Suffer Little Children
With a new creationist academy opening this month, and the prospect of dozens more Church schools on the way, Marilyn Mason advises on how to mount effective opposition.
Two years ago the Church of England launched its own weapon of mass instruction when it proposed 100 new Church secondary schools in order to safeguard "the whole mission of the Church to children and young people and the longterm wellbeing of the Church of England." The warm welcome this preemptive attack received from Downing Street suggested that it was less of a surprise to Tony Blair than it was to everyone else, and the offensive began so rapidly that it must have been planned well before the Church's 'enquiry' and 'report'. There have been 13 new Church secondary schools in the past three years. A further five open this academic year, and another 16 are at various stages of discussion and development. The Church Schools Company, a foundation with experience only in independent singlesex schools in leafy suburbs, joined the fray with takeover bids for multifaith inner city schools in Lambeth and Liverpool. Its chief executive, Sir Ewan Harper, was recently knighted for services to the Church. The minority religions joined in too: Muslim and Sikh schools are proposed or opening in South London, West London, and Leicester multiethnic schools in multiethnic areas being taken over by a single ethnoreligious group, or independent schools becoming part of the state sector.
How are the guerrilla forces of reason and social cohesion doing against the impressive weaponry and discipline of Church and Government? The struggle has not been easy. A huge Government majority with an impressive spin machine and control over parliamentary business and party loyalty, a Conservative party that generally supports the Church and choice, and an official arsenal of phrases like 'diversity', 'parental choice', 'local decisionmaking', 'high standards', 'school partnerships', have been all but overwhelming. Though substantial and armed with sound arguments, evidence and research, the opposition has been diverse and of necessity opportunistic, and it has sometimes been disorganised and outflanked. We predicted that an expansion of Church schools, undesirable in itself, would provoke demands from minority religions for their own schools. But we could never have anticipated that the evangelical millionaire Peter Vardy would take advantage of the parallel 'city academies' initiative to set up creationist schools, or that the Prime Minister, when challenged in the Commons, would defend them on the grounds that they got good results and Ofsted reports.
When, with the help of the BHA, the story of the creationist academy in Gateshead broke in March last year, the next Vardy Foundation academy, which opens in Middlesbrough this month, was already a fait accompli. These 'publicly funded independent schools' which can teach pretty much what they like, are negotiated and funded by the DfES, offering little or no opportunity for local or national opposition.
There have been divisions in the enemy ranks, and counterattacks. In 2001, a mutiny in the Commons, led by MPs Frank Dobson and Phil Willis, proposed that 25 per cent places in faithbased schools should be allocated to those of other faiths or none, but was defeated. Church troops seem divided about whether to serve the whole community via their schools or to admit mainly Christians, and even whether to be in education at all. An Education Select Committee report this May criticised "the lack of sufficient evidence to indicate whether the choices the Government is making in secondary education policy are based on secure foundations", and urged "extreme caution in any future expansion of the faith sector".
Although it is hard to fight on all fronts, if it is possible to mount successful local opposition. In my own borough, the only place where plans for a new local Church school appeared for any length of time was the website of the creepy Christian People's Alliance, which was smugly congratulating itself on the proposal. It was not on the council website, or in its School Development Plan, or on the school's website. I wrote to the Director of Education enquiring about the local consultation and making some objections. The only reply was a copy of the original consultation paper from the proposers predictably, it was hardly impartial and had not been circulated widely. It was already past the deadline for responses. I wrote again, to complain about this biased consultation and to ask about the progress of the next phase of consultation, but heard no more. Then, on the point of admitting defeat, I was contacted by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator the official appointed by the Secretary of State for Education to take decisions when the local School Organisation Committee (SOC) cannot agree unanimously. Despite having missed the official objection period, I found myself one of three 'statutory objectors', and was subsequently copied into all the correspondence about the school and invited to meet the Adjudicator. And in August he decided against the proposal a small but encouraging victory.
So, though it is now a war of attrition on many fronts, it is still worth fighting. Reinforcements can sometimes come from unexpected directions: Asian women, interfaith groups, local vicars. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 provided some useful extra ammunition in its requirement that councils "have a due regard to the need (a) to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination and (b) to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups" and this has made its way into recent draft guidance from the DfES on school reorganisation. The Government's rather naïve belief that 'partnerships' would solve all the problems of segregated education was modified in the same document (which even recommended shared secular assemblies as one possible way for schools to come together).
It is worth urging MPs to ask questions and sign Early Day Motions. Jenny Tonge challenged Tony Blair on creationist schools last year in the House of Commons, and she has continued to ask questions on them and other faithbased schools. Other MPs, notably Graham Allen, have been hugely helpful in asking questions suggested by the BHA. If prompted, many more would join the fray.