Academies backed by churches are promising lessons 'consistent with Biblical teaching'. Graeme Paton reports
Sermons are to be beamed into the classroom via interactive whiteboards at one academy backed by the Church of England and another, supported by an evangelical Christian charity, says all lessons should be "consistent with Biblical teaching".
Around a third of academies either open or under development are backed by Christian churches and charities. Religious education and a daily act of Christian worship is compulsory in all schools, unless parents opt out. But the analysis of funding agreements reveals the huge influence faith group sponsors have on the emphasis given within their academies.
The Emmanuel Schools Foundation, an educational trust established by Sir Peter Vardy, the evangelical Christian car dealer, sponsors two schools, in Middlesbrough and Doncaster, with plans for at least four more in the North.
The academies are officially non-denominational schools but have already attracted criticism for advocating the teaching of creationism alongside evolutionary theories.
Last week, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights raised concerns that some independent state schools risk indoctrinating pupils by teaching creationist ideas. The funding agreement for King's, Middlesbrough, makes it clear the curriculum will be presented in accordance with Bible teaching, but the Emmanuel Foundation denies this amounts to indoctrination.
The school's policy document says: "While the academy will have a Christian foundation and will present matters in a way which is consistent with Biblical teaching, these matters will be presented in a balanced way." It says lessons will consider all faiths and will address atheist views. Every Monday starts with a "thought for the week" and Bible reading. On two of the remaining four mornings, half of the academy meets in a smaller assembly while the other half will meet with their tutor group for discussion "around a theme arising from a scheme of work derived from Biblical events and characters".
The United Learning Trust, an Anglican charity, has sponsored four academies to date, only one of which replaced a faith school.
Its funding agreements say all academies will support its "Christian ethos", but that pupils from all faiths and none will be catered for.
However, contracts signed for its first four schools indicate that practising Christians will be favoured for senior leadership roles.
The agreement for Lambeth academy, for instance, says "the head and deputies are likely to be inspired by a personal Christian faith and are equally likely to be a communicating member of the Church of England". It also said teachers will be "required to agree, as part of their contract, to act in accordance with and support the academy's ethos".
Eleanor Sturdy, the ULT's development director, said such wording had been amended in contracts for future academies. St Francis of Assisi academy, Liverpool, is jointly sponsored by the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, and uses "the environment" as a specialist subject area to bind the curriculum.
Its funding agreement quotes the Rt Rev James Jones, Anglican bishop of Liverpool, as saying: "The link with the environment as God's creation is the best expression of the school's Christian ethos."
The pound;10m Greig city academy, sponsored by the Church of England and the Greig Trust, an educational charity, specialises in science and technology and says in its agreement that the latest technology should be employed as a worship aid. "Students will... have the opportunity to participate in collective worship in their form groups or in their teaching groups," it says.
"Here, using the latest technology of interactive whiteboard and CCTV, all the city academy will have access to worship that can be pre-recorded to assure quality, maximise technology and minimise movement and disruption."
All academies make it clear that pupils can opt out of RE lessons. The majority also note that the choice extends to teachers, although the Trinity academy, Doncaster, another Emmanuel school, says in its supporting documents that it intends to seek new status as an "independent school with a religious character", meaning the principal and vice-principals "will be excluded from the right to opt out".
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