Creating in a void
Jun 24th 2004
From The Economist print edition
Wealthy creationists are taking over failing state schools
ON ONE side is Britain's best-known atheist polemicist, in unlikely alliance with his media-savvy local bishop. On the other is a wealthy Christian businessman who does not believe in evolution; he's defended by the government. Their fight is prompted by “city academies”. These new schools receive extra cash from government, typically a lump sum of £20m, with individuals, businesses and charities adding a further £2m and running the school. It sounds fine—but what if the sponsors are bonkers?
In the north-east of England, a charitable foundation backed by one of Britain's richest men, the fervently religious Sir Peter Vardy, is sponsoring a bunch of new schools. So far, these have done well: the education inspectorate gives them glowing reports; so do parents, who like the discipline, standards and pastoral care.
That has muffled secularists' fears. Revealingly, both existing Vardy schools exclude Harry Potter books from their libraries: that suggests a dash of bigotry. So does the teaching of evolution as only a theory, alongside the Bible's account of creation.
Now proposals to turn a school in Doncaster into a Vardy-backed academy have sparked renewed protest. Two hundred people demonstrated there last weekend. And in the Sunday Times, Richard Dawkins, a famously anti-clerical Oxford science professor, joined forces with Richard Harries, the bishop of Oxford, calling the Vardy schools' creationism “bad science”, “lousy theology” and “blasphemy”.
But behind this entertaining ding-dong is an argument about the whole of government's reform of secondary education. This wants to make schools more varied, better-run (including by outsiders), and free from the local state education bureaucracies—but all without disadvantaging the dim, the poor and the disturbed.
The school concerned, Northcliffe, has plenty of such problems. Its intake is “challenging”, in education-speak. Fully 37% have “special needs”—typically behavioural and emotional problems. “Some have very difficult home backgrounds,” says Tracy Morton, a parent and campaigner against the academy. “Their parents don't even register them for school—they just send them along on the first day of term.”
Ms Morton is less worried about Christian fundamentalism than about the academy's approach to selection and discipline, and in particular how children from chaotic homes will fare under the new regime. The showpiece Vardy school, Emmanuel College in Gateshead, recruits from a large urban area. That means it can attract ambitious, diligent pupils from good homes. A local comprehensive like Northcliffe is very different.
The academy's backers insist that the new school will be non-selective, with no discrimination against those with special needs. They also point to King's Academy in Middlesborough, the second Vardy school, which has a diverse intake including a quarter with special needs, and maintains tough discipline without mass expulsions.
It is hard to imagine a more crucial test of the government's education policy. If a strongly-led new city academy can transform a really difficult school—and not just by shunting the worst children elsewhere—it hugely strengthens the argument for more diverse kinds of schools with outside management. But if not, the suspicion will grow that city academies' success is really down to loads more cash and hand-picked pupils.