The teachers who must have faith

Observations on education

When St Paul's Roman Catholic High School in Glasgow told David McNab, an atheist maths teacher, that his application for a pastoral-care post had been blocked because the job was reserved for Catholics, he took the matter to an employment tribunal, and won.

The tribunal ruled that the school's decision breached Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantee freedom of religion and prohibit discrimination, and awarded McNab £2,000.

What looked like a victory for freedom of conscience, however, has turned out differently, with the Catholic Church tightening its grip on appointments.

The tribunal heard that the Church has a list of "reserved" posts which can be filled only by candidates it has approved. The list includes headteachers, deputy heads, religious education teachers and "principal guidance teachers", who are expected to toe the line on sensitive issues such as contraception.

The Church, it emerged, could also bar teachers who have divorced and remarried, as well as those who send their children to non-Catholic schools.

In the McNab case, the Church argued that the post he was seeking was the equivalent of a "guidance teacher", and so it was entitled to reject him. The employment tribunal did not accept this - hence the compensation - but it did accept the principle that there could be reserved posts.

Seizing on this latter point, the Scottish Catholic Education Service now wants to create more reserved posts, in effect barring non-Catholics from more jobs. The director of the service, Michael McGrath, has been quoted as saying he noted with interest "the tribunal's finding that all appointments to all posts in Catholic schools require the approval of the Catholic Church . . . This finding is in accord with the view of the Church"; all local authorities have been advised accordingly.

As Catholicism is supposed to run across the curriculum, this could cover all posts, at any rate in primary schools. "You can't teach religious education in a Catholic school without being of the Catholic faith and having a complete knowledge of and commitment to that practice," said McGrath.

This could have widespread repercussions. Tony Blair's new Education and Inspections Bill will create many more schools in which religious bodies will be able to ensure that only believers get top jobs. According to the Department for Education and Skills guide to the bill, "foundations" will be allowed to buy into schools and appoint most of their governors. Many of the organisations wanting to be foundations are religious bodies - which will then be able to control the make-up of the teaching staff.

McNab may have won a personal victory, but judging from what we know about the education bill for England and Wales, there will not be many more like it. For more of our teachers, a religious faith will be a career requirement.