Christians put their faith in academies

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Chief inspector David Bell was right to identify the sharp growth of private faith schools as a source of concern. But has he noticed that faith groups have established a stranglehold on the newest form of independent school - city academies?

This matters far more. The fee-charging independent schools he mentions cater for about 7 per cent of pupils. But city academies are intended to cater for the majority of schoolchildren in our inner cities.

So Mr Bell's concern that we should be "intolerant of intolerance" goes far wider than the private schools he mentions. The city academy programme is making Christian churches vastly more powerful. Of the 55 approved or in the pipeline so far, 22 will be in the control of Christian organisations, which will decide what is taught and how it is taught.

Other faiths have not yet latched on to city academies. Perhaps the Muslim community will find itself a rich sponsor with the pound;2 million it takes to buy one. Perhaps it will be forced to stay outside the club, complaining that the Government's flagship education programme is an exercise in religious sectarianism, designed to cut out minority faiths.

Either outcome should be viewed with the deepest foreboding.

Two of the three faiths which Mr Bell identifies as a matter of concern, so far at least, play no part in the programme. There are no Muslim or Jewish schools. The third faith group he identifies are evangelical Christians.

There are, Mr Bell notes with concern, more than 100 independent fee-charging evangelical Christian schools. But there will very soon be at least six city academies run by evangelical Christians, bought for them by Sir Peter Vardy, who will control the curriculum. Children will be taught, as fact, that Darwin's evolution is just one theory, and creationism is at least equally valid.

Sir Peter wanted to turn Northcliffe school near Doncaster into a city academy. But local parents argued that they were being given no choice but to send their children to a school where they would be force-fed an extreme form of right-wing Christianity. The National Secular Society threatened Doncaster council with judicial review, and the council backed down.

Another eight academies will be controlled by the United Learning Trust, a subsidiary of the Church Schools Trust. ULT says its aim is to provide an education "based on Christian principles of service and tolerance" - which sounds fine until you notice that they have annexed the ideas of service and tolerance and attached them to Christianity, as though people of other faiths or no faith cannot share them.

The most mischievous phrase in the English language is "Christian values," for it implies that those values cannot be shared by non-Christians. The Church of England will control four academies directly, in Haringey, Bradford, Leeds and Leicester, and the Roman Catholic Church will have three, in Greenwich, Lewisham and Liverpool. The city academy in Enfield will be run by a Christian charity called Oasis, whose website tells us:

"At Oasis, we have a passion for sharing the unconditional love of God with those society has written off. We want to help churches and individuals to do the same."

Two years ago, the Church of England issued a document calling for more state-funded faith schools. It was alarmingly frank about what they were to be used for. The church, it said, is involved in education to "nourish those of faith, encourage those of other faiths, challenge those who have no faith". Why only "challenge" those who have no faith? The document explained that church schools "are places where the faith is proclaimed and lived, and which therefore offer opportunities to pupils and their families to explore the truths of the Christian faith". You're not supposed, in these schools, to question Christianity; you're supposed to "explore" its "truths".

The Church of England is in the education business to get 'em young, because that, as the Jesuits discovered, is the best chance you have of keeping them. This entombs children in religious tribes, glowering at each other over the school walls. In a society which includes Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants (and atheists too), we cannot afford to have our children immured in schools with their own faith communities.

Francis Beckett's latest book is The Blairs and Their Court, written with David Hencke and published by Aurum

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