'Creation' pupil artwork at Bethany School, SheffieldWhen the free schools programme was first proposed in 2008 by the then shadow education secretary Michael Gove, it was Sweden that he held up as his inspiration. Mr Gove praised the Swedes for “breaking the bureaucratic stranglehold over educational provision” and introducing friskolor, state-funded yet independent schools run by parents, companies and faith groups.

For Mr Gove, the apparent success of Sweden’s 900 friskolor demonstrated that the state monopoly over English schools needed to be broken. “What has worked in Sweden can work here,” he said. The Conservatives went into the 2010 general election with a pledge to set up “Swedish-style free schools” and shortly after the coalition was formed the Academies Act, the enabling legislation for free schools, was passed.

But by the time the act received royal assent something had changed. The Department for Education (DfE) had quietly dropped references to the “Swedish model” and Mr Gove, now secretary of state, shifted his attention from Scandinavia to America. It was no longer friskolor but US charter schools that were cited as the main inspiration for the flagship education policy.

Some commentators put the change down to new research concluding the Swedish model was not quite as successful as Mr Gove had claimed. But the sudden focus on American charter schools may have been prompted by another development – the introduction of a new education act making Swedish friskolor significantly less free.

The act, which came into force in August last year, binds Swedish free schools to a national curriculum and makes them subject to the same regulations as traditional schools. Significantly, it also requires religious free schools to ensure that teaching is objective and free from religious elements.

The legislation was introduced by the centre-right Alliance coalition after a series of controversies surrounding Sweden’s 60 religious free schools, including allegations of physical abuse and the teaching of creationism. The future of religious friskolor became the subject of fierce national debate.

Per Kornhall taught in a friskola run by the evangelical Livets Ord (“word of life”) church for two years, but is now a vocal critic of free schools and the organisations behind them. His book Skapelsekonspirationen (“the creationist conspiracy”) alleges that the free schools programme has been exploited by a well-organised creationist lobby.

Cover of Per Kornhall's The Creationist Conspiracy“Many of these churches are very authoritarian,” Kornhall explains. “They are run by one or a few leaders and without any democratic structure and are of course fundamentalist, with all the problems that brings when it comes to politics, evolution and issues about sexuality.” For Kornhall, the new legislation does not go far enough. He says extremist religious groups are adept at beguiling educational authorities and claims the only way to secure children’s rights is to abolish state-funded faith schools altogether. He has a stark warning for Mr Gove: “Do not be naïve.”

Despite developments in Sweden, the English free school model has remained largely unchanged since it was first proposed. Free schools will receive their funding directly from central government, rather than the local authority. They will be exempt from the national curriculum, although they will have a duty to provide “broad and balanced” teaching. Teachers in free schools will not be required to hold teaching qualifications and local authorities will play no statutory role in providing support. Planning rules have also been relaxed so that the schools can open in any suitable premises such as disused offices or church halls.

Opponents of religious free schools say these freedoms will inevitably lead to the same problems in England that Sweden experienced. When Mr Gove appeared in front of the education select committee last year, he acknowledged concerns about “inappropriate faith groups using this legislation to push their own agenda” but assured MPs that his department had been “working on the regulations to ensure that we don’t have any extremist groups taking over schools.”

But in a written answer to Tom Watson MP, schools minister Nick Gibb subsequently confirmed that no specific guidance has been issued to officials relating to religious free school applications. Critics say this makes the process acutely vulnerable to extremist influences.

It’s a warning that comes not only from expected quarters, such as the National Secular Society, but also from “Cameron’s favourite think-tank”, Policy Exchange. Its Faith Schools We Can Believe In report recommends the introduction of a centralised Due Diligence Unit to scrutinise free school applications and calls for legislation outlawing the indoctrination of children. The report’s focus is undoubtedly on political Islam, but it also raises serious concerns about Christian schools and particularly the teaching of creationism.

Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to Mr Gove, heads the New Schools Network (NSN), the government-funded charity that supports groups interested in starting free schools. She says the application process is already robust and points out that many of Policy Exchange’s criticisms also apply to traditional schools. Nevertheless, Wolf insists the NSN’s procedures are constantly under review. “It is incredibly important that the right safeguards are in place and we are continually talking to experts to make sure we understand what those should be,” she says.

Wolf estimates that up to 15 per cent of groups contacting the NSN are religious, but stresses this is much lower than the proportion of faith schools currently in the state sector. Would the NSN ever simply turn away a potential free school provider? “Yes, we would refuse to work with unsuitable groups,” she replies. “We are completely clear – regardless of what the Government decides – that we don’t wish to see creationist or extremist schools.” And what would Wolf say to a group that refused to teach evolution, for example? “Then you can’t become a free school.”

It’s an unambiguous message, but has it got through? The case of Nottinghamshire’s Everyday Champions Church (ECC) seems to suggest not.

The ECC – part of the Assemblies of God fellowship of Pentecostal churches – has expanded rapidly under the leadership of Pastor Gareth Morgan, who took over from his father in 2000. The church has undergone a major rebranding (it was formerly the Emmanuel Christian Centre) and its site on a Newark industrial estate now hosts a café, a nursery, conference rooms and offices – even its own Starbucks.

For Morgan an ECC school is the next logical step in the church’s development. It has already submitted a formal proposal to the DfE, which Morgan says has been well received, and is now collecting evidence of parental support in order to progress to the next stage of the application process.

But the ECC’s bid has not been universally welcomed by the local community, where a debate rages about the church’s stance on evolution. The source of the controversy is the ECC’s programme of “Discovery Nights”, seminars which introduce “the science behind the creation account”. These are facilitated by ECC member John Harris, who also runs creationscience.co.uk.

Everyday Champions Centre, NottinghamshireHarris is affable, obliging and passionate about the project. “Christians have always been the leading force behind education and it’s no different today,” he says. He is clearly affronted by the rumours of creationism. “Assumptions were made about us, and the people who were attacking us were religious evolutionists,” he retaliates. This is how he views proponents of evolution – as religious fundamentalists.

Harris says that the ECC free school will teach evolution, but only alongside the Biblical creation account. “We have no intention of not teaching evolution in the school,” he explains, “but my recommendation would be to not teach it as fact or science. Evolution should not be taught in science lessons – it’s a theory and as religious as any other theory. If you’re going into a classroom and saying, ‘We come from monkeys’ but without any evidence, don’t call it science.”

The ECC has some way to go to persuade officials it can be trusted with its own school, but some religious groups eager to be part of the free school revolution have been running schools for decades. They represent the other side of the free schools policy which enables fee-paying schools to enter the state sector while retaining their independence.

It’s an offer that particularly appeals to private faith schools which, unlike elite public schools, often charge fees through necessity rather than as a method of social selection. They want to educate as many children as possible but have so far resisted entering the state sector for fear it would compromise their religious values. Now these schools have the opportunity to have the best of both worlds – state funding without state control.

One organisation carefully considering free school status is the Christian Schools Trust (CST). It represents around 40 private Christian schools across the UK with the aim of “putting God back in His rightful place in the centre of the process of education.” The CST gained a degree of notoriety in 1999 when it took legal action in the hope of overturning the ban on corporal punishment.

For those involved in the CST, free school status makes perfect sense. “Our schools have been set up by parents and parent groups, who have made great sacrifices to do that, while our taxes still go to the state system” explains Graham Coyle, national team leader for CST schools. “If our money can be directed to our children then there has to be a benefit.” The decision on applying for free school status is up to individual schools, but at least five have already submitted full proposals.

Coyle is aware of the policy’s critics but says there are enough checks and balances to keep out extremists. How would he respond to those who accuse the CST itself of extremism? “Critics don’t go to the schools or look at the curriculum materials,” he says. “They see one aspect and not the whole package.” The “aspect” he’s referring to is creationism.

The founder of the CST is Sylvia Baker, a self-identified creationist who, while studying biology at university, became convinced that the Bible’s account of a six-day creation could be fully trusted. This conviction led Baker to publish Bone of Contention, an introduction to creationism which has sold over 250,000 copies worldwide. Baker is now a member of the CST management committee and advises its schools on the teaching of evolution.

While CST schools are not required to advocate creationism in order to affiliate, many openly reject evolution. “Some schools have a more creationist point of view, others won’t,” says Coyle. “Schools have the freedom to pursue what they feel is right.” Coyle doubts that avowedly creationist schools will progress beyond the first stage of the conversion process, but that’s not to say they won’t try. “If CST schools that have a creationist outlook want to become free schools, that’s a challenge for them to take up,” he says.

The DfE would not comment on individual applications, but in a statement said: “Ministers will want to satisfy themselves that the proposers are suitable people to be involved in setting up a school and that the curriculum is acceptable to them. We would not expect creationism and intelligent design to form part of any science curriculum developed by any state funded school that has the freedom to develop their own curriculum. Similarly, we would expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any such science curriculum.”

There is clearly no conspiracy. Michael Gove does not want state-funded schools in the hands of extremists – if not for the sake of children’s rights, then to avoid a PR disaster. The question is whether officials have the time and expertise to root such groups out, particularly those that are willing to conceal their true motivations. The irony is – as the Swedish experience has demonstrated – that by making the free school programme so accessible, Mr Gove may actually be putting his treasured policy at risk.