Good faith vs bad science

What matters more: that a free school has a textbook educational profile or that it has a creationist perspective? Michael Gove will soon be facing this very modern dilemma. David Rogers reports

There is, in Sheffield, a school that is doing pretty much everything that Michael Gove wants from a free school. Parents helping out with courses and all aspects of the school's day-to-day life? Check. A completely committed teaching staff? That as well. A distinct and individual curriculum designed specifically for the school? Yup. Small class sizes? Tick. In a poor area? The percentage of people claiming income support here is nearly double that of the city average.

It is, above all, the website of Bethany School adds, a "small, friendly school based upon Christian and family principles".

In Bethany's last inspection report, the Bridge Schools Inspectorate, which carries out reports into faith schools, said: "Both the quality of the curriculum and teaching are good, and both have outstanding features. Pupils respond well to the calm and ordered atmosphere set by the staff so their behaviour is outstanding." It sounds just the sort of thing that would impress almost anyone, let alone die-hard Tories.

In fact, it sounds so much like a free school that it has decided to apply to become one, 25 years after it first opened as a self-financing independent.

Becoming a free school would send its annual #163;150,000 budget rocketing, seeing its teachers paid a decent wage and allowing it to fulfil long-held ambitions and expand across the city.

"We run this school ourselves - answer telephones, clean it, put up shelves. Whoever's in the office is the receptionist. You name it, we do it," says 61-year-old headteacher Ken Walze (pictured, opposite), who happily admits that his pay is just #163;18,000 a year and laughs that teachers' pensions are something he can't strike about because he's never had one.

There is a snag, though, to this do-it-yourself fable. And it's a big one. A whopper, in fact. The entire curriculum is "taught through a creationist perspective".

Mr Walze and his staff, you see, ardently believe that the world is tens of thousands of years old - not billions - and that it was created by God in six days. On the seventh, he rested.

The head describes himself as a "Six Day Young Earth" creationist, which, put simply, means that God created the world thousands of years ago in six consecutive 24-hour cycles.

That this conflicts with received scientific wisdom - that the universe has existed for 13 billion years and Earth is 4.5 billion years old with life first being recorded 2.5 billion years ago - shouldn't really need pointing out.

But it isn't the scientists Mr Walze has to convince if his application - being prepared by himself and a parent - is to stand an earthly. It's the Department for Education. So what does Michael Gove say?

"No school, free or otherwise, will ever be allowed to teach creationism instead of valid and thoroughly evidenced scientific theories," a DfE spokesman says. "The education secretary has been crystal clear that teaching creationism as scientific fact is wrong. Valid and thoroughly evidenced scientific theories, such as evolution, will always be the foundation of science teaching in England."

An open and shut case, m'lud, and Mr Walze is realistic enough to know that the bid he is putting together is, at best, an outside bet to become a free school in 2013.

"Unless Michael Gove amends his position, our chances are very slim," he concedes.

Still, the formal application will go in next month and he will be told whether it's good or bad news by the end of the summer.

Mr Walze is going ahead with this process and all the hoop-jumping it entails because he says his school is not quite the institution some would make it out to be. "We're going to apply and say we have a valid view of the world in the 21st century. We're not harmful to science or children.

"Michael Gove is being badly advised. There is no need to be afraid of Christians and creationist schools.

"It's easy to poke fun at us and, for some, our beliefs are on a par with fairies at the bottom of the garden. But we're serious educationalists who are too easily dismissed as quacks. People think we're oddballs because religious faith has been marginalised. People seem to think we're this little cult indoctrinating our children and protecting them from the outside world.

"We don't know what Gove is afraid of. We're not doing what he's accusing us of. I'd love him to come and have a look."

The school, which has 71 pupils aged between four and 16, does not, Mr Walze says, teach creationism as a specialist subject. There is, for example, no daily lesson on how God created the world in six days.

What strikes visitors is how normal the school is. The children seem happy, lively and polite. Visiting a creationist school - Mr Walze is uncomfortable with that term but it is the label that fits it best - can provoke certain questions beforehand. What will it be like? What will the kids be like?

In truth, with class sizes so small and a staff so committed, it's a school many parents and children would envy. Staff are courteous and seem pleased to be working there.

But then the elephant in the room reappears. "Our basic position is that Earth was created in six days," Mr Walze reiterates. "That's our religious belief. This has been the historical perspective from a lot of people and all of a sudden it's a huge threat."

The school does teach Darwin's theory of evolution, Mr Walze insists, "even if we don't believe in it. We prepare our children for mainstream society.

"Christianity has been at the heart of mainstream British culture for years, but because of the increased secularisation of society, people don't feel Christian education is important."

Mr Walze and his deputy, Judith Baxter, are keen to avoid falling into the trap of saying they are being marginalised while other religious free schools - a Sikh one in Birmingham, for example - are given the nod and get up and running. Their own school has a diverse ethnic mix and takes in children from Indian, African and Chinese backgrounds.

At the moment, Bethany School doesn't set school fees and parents can pay as little or as much as they like, or can afford. Some parents pay #163;10 a month, while others fork out hundreds of pounds. It receives nearly #163;3,000 a year from a local city trust, but the rest it has to raise itself. Mr Walze reckons it costs #163;185 per month to school each pupil.

These extreme budgetary constraints leave the school with little option but to adopt the kind of strategies of which Del Boy and Rodney would approve. For example, teachers recently hired a minibus to scoot over to the Netherlands to pick up some second-hand computers that a faith school there didn't want any more.

Becoming part of the maintained sector, therefore, has one obvious attraction. "We'd love the money," Mrs Baxter admits. "We'd love to be more financially secure, to be able to pay teachers a proper wage." New teachers at the school start on #163;15,000. "But we will not compromise to get the money. We do emphasise that this is God's created world and our faith means a lot to us."

Bethany is one of 35 schools belonging to the Christian Schools' Trust, a group of schools dotted around the country in cities including Plymouth, Liverpool and Edinburgh, which swap ideas and training tips. All subscribe to the view that God created the world in a little more than a working week.

Mr Walze's plan is to turn Bethany into the Sheffield Christian Free School in 2013 and use its free-school status as the springboard to create up to 10 schools of no more than 100 pupils at sites dotted around the city.

"If we were finance-driven, we would have introduced fees by now. But our driver is to make Christian education more widely available throughout Sheffield. We do want to be part of the education system of this city."

It's an ambitious goal and one Mr Walze and his deputy hope will secure the long-term future of their school. "We want this to be around for our grandchildren," he says.

But what it will not do is accept money with strings attached. "We're not compromising on a Christian education. We're trying to show there's nothing to fear from people with creationist views."

That there's little to fear from such schools is just possible. But in truth, Mr Walze is up against something far harder to defeat: it would be political suicide for Mr Gove to admit it.

Inclusive teaching

In literature for its planned free school, the Sheffield Christian Free School says: "We understand that 'some people think differently' and we are absolutely committed to teaching thoroughly and accurately other world-view positions."

It says it is planning to recruit primary- and secondary-level teachers, classroom assistants and admin staff from next year. It is also on the hunt for premises. Its current school was built in the 1880s and was a disused CofE primary before Bethany School moved in.

It also says that its plans for a network of free schools will be aimed at 40-50 families per school and expects them to immerse themselves in the project.

"Every family will be involved and feel that their contribution is valued. The school will seek participation from parents and equip them as they take responsibility for their children's education."

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