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BHA welcomes DfE taking action on longstanding concerns about Durham and Grindon Hall free schools as they are placed in special measures

Two Christian free schools have been found by Ofsted to require special measures, with one being ordered to shut down. In 2012 before either school opened as a free school the British Humanist Association (BHA) lodged concerns with the Department for Education (DfE) about the particularly religious nature of both schools, including about creationism, but these were ignored. Today the BHA has welcomed the more decisive action from the Department and Ofsted.

The Durham Free School has been found by Ofsted to be inadequate across the board and as a consequence has been ordered by Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan to shut down. The report found that ‘The curriculum does not help students to understand fundamental British values or prepare them well for life in modern Britain. For example, until very recently the religious studies curriculum was too narrow and did not give students enough opportunities to learn about different faiths and beliefs.

Consequently, students’ understanding of different faiths and beliefs is sketchy with some holding prejudiced views which are not challenged. This has had a negative impact on the school’s work to foster good relationships between students and tackle discrimination.’ And that ‘Recruitment of leaders and teachers has focused too much on candidates’ religious credentials and not enough attention has been given to their talents or track record as a teacher.’

The school is the third Free School to be ordered to close – the first two, Discovery New School in West Sussex and the Al-Madinah School in Derby – were both ‘faith’ schools as well. The BHA has previously expressed concern about the fact that John Burn is a governor of the school, writing in 2012: ‘Mr Burn is also a former headmaster of Emmanuel College, Gateshead, before becoming chief academic advisor to the Emmanuel Schools Federation, owned by Peter Vardy; he was at the centre of controversy in the early 2000s over those schools allegedly teaching creationism in science. Mr Burn is also a founder and Chairman of the Christian Institute, and author of its education policy which states that: “There are those who argue that Science and Christianity can be harmoniously reconciled and that no significant tension remains. We cannot subscribe to this view. It seems to us that attempts to reconcile evolutionary theory with the Biblical account of creation strain and distort scripture and that they introduce a symbolic reading of Genesis which cannot logically deny the symbolic reading of the Virgin Birth, physical Resurrection of Christ or the Second Coming.” Mr Burn also caused controversy in 2002 when he urged creationists to join school governing bodies in order to influence schools’ scientific teaching.’

Meanwhile, Grindon Hall Christian School in Sunderland (which also became a Free School in 2012, having previously been a private school) has also been found inadequate. The report says that ‘Pupils are not taught to develop appropriate levels of respect or tolerance for those from other faiths, cultures or communities. For example, 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. This is despite learning alongside some peers who are non-Christian. The school’s efforts to promote equality of opportunity and tackle discrimination are inadequate.’ Earlier this month the school was also issued a financial notice to improve by the Education Funding Agency.

Grindon Hall was at the centre of controversy in 2012 when it emerged that the school had had a ‘Creation Policy’ statement on its website seemingly advocating teaching both evolution and creationism as scientifically valid theories. The school subsequently told the BHA that it does not teach creationism as scientifically valid, but admitted attempting to remove the policy from its website prior to interviews with the Department for Education about becoming a Free School in the hopes that it would not be seen. At the time the principal told the BHA that had the DfE seen the document, ‘clearly they would have challenged us about it at our interview – indeed I doubt we would have got an interview in the first place’.

Ironically the school also, at the time, had John Burn as Chair of Governors of the school, but after controversy around his role he resigned. Finally, it is interesting to note that the school used corporal punishment until it was banned from doing so in 1999. The then-principal told the press that year, ‘It should not happen frequently and not in temper, but I do think it is Biblical to be able to use it. But I would not do anything illegal, so we do not use it now.’

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘We welcome Ofsted and the DfE’s newfound willingness to address the issues it has identified in these two schools, which include racist and homophobic language used by pupils. Together with the proportionate action taken by both these bodies in relation to similarly failing schools in Birmingham, we hope that this may signal a genuine change of approach. It is regrettable that schools with these contexts and pre-existing concerns were allowed to open in the first place.

‘It is vital that every young person receives a broad and balanced education, including teaching about the range of religious and non-religious beliefs that are commonly held in Britain today. At the same time, no young person should be taught pseudoscientific ideas such as young earth creationism and intelligent design as scientifically valid, for the simple reason that they are not.

‘We have further examples of schools that are failing their pupils and wider society in the same way and we will certainly continue to play our part in bringing these to the Department’s attention. Although we remain concerned about the fact that similar problems in other schools have been ignored by Ofsted.’


Notes

For further comment or information, please contact BHA Director of Public Affairs and Campaigns Pavan Dhaliwal on pavan@humanism.org.uk or 0773 843 5059.

Read Ofsted’s report into the Durham Free School: http://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/provider/files/2448202/urn/140005.pdf

Read Ofsted’s report into Grindon Hall Christian School: http://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/provider/files/2448892/urn/138567.pdf

Read more about the BHA’s policy work on:

‘Faith’ schools: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/faith-schools/

Religious education: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/school-curriculum/religious-education/

Evolution and creationism: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/school-curriculum/science-evolution-and-creationism/

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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