Alpha course is taking on England's state schools

4th December 2009 at 00:00
Secularists warn hardline proselytising on school premises

Original paper headline: The Alpha movement has persuaded millions back to church globally. Now it's taking on England's state schools ..

Growing numbers of Alpha courses are being run in schools to give pupils the opportunity to explore Christianity, The TES has learnt.

The courses, which have been criticised by religious bodies and secular campaigners, are taught in lunchtime and after-school sessions.

Youth Alpha courses, designed for 11- to 18-year-olds, encourage pupils to consider questions such as "Who is Jesus?" and "How can I resist evil?"

They are based on popular adult Alpha courses, run in churches, universities and prisons, which organisers say have been completed by more than 13 million people around the world.

Archbishop Blanch CofE High School in Liverpool, now in its third year of running Youth Alpha, has had almost 300 pupils complete the course. It runs for eight weeks in lunch hours. Attendance is voluntary but the sessions are promoted around the school, including during assemblies.

Head Jane Griffiths said: "It is a hugely successful and popular part of our church life here. There were girls who were asking questions about the Christian faith.

"We feel it's great for children whose own churches don't offer Youth Alpha and for children who are not Christians."

The course was set up with the head's backing by Reverend Kate Wharton, the Bishop of Liverpool's appointee to the school's board of governors.

"Everyone is welcome, whether they are Christians, of another faith or don't believe," she said. "They can ask questions without being signed up to anything. It is a fair and balanced introduction to the Christian faith."

Reverend Wharton is hosting a visit from another diocese next week, which is keen to introduce Youth Alpha into its schools.

"I think it would work well in any school," she said. "It is a valid thing to run in a secular school as much as a faith school. We have a responsibility to equip young people to make big decisions in their lives. They should be free to choose, but they need to know the options to choose from."

Alpha courses are heavily promoted, with a website including a celebrity endorsement from adventurer and TV presenter Bear Grylls.

Exact numbers of Youth Alpha courses being run in schools are unclear. About 60 schools are registered to run the courses, but this number could include church groups that use school buildings.

Alpha courses have been challenged for offering too limited an interpretation of Christianity and for implicit criticism of homosexuality.

Jonathan Bartley, co-director of Ekklesia, a religious think-tank, said the courses deal with doctrine rather than Christianity as a way of life.

"It's about sin, hell and the resurrection and what people must do to get to heaven," he said. "I would be very worried about that adult content being used in schools unless it has been heavily modified."

Governing bodies pushing to introduce Youth Alpha at faith schools are "overstepping the mark", he said.

Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said: "We have pupils, a captive audience, funnelled into hardline proselytising on school premises. These schools should be seeking permission from parents, but I bet they aren't."

Matters of faith

The 10 topics covered on Youth Alpha courses:

  1. Who is Jesus?
  2. Why did Jesus die?
  3. How can I be sure of my faith?
  4. Why and how do I pray?
  5. Why and how should I read the Bible?
  6. How does God guide us?
  7. How can I resist evil?
  8. Why and how should we tell others?
  9. Does God heal today?
  10. What about the church?

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