Durham Free School

This article is a preview from the Summer 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

In the middle of September 2014, Anne Everard’s 11-year-old daughter, Lucy, came home from school perplexed by a piece of homework. It was a science worksheet, and Lucy wasn’t sure how to fill it in. Everard offered to help. “Only the Earth has life on it,” it read. “God has designed the solar system so that the Earth can support life.”

Lucy was a few weeks into her first term at the Durham Free School, which had opened in September 2013 under the last government’s controversial free schools policy, which allows anybody to apply to open a school if they can identify a need in their local area. It was a school with a broad Christian “ethos”. Everard and her husband are atheists, but had missed the deadline for other secondary schools in the area because they had been living abroad, and this school – only in its second year – still had places. The Durham Free School did not have faith-based admissions criteria, and the headmaster assured the parents that religion would not be “rammed down the children’s throats”.

“We were very quickly not reassured,” says Everard, who asked that we change both her and her daughter’s name. “After that worksheet, they totally lost our trust.”

At parents’ evening, Everard’s husband raised it with the science teacher. He saw no problem with the worksheet, and accused the parents of being closed-minded for suggesting it was inappropriate to teach creationism in a science lesson. The parents went to the head teacher, who was shocked and told them that it would be dealt with. According to Lucy, the students never heard anything more about it.

Although any free school that teaches creationism in a science lesson is in breach of its funding agreement with the government, it was not this worksheet – which the school says was an isolated incident – that led to the Durham Free School’s closure this year.

A damning Ofsted report in November 2014, two months later, concluded that “leaders are failing to prepare students for life in modern Britain”. It added that “some students hold discriminatory views of other people who have different faiths, values, or beliefs from themselves”, and that “governors place too much emphasis on religious credentials when they are recruiting key staff and not enough on seeking candidates with excellent leadership and teaching skills”. Rating the school inadequate, it also identified issues with bullying, the quality of students’ work, and unreliable assessments.

This tiny school, which had just 94 pupils (all in years 7 and 8) quickly became a national scandal, a cause célèbre for critics of free schools. The local Labour MP, Pat Glass, said that it was “a haven for every crap teacher in the north-east”. (Representatives of the school challenge her to provide evidence for this claim.) In February, the education secretary Nicky Morgan declared that the school should be closed: “It is clear that the school is not delivering the high standard of education that parents and I expect. It is also clear that there is no imminent prospect of improvement, and I am not prepared to let any child remain in a failing school.” At the end of the spring term, on Thursday, 26 March, the school closed its doors. It had been open for 18 months.

Soon after coming to power in 2010, the coalition government passed the Academies Act, which hugely expanded the academies programme established by Tony Blair’s Labour government. A school with academy status is free from local authority oversight. It can set its own pay and conditions for staff, and is not obliged to follow the National Curriculum – although the Department for Education does specify that evolution must be taught in science. The 2010 act also established free schools, a cornerstone of then education secretary Michael Gove’s reforms. A free school is a non-profit-making, independent, state-funded school that anyone can apply to set up: parents, teachers, community groups. Since then, 255 free schools have opened in England, and 156 more have been approved. The Durham Free School was the third to shut down. The other two – Al-Madinah in Derby and the Discovery New School in Crawley – also had a faith ethos, as do around a third of all free schools.

The controversy in Durham feeds into two separate debates. The first is about the success or failure of the free schools programme. (The Labour Party has been highly critical, and made it a manifesto promise to overhaul the policy). The second is about the wider role of faith in education. The two issues are clearly linked. A recent report by the government’s Social Integration Commission warned that Britain’s education system is increasingly “segregated” along lines of social class, religion and race. It said that free schools have contributed to the fact that children increasingly spend their formative years in surroundings “dominated by a single faith group or community”, and advised that no further faith schools should be allowed to open unless the groups planning them can prove that pupils will mix with children from other backgrounds.

The terms of the free schools legislation illustrate that the government foresaw this problem, to an extent. It specifies that any free school with faith-based admissions criteria can only admit a maximum of 50 per cent of one faith. “This is a tacit admission that there is a problem,” says Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, head of the Accord Coalition, which campaigns for inclusive education. However, in practice, schools founded on a faith ethos have problems attracting families of other faiths, or none, and often do not meet the 50 per cent target.

This matters. In 2001, Ted Cantle, the author of a government investigation into the Oldham race riots, identified faith schools as a major cause of the riots. Schools today are far more segregated than in 2001. “I’m in favour of faith myself, but faith schools effectively segregate children,” says Romain. “It isn’t healthy for the society they produce, which will be divided. Precisely because we’re a multi-faith society, with many different faiths and none, it’s very important to work hard to ensure that we build bridges.”

The question of free schools driving further social segregation comes after a year of soul-searching about extremism and education, which began in Birmingham last year. The so-called Trojan Horse scandal saw 22 schools in the city investigated over allegations of a conspiracy to run the schools on a strict Islamic ethos. Five were placed on special measures, with the Park View Educational Trust at the centre of the controversy. A government report concluded that there had been a push by governors to run the schools – which were not classified as faith schools – according to the strictures of a certain strand of Sunni Islam, although allegations of an extremist plot were overblown and there was no evidence that children had been “radicalised”. Following the scandal, Gove said that schools would be assessed according to how well they adhered to “British values” of tolerance, fairness, gender equality and diversity. There was some controversy about whether these values were specifically British, but few people argue with the values. “The guidance itself is common sense,” says Sion Humphreys of the National Association of Headteachers. “Most schools were doing this already.”

The schools inspector, Ofsted, which had failed to spot problems with the Birmingham schools in previous inspections, carried out a series of snap inspections resulting in several schools being put into special measures. These have disproportionately been faith-based. In October, no-notice inspections of three Orthodox Jewish schools resulted in all three being downgraded. The largest was the Beis Yaakov Jewish school in Salford, which went from a “good” rating to “inadequate”. The school made a formal complaint to Ofsted, saying that girls felt bullied by inspectors’ questions about homosexuality and whether pupils had friends from other faiths, while the Association of Orthodox Jewish Schools complained that religious sensibilities were not being taken into account by inspectors. Grindon Hall Christian School in Sunderland was also placed in special measures. This former private school is not far from the Durham Free School, and faced similar criticisms: students were not being adequately prepared for life in modern Britain, and racist and homophobic bullying went unchallenged. One striking observation was that “pupils spoken to during the inspection found it difficult to name a religion other than Christianity or to identify any festivals that other faiths or cultures may celebrate, despite learning alongside some non-Christian peers.” The school was the centre of a controversy back in 2012 (just before it was granted free school status), when the British Humanist Association revealed that it had a “Creation Policy” on its website, apparently advocating the teaching of both evolution and creationism as scientifically valid theories. After being awarded state funding, the school said that it would only teach creationism in Religious Education.

The Durham Free School was established to serve the disadvantaged former mining communities in the south and east of Durham. It was unable to find a site in this area, so it opened on the grounds of a recently closed school just north of the city centre. Set back from the road, it is a small building with large windows that backs onto a generous, if overgrown, playing field. Free schools, which were championed by the London-based Telegraph columnist Toby Young, have often been stereotyped as a diversion for rich metropolitan parents. But the Durham Free School did not conform to this. Nearly half its students were eligible for the pupil premium, government funding for poor children – a much higher proportion than average. (Grindon Hall, by contrast, has fewer than ten eligible pupils in each school year.)

In addition to serving white working-class communities in south Durham – who were prioritised in admission criteria, and guaranteed transport to and from the school – it was also intended to fill a gap that its founders perceived in Christian education. “If you can’t afford to buy a house in the city centre, you’re bottom of the list for schools,” John Denning, co-founder and former head governor of the school, tells me over a coffee at Durham train station. “And in this local authority area, there wasn’t – and now again isn’t – a secondary school with a broad Christian ethos.”

Denning emphasises that the school did not have faith-based admissions criteria, but was run on the basis of Christian theology. “It’s a belief that human beings are created in the image of God, so there’s a special value accorded to every human being and the value of a student does not have anything to do with where they come from or their ability.”
Not all students found this ethos welcoming. Assemblies were religious in tone, and there were daily prayers. Lucy had been raised an atheist, and did not want to take part, but her parents felt that if she opted out of assemblies altogether, she ran the risk of missing important information. “A teacher spoke to her about the fact that she wasn’t praying,” says Everard. “I rang the school and said, ‘Look, she doesn’t want to pray’, and they responded, ‘Can’t she just pretend?’ In the end, she had to sit at the back so other students wouldn’t see that she wasn’t praying.”

Denning, who now teaches science at Grindon Hall, rejects all the main criticisms in the Ofsted report, saying that the culture of bullying at the Durham Free School identified by inspectors “simply didn’t exist” and that in fact the school was a haven for children who had suffered bullying elsewhere. He says that while there was a higher than average proportion of Christian teachers, there is no evidence that this was prioritised in recruitment. Perhaps most persuasively, he points to the outpouring of support from parents as proof that this was not a school that was failing families. “It seems we were in a minority,” says Everard, of her dissatisfaction with the school. “Clearly some children did flourish there, given the campaign to keep it open – but my daughter didn’t.”

I ask Denning about the creationist worksheet, and he breathes a deep sigh. “Yes, that was very unfortunate.” He pauses. “He wasn’t the school’s main science teacher. He obviously misunderstood completely the ethos of the school and what our approach was. It was dealt with and didn’t reoccur.” No one is able to say exactly how it was dealt with; the head teacher at the time had left, even before the closure was announced.

“Why was the Durham Free School forced to close, when other schools were given the opportunity to improve?” says Denning. “Finishing before the end of the academic year puts these children in a really difficult situation.”

At a service of thanksgiving held on the last day of school, 26 March, students wept as the reverend said that it was “like a bereavement”. Most have found places at other schools, and some will be home schooled by their parents.

These cases illustrate, yet again, the risks that are associated with freeing schools from local authority control, and with encouraging faith groups to take a more active role in shaping children’s education. During the Trojan Horse scandal, numerous analysts suggested that the real problem was not an extremist plot to infiltrate young minds, but rather an issue of poor governance that allowed schools’ policy to be dictated by the preferences of a few individuals. Schools policy in the UK is piecemeal, as successive governments have sought to make their mark, but the trend in recent years has been towards more independence and greater parent choice: a free-market approach to education. The positive aspect of this is that it enables strong leadership; the negative is that there is very little oversight. Another trend has been towards more faith schools (both those with a faith “ethos” and those with specific faith-based admissions criteria). Around a third of Britain’s schools are faith schools, the overwhelming majority of them Christian, with a handful of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools too.

“You have to question the motives of why people set up a new faith school,” says Romain. “It’s because they want to inculcate a certain world view. Of course, that can be done in an inclusive way, but often it’s done in an exclusive way. There are some which are very good, and see their role as serving the wider community, but that’s because the governors want to, while some choose to have a more blinkered, doctrinal approach. The shape of our future society is too important to be left up to individual governors’ whims. The real question is not what sort of schools we have, but what sort of society we want to produce.”