Exclusive Brethren seeks elusive free school status
As a strict Christian sect, the Exclusive Brethren has a reputation for isolating itself from the world and sticking to a rigid moral code. Former members have even claimed that the Church punishes those who leave by cutting them off from their families.
Despite its reputation, the sect has launched a concerted drive to move into mainstream state education. At least 15 private schools run by the Exclusive Brethren have made bids to gain free school status to the Department for Education, TES has learned.
All have been turned down, but the Church remains committed to large numbers of its schools making the switch. At least two plan to have new bids ready, with more expected to follow suit.
Officials at the Focus Learning Trust, which acts on behalf of 40 schools run by the sect, said it is "only fair" for them to be allowed to become free schools. Parents from outside the sect have shown "incredible enthusiasm" for sending their children to the schools, many of which are highly successful, said information officer Rod Buckley.
"We currently receive no government funding whatsoever, so it is only equitable that we should receive government funding. It's only fair while other groups have received funding for their schools," he added.
The Brethren are renowned for being suspicious of technology. But Mr Buckley said that worries about ICT teaching are unfounded, as the schools embraced technology more than five years ago and have ICT suites that would be the envy of a state school.
He also dismissed concerns raised by former members of the Exclusive Brethren. "There are disaffected members out there, but they left many years ago and are not up to date with how it is now," he said.
While the schools are currently open only to Church members, Mr Buckley said they had decided they "could cope" with opening their doors to non- believers to meet the conditions of free school status.
The Exclusive Brethren's literature states that teaching staff in the schools are employed from outside the Church community and that the national curriculum is followed.
Secular campaigners reacted with alarm to news that Exclusive Brethren schools are continuing to pursue state funding, raising fears that pupils will be "indoctrinated". They also expressed concern that the school websites have little to indicate that they are run by the Brethren, which could mislead parents.
Richy Thompson, faith schools campaigner at the British Humanist Association, added: "The schools do not offer RE but only Bible studies, which could lead to pupils being indoctrinated.
"They also have very conservative views on homosexuality and women, which are outside the realm of what is acceptable in a state-funded school. We hope the government continues to recognise why Exclusive Brethren groups should not be permitted to run state schools, as it thankfully has done so far."
Mr Buckley said it is "a puzzle" why so many free school bids have been turned down, although he added that the DfE had raised concerns about the schools' capacity to deliver the curriculum they claimed they would.
A spokesman for the DfE said it was unable to comment on individual free school bids, and added that all applications would be judged on the same strict criteria.
SUSSING OUT THE SECT
The Exclusive Brethren:
A Protestant evangelical sect with branches worldwide.
It follows a strict moral code based on the Bible.
The sect avoids traditional Christian symbols such as the cross.
It traditionally rejects technology as a corrupting influence.
Members do not marry outside the sect.
Women are expected to take on traditional female roles and men are expected to be breadwinners.
Former members have claimed the Church works like a "cult" with those who choose to leave isolated from friends and family. The Church denies this.