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And God created Nigel...

Darwinians dislike him - but Ofsted thinks he's divine. Now creationist head Nigel McQuoid is to run an empire of academies with an unashamedly Christian ethos. Michael Shaw meets him

He has led two of the most controversial schools in Britain and been criticised by scientists for permitting the teaching of biblical creationism.

But inspectors have described Nigel McQuoid's leadership of the King's academy in Middlesbrough as "inspirational". And his work at his previous school, Emmanuel college in Gateshead, has been praised by figures from Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust, to Tony Blair.

Both King's and Emmanuel are sponsored by the multi-millonaire car dealer Sir Peter Vardy, who will promote Mr McQuoid in September to become director of all his schools.

Sir Peter's third school, the Trinity academy, is due to open in Doncaster, south Yorkshire, in September and he hopes to open a further four.

Mr McQuoid has faced criticism since it emerged in 2002 that Emmanuel college taught creationism alongside evolution - a move that led the progressive Bishop of Oxford to describe him as "deeply misguided".

The 45-year-old was also criticised by parents from Conisbrough in Doncaster, who met him before they campaigned, succesfully, to block a Vardy-sponsored school.

Bev Wilkes, one of the Conisbrough parents, said: "He was eloquent, but it was like listening to a car salesman."

Mr McQuoid is open about his faith. "I see a Christ who was determined, courageous, battling for the under-dog, unshakeable from his sense of mission, but was humble," he said. "My aim in life is to get as close to those values as possible."

Although Mr McQuoid believes that the Vardy schools' Christian ethos is crucial, he was attracted to work at them because they are open to pupils of all religions.

He is passionately opposed to single-faith schools. They remind him of the sectarianism that has wrecked his native Ireland and led to the murder of his uncle, who was shot dead by the IRA in 1975.

Although he has an Irish accent, he moved with his parents from Belfast to Chester when he was just 11 months old.

When he was 10 his family moved again to Glasgow, where he was severely bullied at his high school.

Mr McQuoid said his face had regularly been shoved in the toilet and that older pupils soaked him with urine-filled balloons.

"I was 10, with an English accent then, and the name Nigel," he said. "When they found out I was Irish they persecuted me for that as well."

Mr McQuoid said that his Christian faith had been another reason why he had been bullied and that it continued to draw attention when he was moved up a year and went to Glasgow university aged 16.

He hated his first job as a chartered accountant, resigning after a year to train as an English teacher. Yet his business knowledge has proved useful as a headteacher, as well as skills he picked up as chief executive of a YMCA hostel in a deprived area of Dublin.

The creationism row began two years after he became principal of Emmanuel college. He insists that his pupils are not forced to share his scepticism of evolutionary theory.

"But to think that we just evolved from a bang, that we used to be monkeys, that seems unbelievable when you look at the complexity of the human body."

he said. "If you tell children there is no purpose to their life - that they are just a chemical mutation - that doesn't build self-esteem."

Mr McQuoid faced further controversy when he became principal of the new King's academy and expelled 28 pupils in its first year. He said that, although the expulsions led to accusations he was un-Christian, they were necessary to let troublemakers know they could not break the rules.

Surprisingly, he hopes that the Vardy schools will remain controversial.

"Some of the controversies about what we are trying to do have raised debates, and we are already seeing approaches that we took the initial heat on appear in different parts of the country," he said.

As an example, he cites King's strict tariff of punishments for misdemeanours, which includes final warnings for bullying and for verbally abusing staff.

Mr McQuoid believes that the clear guidelines, and an expectation that all staff set a strong example, are responsible for creating the "inclusive, harmonious and orderly community" which inspectors described at King's.

The Vardy schools' buildings also give them an advantage.

Several other academies - including the failing Unity, not far from King's in Middlesbrough - have been hampered by bold but impractical buildings which opened years after the schools gained their new status. In contrast, the Vardy schools' modern and office-like buildings are comparatively simple and have all been completed on time.

Disgruntled former staff have referred to Mr McQuoid as a "puppet-master" who keeps an extremely close watch on his teachers.

Some of King's pupils also complain that they find the academy far stricter than their previous schools.

But not all the King's students see Mr McQuoid as a disciplinarian, with many describing him as funny and approachable. Simon Williams, aged 17, said the principal never needed to shout at pupils. "He's more subtle than that," he said.

Platform 17

Diary 17

Letters 22


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