Creationist fears over school takeover

Polly Curtis Guardian Education
Monday June 21, 2004

Some 250 parents, teachers and pupils marched through the streets of Doncaster, in south Yorkshire, on Saturday to protest against what they say is a "takeover" of their school by a pro-creationist religious foundation.

It is not quite what Doncaster council was expecting when it announced a consultation over plans to allow the controversial Emmanuel Schools Foundation to takeover Northcliffe school, in Conisbrough.

Last year the school was put on special measures after Ofsted inspectors reported that the quality of teaching "varies too widely" - and about a third was less than satisfactory.

The Emmanuel foundation, part of the Vardy Foundation, a charitable trust run by Sir Peter Vardy, the wealthy owner of a chain of car dealerships, is proposing to operate the school under the government's city academy programme, whereby a private organisation donates up to £2m, while the government provides the rest, and runs the school.

The foundation already runs two colleges in the north of England and one more is planned for September. It has met with controversy because its pupils are taught the Old Testament view of the creation of the world in six days.

Richard Dawkins, the Oxford University professor and leading campaigner against the teaching of creationism in schools, warned that it marked a "smuggling in of American-style creationist teaching" to British schools at the taxpayers' expense.

Matthew Bailey, the National Union of Teachers' representative at Northcliffe school, said the union was more concerned about the "privatisation" of the school, but added: "I'm a scientist and as such I teach the ideas of creationism alongside evolution, but I don't teach them as having the same status—one is a potion of faith and one a scientific fact. I would find it difficult to teach in a school which backed the creationist view."

He added that the school had won school improvement awards and its results were steadily getting better.

A spokeswoman for the Vardy Foundation said it was "disappointed" that parents were protesting before the consultation period had begun, and before they had been to any meetings to learn more about how the academies are run.

She added: "The teaching of creationism is really not a big issue. It's taught as one part of Christianity amongst all the world faiths, it's not given weight over other religious faiths. We'd rather they [parents] talked to us about how foundation academies are run before demonstrating. We gave parents the opportunity to come and have a look at another academy and only five came."

Doncaster council is due to make a decision about the future of the school in July and is about to launch a public consultation. Doncaster's mayor, Martin Winter, said in April he wanted to see more city academies in the area.

"I am delighted that the Emmanuel Schools Foundation has responded positively to my request for them to investigate a second project for the borough," he said. "The new state-of-the-art academy will have an enormous impact on the communities of Conisbrough and Denaby, forging new opportunities and prospects in an area that has faced challenges over the years."

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