Welcome to the academy for Jesus

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Secular horror at evangelical mission to take control of super schools, report Michael Shaw and Sean McKey

A new Christian consultancy will help church groups set up academies, as growing numbers of the new schools come under the control of evangelicals.

Faithworks, an offshoot of Christian charity the Oasis Trust, aims to set up an "academies consultancy" in September to help fellow believers establish many of the new tier of secondaries.

The trust also revealed this week that it will be sponsoring an academy in Enfield, north London, which will open in 2007.

Bob Edmiston, millionaire founder of the evangelical Christian Vision group, has revealed that he will sponsor two more academies with a Christian emphasis. The entrepreneur, whose car-import business has made him a fortune of more than pound;300 million, is already sponsoring a city academy which opens in the West Midlands in 2006.

Labour's five-year schools plan pledges to make every English secondary either a specialist or an academy. This means all will need private sponsorship.

Christian and other faith-groups already sponsor three of the existing 12 academies and are involved in more than a third of 30 others in advanced development.

The most controversial Christian sponsor so far is the Vardy Foundation, which was criticised by scientists after it emerged that its schools taught creationism alongside evolution.

The foundation's first academy, King's in Middlesbrough, was opened by the Prime Minister earlier this year and it plans to establish a further five.

Other more mainstream faith-related sponsors include the Church of England and the Church Schools Company, which has set up a trust to sponsor at least six of the schools.

Terry Sanderson, vice-president of the National Secular Society, said that Christian Vision and the Oasis Trust were "aggressively proselytising organisations". He said: "Is there any wonder that they are at the front of the queue for this opportunity to gain access to children? Pupils must be protected from this fundamentalist onslaught."

Christian Vision says that its chief aim is to "introduce people to Jesus and encourage those who acknowledge Him to accept Him as the Son of God and become his true followers".

However, Mr Edmiston insisted that his academy would not attempt to convert pupils.

"We would make children aware of other faiths, there would be no attempt to proselytise," he said. "I want every child who leaves the school to know what they believed. If that is atheism, that is well and good."

The entrepreneur was inspired to set up his chain of academies by his friend and fellow millionaire Sir Peter Vardy.

Mr Edmiston stressed his schools would be different, but defended the Vardy school practice of teaching creationism. "If you tell people they are descended from monkeys how can you expect them to behave like anything other than monkeys?" he said.

The Oasis Trust stressed that its academy would be open to children of all faiths and would not try to convert pupils. The trust was founded by Steve Chalke, a high-profile baptist minister and television presenter, who plans to raise the pound;2 million academy sponsorship by running the London marathon.

The Rev Chalke said the trust was committed to the Faithworks charter which states that members should never impose their faith on others.

He and the organisation have, however, campaigned for faith organisations to be allowed to employ only people of their religion - angering teachers' unions.

Faithworks also provides advice on how organisations can get round anti-gay discrimination laws. It suggests organisations "committed to upholding the sanctity of sex as being part of marriage" should include this belief in their standards of staff behaviour.

The National Union of Teachers and Schools Out!, the association for gay and lesbian teachers, said they were deeply concerned about evangelicals' increasing control of schools. John Bangs, head of education for the NUT, said: "The worst fears about academies seem to be coming true."

* This week the Arcadia group, owners of chain stores Top Shop and Burtons said it will spend up to pound;1.25 million to help 50 secondaries get specialist status in business and enterprise technology.

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