A planned code of conduct for teachers risks imposing a “test of professional commitment to secularism”, a leading employment lawyer says.
John Bowers QC, editor of a top employment law textbook, says the draft code does not do enough to safeguard the religious liberty of Christian teachers.
It could “lead to a ‘chilling effect’, creating a culture where teachers hide their faith, fearing adverse consequences”, he says.
The Church of England, The Catholic Education Service and the Association of Christian Teachers have raised similar concerns.
The draft code has been prepared by the General Teaching Council for England (GTCE). It says all teachers must “promote equality and value diversity”.
Christian teachers are concerned that ‘valuing diversity’ will mean that even answering students’ questions about faith could result in disciplinary action including dismissal.
John Bowers QC says: “There is a real risk, with the current drafting, that teachers may consider that the new code requires them to promote actively (rather than merely present neutrally) a set of beliefs which is not consistent with their own.”
He says: “While the draft code of conduct purports to protect religious beliefs from discrimination, we do not consider that the draft code of conduct sufficiently balances the need to accommodate the expression of religious beliefs.”
The GTCE says it has based its wording on the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s code of conduct, the same code which last month resulted in a nurse being sacked for advising a patient to go to church to relieve stress.
Earlier this year the nursing code also resulted in a Christian nurse being suspended for offering to pray for a patient.
The GTCE’s proposed code would also apply outside of school. Mr Bowers says: “it is conceivable that a head teacher, who is also a local lay preacher, might be targeted by gay lobby groups for a sermon on marriage given in the local church, the recording of which is accessible from the church website.”
The draft code could also have implications for applicants to teaching posts, student teachers, and those hoping to join teacher training courses.
In Mr Bowers’ opinion, if the code when adopted is contrary to the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003 or the Human Rights Act 1998 then it may be possible to launch a judicial review of the GTCE.
Colin Hart, Director of The Christian Institute, said: “This proposed code of conduct may undermine social cohesion by pitting those of different religious and ethical views against one another. It could also lead to a string of divisive disciplinary cases.
“This could have a devastating effect on individual committed teachers and the wider profession. As the Director of a charity representing historic orthodox Christianity, and also as a former teacher, this is a matter of serious concern.”