Schools for scoundrels
Religious groups are rushing to take advantage of the Blair government's new education policy, reports Francis Beckett. And guess who's paying for it?
City Academies are the government’s Big Idea for education. Private sponsors – among them wealthy evangelicals and religious organisations – are being courted to fund and run a new generation of superschools.
But while the sponsor might contribute up to £2 million, their money buys them control over schools whose actual cost is more like £35 million. Sponsors contribute nothing to running costs, yet they manage the school’s resources, choose its teachers, and, crucially, decide its curriculum, in perpetuity. Paying for it, in perpetuity, is the responsibility of the taxpayer.
The City Academy model has proved very attractive to Christian organisations, for it’s a way of getting control of education without having to put much money into it. The academy programme is making Christians vastly more powerful in education. Of the 46 academies opened by October 2006, 14 – just under a third of the total – will be entirely in the control of Christian organisations or evangelical Christians. Three others have Christian organisations as one half of the sponsorship team. These organisations will have the power to decide what is taught and how it is taught.
No one has ever tried to persuade us of the merits of handing huge swathes of our schools over to the Christian religion. It has been done by stealth, by a Prime Minister whose Christianity is more to the fore than any PM since Lord Salisbury left office in 1902, but who would not have been able to persuade the electorate that it was a good thing to do, if he had done it openly. Almost two thirds of voters oppose plans to increase the number of religious schools.
The two most disturbing school sponsors are the evangelical Christians Sir Peter Vardy and Robert Edmiston.
Sir Peter Vardy, whose wealth comes from Reg Vardy PLC, the second-hand car business he inherited from his father, put up £2 million for each of his three academies, which have cost the taxpayer many times that amount. It is you and I who pay the bills.
These bills include £14,039 to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as reimbursement for time on academy business spent by Sir Peter’s brother David, as well as larger sums to Sir Peter’s own company. None of this work was put out to tender, which is a legal requirement in state schools.
As Gwen Evans, then deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, put it: “Academies were supposed to lever private finance into public education, not lever public money into private pockets.”
Academies are also supposed to replace failing schools, and Sir Peter’s staff have put a lot of effort into proving that the two schools his first academy in Middlesborough replaced were failing. In fact, at least one of them – Coulby Newham School – was flourishing. Its last Ofsted report before it was closed down praised every aspect of the school, including its broad–minded inclusiveness – a quality not in evidence in Vardy schools. His academy did not produce better results with the same pupils, despite expelling 10 times as many pupils as the schools which were closed to make way for it.
There’s no room for objection. Vardy’s foundation controls the schools totally, with an inbuilt majority on the governing bodies.
Sir Peter is a creationist. He believes that the Bible is telling the literal truth when it says that the universe was created by God in six days. “Schools should teach the creation theory as literally depicted in Genesis,” said Nigel McQuoid, who runs Vardy’s Emmanuel Schools Trust.
Mr McQuoid also said: “The Bible says clearly that homosexual activity is against God’s design. I would indicate that to young folk.” Many of us would not wish our children to be taught that, but this does not concern Mr McQuoid, who told a local newspaper: “I don’t have to respect everyone’s opinion. I don’t respect the opinion of people who believe it’s fine to live with a partner. Head teachers are responsible to God and the standards of the bible. Nothing in the school should contradict the teachings of the bible.”
“If academies are to succeed,” says his colleague John Burn, “they need to be led and staffed by people who are obedient to God’s truth as revealed in the scriptures.” So, no teachers who do not hold the approved theological opinions. Burn and Sir Peter form a small committee of two to choose heads for their schools whenever it is necessary. None of that nonsense about letting parents or teachers have a say.
Mr Burn is one of the founders of the Newcastle-based Christian Institute, set up in 1991 to promote fundamentalist Christian beliefs, and is an outspoken opponent of the ordination of women. In September 2000, Stephen Layfield, head of science at one of Vardy’s schools, Emmanuel College, Gateshead, delivered a lecture called “The teaching of science – a biblical perspective”. It reads rather like a revivalist sermon and lays down a duty upon teachers to “do all they can to ensure that pupils, parents and fellow colleagues are reminded frequently that all is not what it seems when popular so-called scientific dogma presents itself before them.” When you find mention of evolution in a textbook, “point out the fallibility of the statement.” There are separate notes for the teachers of each of the sciences. Apparently, if you are a physics teacher, you are supposed to tell children that the speed of the rotation of the moon proves that God made the earth.
“May it please God,” he ended, “to raise up a new generation of scientists who are duly respectful of their Maker and who, recognising the limitations of human scientific enquiry, give full weight of respect to the statements of propositional truth of Holy Scripture – being the authoritative word of God.”
The Foundation website, with wonderful doublespeak, calls all this “an academic and inquisitive approach to spiritual matters including, amongst others, creation and the origin of life on earth”.
But there is also a sinister national agenda here. As long ago as 1995, it was spelled out in a booklet from Burn and McQuoid which gives us a chilling insight into the long term agenda of men whom Tony Blair has placed in a powerful position in British education.
It says: “In Britain the Christian churches were active in the field of schooling long before the state took over… In retrospect it is a matter of regret that the churches so readily relinquished control of education to the state.”
And there you have it. Education should be handed back to the churches. Our function as taxpayers should be confined to providing the money with which people like McQuoid and Burn can make sure we bring up a generation in their own image. And right now, the law, they think, is on their side: “It is only by God’s sovereignty that current legislation is couched in such advantageous terms in a country where genuine committed Biblical Christian faith is undermined in so many areas.” The very favourable atmosphere for religious indoctrination in schools is, of course, not the work of God but of Tony Blair, though perhaps that is the same thing.
Lest there is any doubt that religious indoctrination in schools is what they have in mind, consider this sentence: “Please do not mistakenly believe that a classroom or school can be neutral: even the absence of a statement can say that no statement is worth the making. As Christ’s commission clearly exhorts us, we are to go into all the world, preaching the gospel and making disciples.”
After detailing the way in which Christianity should be inculcated in every subject, from literature to geography to pottery, the authors say: “Christian Truth must play a vital part in all these matters because left to themselves they will be distorted and drained of meaning. Christianity and the Biblical Truth must find a place across the whole curriculum and not just be confined to the act of worship and Religious Education.”
Vardy can be stopped. In two mining villages near Doncaster, the Conisbrough and Denaby Parents Action Group decided to fight the proposal to close their local secondary school, Northcliffe. “At the end of April 2004 we became worried that a religious sect was to take over our children’s education and school,” says its website.
But there was a problem here which did not apply so much in urban areas. Northcliffe was the only available choice for many local parents.
If it fell into the hands of religious fundamentalists, they would not have the chance of sending their children somewhere else. They really were being told: if you want your children educated at all, Bible-bashing will be part of the package.
By the start of July, the Conisbrough and Denaby Parents Action Group had gathered close to 1,000 signatures on an anti-Vardy petition. On Wednesday, October 13, Doncaster’s mayor bowed to public pressure and announced that the Vardy plan was binned.
Sir Peter Vardy, clearly irritated, offered a remarkably un-Christian reflection. “Far from celebrating, [the Parents Action Group] should be reflecting on the opportunity they have denied their children for an education of the very highest standard in state-of-the-art facilities.” There would, of course, have been nothing to stop Sir Peter from giving his money anyway, and the government from providing public money anyway, to establish the school the parents wanted rather than the school Sir Peter wanted.
But the people of Conisbrough and Denaby have defied government ideology. They will be punished. Their children will not get any of Sir Peter’s millions, nor any of the state money that only comes with Sir Peter’s blessing. They will do the best they can for their children without it. Good luck to them.
However odd Sir Peter Vardy is, his friend Mr Robert Edmiston, sponsor of the academy in Solihull, is odder. He too made a fortune from the car business, and used it to set up Christian Vision (CV), whose website says it exists “to introduce people to Jesus and encourage those who acknowledge Him to accept Him as the Son of God and become His true followers.”
He has put more than £60m into Christian Vision, which broadcasts by satellite from Birmingham to third world countries, offering music and hell-fire preaching.
The mindset of a man who thinks that, beset as the third world is by famine and war, what it really needs is Bible-bashing on the internet, is one I find hard to understand. Still, it’s his money, and he can spend it how he likes.
What he does not have a right to is control over state education and the public resources that go with it. But that is what the government has given him.
His two academies will teach creationism, and his defence for this is far more bizarre than anything Sir Peter Vardy has come up with. “If you tell people they are descended from monkeys how can you expect them to behave like anything other than monkeys?” he says.
Edmiston will sponsor and control two academies in the Midlands, both called Grace Academy as a tribute to Mr Edmiston’s faith – it comes from the American evangelical movement, and there are many schools called Grace in the USA.
Can academies be stopped before too much harm is done? There’s some evidence that Gordon Brown, unlike Tony Blair, considers his religion a private matter, and is unhappy with the huge rise in the power of faith schools under Blair. Whether he will do anything about it probably depends on his assessment of how it will play with the voters. So it’s worth spreading the sinister truth about Blair’s academies. ■
This is an edited extract from Francis Beckett’s latest book, The Great City Academy Fraud, published by Continuum