Where frivolity has no place?

30th May 2003 at 01:00
A teacher at Emmanuel College tells Michael Shaw of the school's controversial regime, which led him to leave

A teacher has revealed how he was suspended from Gateshead's Emmanuel College for disobeying an order from the principal not to talk to other staff of his concerns about the school.

Cormack O'Duffy, a music teacher, told The TES that the charges against him were dropped and obliterated from his teaching record after his union intervened.

Mr O'Duffy says he was shocked by assemblies where pupils were warned of hellfire if they failed to heed the Christian message at the controversial school, which teaches biblical creationism alongside evolution.

But when he disobeyed the instruction not to discuss his views with other staff, he was suspended for a week.

Last year, the Prime Minister defended the school, the first in a series sponsored by Sir Peter Vardy, the multi-millionaire Christian evangelist, after scientists criticised its creationist teaching.

Mr O'Duffy spoke of the "eerie silence" in the school corridors. "No child runs in the corridors of Emmanuel College. All seem to abide by the rule to walk to the left, carrying their bags on their left shoulders.

"With its quiet atmosphere, you might easily think you had entered the set of a James Bond movie where all the workers at the plant are focused on a task and have no time for frivolity."

Competition is fierce for Emmanuel's 1,200 places. Although founded with a "Biblical Christian ethos", it is not a faith school and attracts students from all religious backgrounds.

Mr O'Duffy was overwhelmed when he visited the technology college for an interview last year, noting that it felt more like an office block than a school campus.

He says the college gave him royal treatment, flying him from Ireland to Newcastle with all expenses paid and putting him up in a plush country hotel. As part of the interview he taught a trial lesson in front of the principal, Nigel McQuoid.

"I don't know if I ever found students easier to teach - they all seemed eager to learn," Mr O'Duffy said. "How could anyone not wish to work in such an environment?"

But the 53-year-old music teacher says that when he later returned to teach at Emmanuel, he changed his mind.

Along with other new staff members, he was briefed on its strict rules. "We were asked to follow the school's system for discipline to the letter. We were always to be addressed as 'Mr' or 'Miss' with our surnames wherever we met students, and never allowed under any circumstances to reveal our Christian names.

"Male staff were always to wear jackets when in the corridors, while female staff members were to wear skirts or dresses. Nothing was left to personal choice.

"Silence was to be observed from the minute students left their classroom to proceed to the hall for assembly. This meant that more than 1,000 students were crisscrossing this enormous building in total, eerie silence.

"The content of the assemblies themselves also concerned me.

Instead of positive uplifting messages, most seemed dour, with the implied threat of hell for those who would harden their hearts to the gospel message."

Mr O'Duffy said he also became worried that teachers had no outlet for their views.

He chatted with other teachers privately about his concerns, then asked pupils if they felt the assemblies should be more upbeat.

The following week, he says, he was summoned to see the principal and ordered not to speak to others about his views on Emmanuel again. His remarks allegedly had upset some members of staff.

"He was able to quote verbatim things I had said," Mr O'Duffy said.

After a month of keeping his thoughts quiet, Mr O'Duffy talked again with senior staff members about his concerns.

This time the school suspended him for a week for gross misconduct, a charge Emmanuel then dropped from his teaching record after the National Union of Teachers intervened.

Elaine Kay, regional secretary for the NUT, said: "If a teacher cannot talk to other members of staff about their concerns, that is a violation of their liberties and rights."

Emmanuel's senior management allowed Mr Duffy to leave the school and he is now completing an MA thesis before returning to teaching in Wexford, Ireland.

A practising Catholic, he fears the school's strict approach may actually put children off religion. "The ethos of Emmanuel is extreme, not human, and not very Christian," he said.

But other staff at Emmanuel have a very different perception of the school.

Peter Fairhurst, an English teacher who started at the college at the same time as Mr O'Duffy, insisted that Emmanuel's high standards did not cow students and staff into submission and that there are plentiful opportunities for frivolity.

He also defended the practice of warning pupils about damnation in assembly. "If assemblies touch on the terrible and eternal consequences of rejecting Jesus Christ they are acting as responsible warnings," he said.

"We'd all see the necessity in telling children not to accept lifts from strangers or never to dash across busy roads. Are we really being less responsible in alerting them to a catastrophic danger?"

In its last report on Emmanuel College, the Office for Standards in Education said the school was rigorous in enforcing rules and that some parents felt its approach to discipline was inflexible and insensitive.

But the inspectors concluded that the school's high demands were the reason for pupils' excellent behaviour and results (last year 98 per cent of pupils gained five A* to C grades at GCSE).

They also described Mr McQuoid as outstanding and said pupils enjoyed their lessons and had "harmonious relationships" with each other.

Mr McQuoid said: "Clearly Mr O'Duffy did not find Emmanuel to his liking.

Although I do not recognise his account, I am pleased he has now found somewhere where he is happy."

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust, said that he had never noticed an atmosphere of repression on his visits to Emmanuel.

"Emmanuel is an exceptional school, with extremely high standards of pupil behaviour and a diverse intake," he said.

"It's quite clear to parents who decide to send their children there what the regime is."


1989: Sir Peter Vardy, an evangelical Christian and the multi-millionaire owner of the Sunderland-based Reg Vardy car dealership, founds the Vardy Foundation. Worthy causes the foundation backs include a school in Africa and a water tower in India.

1990: Sir Peter gives nearly pound;2 million to sponsor Emmanuel College in Gateshead.

2000: The Vardy Foundation offers pound;12m to endow six city academies in the North-east.

2001: The foundation announces it is backing plans for a city academy in Middlesbrough, the King's Academy.

2002: Teachers at Emmanuel are teaching biblical creationism alongside evolution.Members of staff also post pro-creationist views on a Christian website.

Leading scientists protest but inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education findno fault in Emmanuel's approach. Receives the Prime Minister's backing.

2003: Doncaster council announces plans to create a city academy with backing from the Vardy Foundation. Nigel McQuoid, principal of Emmanuel, is also in charge of the King'sAcademy, which opens inSeptember.

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