Are church schools great examples of social action, or a sinister way of indoctrinating children? In the second of a two-part series, Emma John visits some of the Christian academies which have hit the headlines and asks, do they pass or fail the education test?

Hidden from view behind the Holloway Road in Islington, north London, is a large building project, close to completion. It’s not an unusual sight; this is an area under constant development. Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium, on the other side of the road, has inspired frenzied building of apartment blocks on all sides. Until March, this particular project was still encased in scaffolding and wrapped in white weatherproof material.

Now, with only two months to go until its completion, it is clear that it is not just another set of luxury flats. It is, unmistakeably, a school. Its distinctive, copperclad roof and its spacious classrooms suggest a confident air of a school making a statement – this is a place with ambition. St Mary Magdalene Academy, which opens this September, is no ordinary school. Nothing about its development has been easy and its progress will continue to be closely scrutinised - St Mary’s is one of the government’s new academies.

From the moment the Labour government announced plans to introduce city academies - independent schools joint-funded by the state and a private sponsor - the concept has been shrouded in controversy. An attempt to rejuvenate failing schools, particularly in inner city areas, the academy scheme has raised hackles. The main point of contention has been that the private sponsor - be they an individual, a corporation or a religious group – is allowed a say in the curriculum and the ethos of the school; in other words, in what it teaches, and how it teaches. For many people, this is a dangerous precedent to set, and one that could potentially compromise both the standards and integrity of a child’s education. St Mary Magdalene has been built to replace the local primary school that stood on the same site and offer instead a school for 5- 18 year olds. It is sponsored by the London diocese of the Church of England, which is contributing 10% towards the school’s capital costs, and will have what it calls a ‘Christian ethos’. Pupils from all backgrounds and faiths will be welcome, but the school will retain a distinctive Christian flavour, with oncea- term church services and opportunities for daily worship.

Divided opinion and local protestOpposition has been noisy. Local residents objected to the new building. Teachers and parents demonstrated outside the town hall, and one parent even took out a legal challenge claiming that her children’s human rights were breached when the primary school was closed. Martine Oborne, on the project steering board for the new academy, wrote recently in a local paper of her frustration at the reaction.

“After thousands of parents in the borough have campaigned for nearly 20 years for a new secondary school and, in particular, a new Church of England secondary school,” she asked, “why is the project now being greeted with so much suspicion and, in some cases, hostility?” Part of the reason is the strongly-held belief among many people that education should come from a place of ‘neutrality’. Wherever a new faith school or sponsored academy opens, one argument which is always raised is that no institution should have a religious influence over children; that children must be free to choose their own beliefs and not to be indoctrinated. The philosopher AC Grayling is one of the most vocal opponents of faith schools. “If children are ghettoised by religion from an early age,” he wrote recently, “the result, as seen in Northern Ireland, is disastrous. In the past decade exactly such segregation has been given a publicly funded boost in the rest of the UK, at a time when religion-inspired tensions and divisions in society are increasing. The remedy for the latter should be to ensure that schooling is as mixed and secular as possible; instead, tax money has gone to deepen the problem.”

Grayling’s point cuts to the heart of many educationalists’ fears about faith schools and academies. If a school is run along certain principles of faith - whether they be Christian or Muslim, Jewish or Sikh - how can it promote the diversity and cross-cultural understanding that is so needed in Britain, and indeed the world, today?

Chalke gets on board

One man who believes he has the answer to that issue is the Rev Steve Chalke, founder and director of the Oasis Trust, a Christian social initiative which opened its first three sponsored academies - in Enfield, Grimsby and Immingham - last month. For him, the key is inclusiveness. “The aim is to create schools with a Christian ethos that serve a whole community,” he says. “They are inclusive. These are not schools for Christians. They are for people of all faiths, of no faith, for everyone. We think it’s wrong to select by faith: you can either run a school for Christians, or a Christian school. You can’t do both.” While Oasis academies will be run on Christian principles, they will not insist on Christian headteachers or senior staff. Instead, Chalke says Oasis employs people who are inspired by Christ’s message of inclusion and equality. He is decidedly cautious about the idea of staff ‘witnessing’ to students at school. For him, making the effort to set up the school is witness enough. “People can never understand why Oasis does what we do,” says Chalke. “They think there must be something in it for us - they say, ‘You must be making money somewhere’. But everything we do is not for profit. And that’s something people gradually respect - that we’re doing what we’re doing because Christ told us to; he’s our motivator. Everything we do is inspired by the life, work and message of Christ.”

For Chalke, the idea of an Oasis school in the UK was not opportunistic. When he first became a Christian in his teens, it was his ambition to set up a school, as well as a hostel and a hospital. Since establishing the Oasis Trust in 1985, he has done all three; Oasis has built schools in India, Africa and South America. So when Tony Blair announced the new sponsored academy scheme, it was, he says, “an obvious and natural step”.

As well as the three academies opening in September 2007, Oasis has two more in development in Salford and Bristol and is already in talks with the government over another five potential schools. Chalke admits he has been surprised that there has not been more resistance. “I thought we’d have all the problems we have been talking about - resistance, prejudice, parental concerns - but people love the values we have, particularly putting students at the centre. The school is not about us, or our beliefs - it’s about them. We have not encountered any problems, even with other faith groups.”

Vardy’s image problem

Other new academies have had far more of an image problem. Nowhere has the notion of Christian academies been more attacked than in the North East, where Sir Peter Vardy, a Christian philanthropist and businessman, established Emmanuel College, Gateshead - the first of three schools he now sponsors in the area.

The Vardy Foundation first seemed to confirm the fears of educationalists five years ago, when it was revealed that creationist theories were being taught alongside evolution in Emmanuel College’s science classes. For those critics who had warned that sponsors - with their remit over the curriculum - would be able to promote religion in the classroom, here, seemingly, was proof.

At the time, Vardy maintained that there was nothing wrong with the presence of creationist teaching in classes. He told the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News: “One size does not fit all and what is being rammed down our throats at the moment is that evolution is right and creationism is wrong... We need to present both... It was the churches that started education, and it’s amazing that it’s come as such a surprise now that churches and Christians believe in creation.” Last year, however, Vardy denied that Creationism was being taught at Emmanuel College.

Ofsted reports have given Emmanuel rave reviews; it continues to be one of the most high-achieving non-selective state schools in the UK. However it continues to attract negative media coverage.

Another of Vardy’s schools, King’s Academy, Middlesbrough, excluded 27 pupils in its first year - 10 times the national average. There were parent and teacher protests against plans for the third school - Trinity Academy - in Doncaster. And reports still accuse the school of a doggedly evangelical approach in its assemblies and classes, something brusquely denied by David Vardy, who runs the foundation that his brother Sir Peter funds. “We are not a faith school,” he tells me, without elaborating. “We are open to people of all faiths.”

Bob Edmiston, the millionaire sponsor of Grace Academy in Solihull, is a friend of Sir Peter Vardy. He is a committed Christian and a millionaire entrepreneur who made his fortune in cars. Edmiston says he has encountered the same difficulties with the media as Vardy, not least because he has also founded an evangelism charity that preaches the gospel over the radio. “We’ve had all kinds of bad press,” says Edmiston, “but we don’t do it for them, we do it for the kids.”

With one academy already catering for 1,300 children, Edmiston is in negotiations to build others. “As Christians we want to make a difference in life,” he says. “This seemed a good opportunity to do that. We as Christians moan about the nation, and the situation of young people in it - so do something about it. The one area where I do believe Christians can serve their community these days is in education - there’s a big need for good teachers, and a particular shortage in Maths and English. If you want to make a difference, be a teacher.”

To teach and not to preach Steve Chalke, however, maintains that schools must be more wary of an overt link between preaching and teaching. “I really do understand why people have been concerned, because trust is built slowly,” he says. “And some academies created a level of distrust because they have evangelised and have been teaching creationism in science. We are educators, not evangelists.

“I think everybody who lives by any set of values is a witness to those values. Yes, my world view - Christianity - is based on a set of suppositions; so is secular humanism. But we at Oasis are not here to persuade you of one or another.” Schools funded, founded or managed by Christians are not a new phenomenon, however much the current controversy surrounding them would suggest otherwise.

The British education system was born out of the powerful social activism of the Church in the 19th century - of William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale, Lord Shaftesbury. Chalke believes that in the 20th century, “We moved indoors and lost confidence - we ended up talking about the minutiae of doctrine rather than action.” For him, the Church’s renewed involvement in and commitment to children’s education is a welcome return to the true meaning of evangelicalism.

Whether faith makes a difference to children’s academic performance is almost impossible to discern. Traditionally, Church of England and Catholic church schools have performed well but results could have been skewed by the fact that many of these schools are selective. Professor David Jesson of the Centre for Performance Evaluation Resource Management at York University has conducted an interesting survey on London state schools, omitting academies and academically selective grammar schools. In terms of last year’s GCSE results, the capital’s church schools outperformed all others, including comprehensives, secular foundation schools and voluntary-aided schools.

Jesson’s research also uncovered that the number of children in Church of England schools receiving free school meals, and the number of children with English as a second language, was no different from the London average. On the government’s ‘Value Added’ scale, which measures how much pupils’ academic standards improve during their time at the school, Church of England schools came out top.

Assessing the future

Several Christian city academies have started well, although many of them are too new to have appreciable GCSE results and many face accusations of bias because academies do not face penalties for exclusions (meaning the schools can exclude difficult and poorly performing pupils with impunity). But the government can claim that academies - both business and faith group sponsored - are on the whole doing the job they were created to do: improving standards in underprivileged communities. Last year’s GCSE results showed that while the UK numbers of those receiving five A to C grades had risen by 1.8%, in academies they had jumped by 6.1%. It will be several years before a considered verdict can be passed on Christian academies; in the meantime they are destined to keep the issue of faith schools in the news. Christian headteachers and parents are keen to point out that the media perception of exclusive elites or brainwashing religious institutions is at odds with their experience of faith and church schools; but with the role of religion in public life being continually called into question, they accept that they are under the microscope. Perhaps Christians working in education can learn to see it in the future positive - God’s promise of provision, of hope for the future, and of abundant life is being put to the test, and the country is watching.

Emma John is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Christianity magazine.