This September, dozens of free schools opened under the government’s plans to create more primary and secondary facilities across the UK. But at what cost to Christian values?
In May 2014, 102 new free schools were approved for funding by the Department for Education (DfE). Most were ‘mainstream’ but others had a more bespoke remit, such as Christian academies — or the Phoenix school in Oldham, a military-style academy staffed by former soldiers.
However, despite the main political parties claiming in 2010 that more schools were needed, it seems the latest launches are being treated with suspicion.
For example, the charity Torch Academy Trust opened a free school in Nottingham last month, with an intake of 100 pupils. It should have been received warmly — especially because of the ‘overwhelming demand’, from parents, for a school in the area — but it received a very cautious welcome from its MP.
Chris Leslie, the local Nottingham East Labour MP and shadow chief secretary for the Treasury, told the BBC that he hoped the school would be a success, but expressed an ‘anxiety about money being diverted to free schools’.
The question of just how such schools are state-funded has prompted debate in Parliament and the media.
In July this year, the DfE issued a revised set of guidance, which stated: ‘The department will need assurance that free schools are on-course to be financially viable on opening. In particular, free schools will be asked to share their current financial plans with the department’.
But the Nottingham school said it could not give ‘a definitive answer’ on how much it had cost, while the DfE said the figure was not yet publicly available. And funding is not the only concern. Some parents have been asking how much input they and/or the government will have over the curriculum.
ET reported in September that the DfE has moved in to dictate the curriculum of church schools that are becoming academies. Under academy status, they must stick to an evolutionary account of origins in science subjects; and free schools cannot both get government funding and teach non-approved subjects.
David Tyler, a Reader at Manchester Metropolitan University, characterised this approach in his article, ‘Naturalism’s tightening grip on education and science’ (p. 5, ET, September 2014), as a crusade for ‘Enlightenment science’, with Darwinism as ‘a universal acid’.
Prime Minister David Cameron has other things on his mind, it seems. He has been making an impassioned plea for ‘British’ values in our classrooms and colleges. But this is not a call to tea at four-thirty and singing the words of ‘Rule Britannia’. It is, at root, a rhetoric driven by the fear of Islamist extremism.
The UK educational establishment has been rocked by the Trojan Horse revelations, in which schools in Birmingham were found to have been targeted by conspiracies to replace non-Muslim teachers and force extremist Islamic teaching on children.
The plot was set to be replicated in Bradford and other areas with predominantly Muslim populations. Since then, there has been a backlash against the idea of any school — independent, state or free — straying from the ‘correct’, state-led paths into anything that critics, hostile to all religion, might choose to label as ‘indoctrination’.
The Accord Coalition, a liberal think-tank (always at the forefront of such demands), published a six-point manifesto asking policymakers to crack down on ‘intolerance’ in faith schools and religious free schools.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Accord’s chairman, said: ‘We are united in our concern over the way faith schools operate. We are conscious that many of the practices that caused such outrage in some of the Birmingham schools recently — such as excluding lessons about sex education, avoiding the notion of evolution and reinforcing a cultural identity to the exclusion of others — would not have been challenged, had those schools been classed as faith schools.
‘We are campaigning for inclusive education and against religious discrimination. Our goal is that all stated-funded schools, including faith schools, are inclusive, tolerant and transparent’. Behind this agenda is a deep antipathy to biblical Christianity.
The Trojan Horse scandal has made the government very jumpy about religion. It has also threatened to knock Christian schools for six.
Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, warns: ‘School inspectors are likely to apply the requirements much more strictly to Christian schools, since that conforms to the demands of political correctness’.
One former teacher told ET: ‘Because of the Trojan Horse fiasco, schools will not be free at all. The government does not want Christian values; Christian parents putting their children into what they think is a faith-based school may be deluded’.
He cited recent legislative moves, such as Scotland’s state-appointed guardians for every child, restrictions on the curriculum in England and Wales, and plans to extend school hours from 8.00am to 5.00pm (reducing the time parents spend with their children).
He added: ‘The government’s plan appears to be to remove the child from the influence of their families’ cultural and religious backgrounds’.
This means that ‘British’ values of education could run counter to biblical values. Yet, as Colin Hart rightly says, ‘Britain’s heritage means that true “British values” are not secular values. Secularism is not the solution to the Trojan Horse scandal’.
David Leyshon, in the latest Christian parent talk newsletter, praises today’s Christian teachers as ‘embattled pioneers, treading the often lonely road of Christian obedience’. The church should pray for them, for the great principle of Scripture is: ‘Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it’ (Proverbs 22:6).