools are warranted in this instance they have to be able to conclude that demand for faith schools amongst non-religious families is almost three times greater than everywhere else in Wales! Clearly, that is a enormous and significant assumption, and one that cannot be made without reasonable evidence. Although, seemingly, it can.

Further, in their 2018 Consultation regarding the relocation of Llancarfan School – specifically in the Equality Impact Assessment on page 13/29 – the Vale of Glamorgan Council stated, when attempting to analyse the percentage split of those children emanating from new housing developments, that;

The protected characteristics of future new residents emanating from the proposed new development are unknown.” and “The protected characteristics of future occupiers of the school cannot be known.”

Clearly, these statements are both logical and true, and, rather pertinently, illustrate our point perfectly. In the Council’s own words, the protected characteristics of the residents who will – at some point in the future – occupy these new housing developments cannot be known. Yet, in the St David’s Consultation, the Council, using egregious methods, claim, somehow, that it can.


HHJ, Judge Swift, during the permission hearing, acknowledged that using methodology which merely took the current situation as a proxy for future demand, was not a particularly rational approach. He stated that the Council could not know – using this method – whether this extrapolation actually provided an accurate forecast, or whether it was simply indicative of the historic locations of church schools, and, therefore meaningless.

However – and it’s a big however – HHJ Swift ruled that as the decision-maker, the Vale of Glamorgan Council were at liberty to decide how to calculate future demand for these faith school places. Further, he stated that whilst one does not have to necessarily agree with the decision – nor the rationale [or indeed absence thereof] behind it – he was minded to permit the decision made by the Council to stand unchallenged.

Plainly, this is a disappointing decision; for us, for logic and for reason.

Our statistical argument was, and remains strong. The Council’s methodology – pertaining to the future predication of demand for religious schooling – remains non-existent. Seemingly, to give ‘due regard’, a local authority is merely required to state, in no more that a few words, that it has done so. The threshold for due diligence, for a local authority when making a decision of this magnitude, is so frustratingly low.

If all decision-makers applied this artless, regressive logic, nothing would ever change! We would all remain perpetually entrenched in historic and irrelevant infrastructures!”


The Choice Delusion

So, why can’t we let the public decide?

Rather than simply declaring a binary choice in any public consultation of this type – a new faith school or no new school at all – surely it is not beyond the wit of man to publicise a third option?

Would people prefer a community school without a strong religious ethos? Would people prefer a school that taught the national curriculum in all subjects? Would people prefer a school where children were not indoctrinated in Christian worship and Christian teaching for almost three hours every week? [and up to 9 hours per week seasonally?]

Logically and rationally, no publicly-appointed decision-maker could possibly be criticised for attempting to provide what the populace democratically embraces. The only conceivable obstacles to this benevolent goal – insofar as we can contend – are lethargy on behalf of the decision-maker, the furtherance of a specific and as yet undeclared agenda, or significant external pressures by invested third parties.

If parents are given the choice between a new faith school, or no school, of course they are going to choose the former. Equally, if the populace are indeed in favour of building new faith schools – rather than community schools – then these particular decision-makers have nothing to fear. However, if there is the slightest possibility that parents would rather see a new community school being built, surely, there is no harm in letting them decide in a three-way ballot, is there? That’s democracy, isn’t it?


The Problem with Faith Schools

So, what exactly is my problem with faith schools?

Faith schools occupy a rather unique and privileged position in our legal system. They are entirely exempt from Section 85 of the Equality Act 2010, and consequently they are legally permitted to discriminate on the grounds of religion and belief when recruiting staff and enrolling pupils. They are additionally exempt – by virtue of the 1944 Education Act – from teaching the national curriculum in religious education. Therefore, the vast majority of these faith schools teach only what is prescribed in the Scheme of Work for RE issued by the Church in Wales or the Catholic Education Service; highly partisan and biased syllabi which, in terms of substance, and by the admission of Headteachers and Diocesan Education Departments, is around 90% Christian. Moreover, and again by their own admission, they teach everything – everything – from a basis of Christianity, and with more than a passing inference of truth.

[You can find our analysis of the Church in Wales Scheme of Work for RE here; we calculated Christian content at 87.85%]

This was corroborated by correspondence received in January 2020, from a Headteacher of a voluntary aided Church in Wales school in North Wales, which – verbatim – stated:

“Whilst we do include other religions in our curriculum, I would estimate 90% of our RE is Christianity.”

Further:

“Other religions we study are Judaism and Islam…..however these religions are merely compared with Christianity. We only consider common beliefs…..rather than studying them in any great depth.”

Plainly, these RE curricula are neither pluralistic nor objective, and nor do they encourage diversity, tolerance or critical thinking. Whilst I understand that this is perfect for certain parents which share these beliefs, State parties are not permitted to indoctrinate. Currently, one can, in theory, withdraw one’s children from religious education, but in 2021, that right is being rescinded; and it is this legislative change that will generate numerous and significant human rights implications. Faith schools will likely remain permitted to teach religious education however they choose, yet children, in these state-funded schools – will not be able to withdraw from it.

In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR] heard a seminal case; namely Folgero v/ Norway. Briefly, the Norwegian Government tried and failed to introduce a new curriculum where preponderant weight was given to Christianity in state-funded schools.  The ECtHR ruled that a level of Christianity considered to be excessive, therefore non-pluralistic, and therefore unlawful, was approximately fifty percent.  A figure significantly inferior to that of Christian teaching in state-funded schools of a religious character in Wales.

The Welsh Government is legally obligated to prevent the indoctrination children in any specific religious belief, however the removal of the right of withdrawal from religious education will effectively create a compulsory curriculum in a state-funded education system. Indeed, domestic and international courts have declared in numerous rulings that any such curriculum has to be pluralistic and objective. The Welsh Government cannot continue to permit the teaching of, for example the Church in Wales RE curriculum – that is 90% Christian – without breaching numerous human rights conventions, including but not limited to Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [UNCRC], and Article 2, Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights [ECHR].

Plainly, and before it becomes compulsory, the Church in Wales and the Catholic Education Service Schemes of Work for RE have to change; the ECtHR have already ruled that fifty-percent Christianity is too high in a compulsory, state-funded religious education curriculum, and these are ninety-percent. Interestingly, the ECtHR additionally ruled, in the Folgero case, that the notion that parents could have their children educated in other types of schools would not dispense the State from its obligation to safeguard pluralism in all State schools which are open to everyone. 

Educational reform in faith schools has to happen, and it has to happen fast. But will it? And will it happen voluntarily? Or will litigation be necessary? Watch this space.

Finally, you’ll be pleased to know……..

So, yes, we did object to the utterly irrational methodology that underpinned the decision by the Vale of Glamorgan to build a new Church in Wales School in the Western Vale, and we did attempt, through judicial process, to have that decision overturned . What we were not doing, however, was objecting to the building of a new school per se; merely the religious character of it. We have shown beyond doubt, that the Western Vale has a higher incidence of faith schools than every other local authority, and by expansion, that the choice here, for non-religious parents is more restricted than anywhere else in Wales. By further expansion, my children’s access to a pluralistic and objective religious education curriculum, that teaches all worldviews and all belief systems, is similarity restricted.

Faith schools do not teach the national curriculum in RE, and nor are they legally obliged to. Church in Wales schools teach a virtually entirely monotheistic scheme of work that is neither plural nor objective, despite platitudes to the contrary. Next year, and unless educational reform rapidly occurs, my children could potentially be placed in a situation where the State indoctrinates them into Christianity. That’s not OK with me, nor is it OK by the ECtHR.

Should we ever reach the point where my children are obligated to learn from a compulsory religious education curriculum, that is, by the standards set out by the ECtHR, neither pluralistic not objective, my barrister and I will be on the first train to Strasbourg!

This article has been fact checked, but if you spot a mistake, please send an email with reasons for your corrections to james@jamesbrunt.co.uk


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