In further signs of the creeping influence of the Church in the education system, a Church of England-led academy trust in Newcastle is set to assume control of four schools with no religious character after it was announced that they will soon be merging with a Church of England primary school. Despite the fact that only one of the five schools in the trust will be a church school, the local Diocese will fill a majority of the seats on the trust’s board, and will therefore have ultimate control over the running of all five schools, a move which has been criticised by the local MP, local councillors, and a number of local parents. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has repeatedly warned about the permissiveness of Academisation to undue religious influence, and today has stressed that the situation in Newcastle will simply represent the shape of things to come if drastic steps are not taken to address this.
In what local councillors have described as a ‘takeover’, the four schools with no religious character – West Walker Primary School, Walkergate Primary School, Tyneview Primary, and Benfield School – will effectively become what are known as ‘faith ethos’ academies, meaning that whilst they will not be formally designated with a religious character, Newcastle Diocese will have broad powers to influence them, including by religiously selecting all governors, using a religious genuine occupational requirement when appointing senior staff, strictly enforcing collective worship in assemblies, diverting funds towards religious activities such as the hiring of chaplains, and also putting a religious slant on certain aspects of the curriculum, such as sex and relationships education.
Unsurprisingly, local opposition to the move has been significant. MP for Newcastle East Nick Brown joined parents in vowing to campaign against the proposal, while local councillor Dave Wood complained that the process had been ‘undemocratic’, stating ‘The Church are saying this is not a takeover by them, but if it isn’t that, what is it?’. This is by no means the first time such a situation has arisen, as just last year it was announced that the Muslim-based Tauheedul Education Trust would take over three secondary schools with no religious character in the North West of England, a move which has attracted similar criticism.
Figures released by the Church of England this year revealed that weekly attendance at church dropped below one million for the first time in 2014, news which alarmingly prompted the Church’s Evangelism Task Group to call for ‘a renewed sense of urgency’ in engaging with and evangelising children and young people.
BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Jay Harman said, ‘We’ve been trying to warn both the Government and the general public about the risk of arrangements like this for years, and unfortunately this latest instance of creeping religious influence in the education system is very likely only the thin end of the wedge. A third of existing state-funded schools are religious, as are a similar proportion of new Free Schools that are being approved, and now it seems that an increasing number of schools with no previous religious character are at risk of having one forced upon them.
‘Unless clear and robust safeguards are built into the Government’s moves to turn increasing numbers of schools into academies, there will be nothing to stop this happening time and time again. We will certainly continue to campaign for those safeguards to be put in place, and we would encourage all those who support an open, inclusive, and fair education system to oppose undue religious influence in their local schools whenever it appears.’
For further comment or information, please contact BHA Faith Schools and Education Campaigner Jay Harman on firstname.lastname@example.org or 0207 324 3078.
Read the local coverage of the proposals ‘Fears over plans to turn five Newcastle East End schools into academies’: http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/fears-over-plans-turn-five-11011004
Read the BHA’s submission to a consultation on the Education and Adoption Bill, warning about the rise in the number of ‘faith ethos’ academies: https://humanism.org.uk/2015/07/02/bha-submits-evidence-to-parliamentary-committee-on-governments-education-and-adoption-bill/
Read the BHA’s briefing on ‘faith ethos’ academies: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/bha-briefing-faith-ethos-academies-and-free-schools-explained.pdf
Read more about the BHA’s work on faith schools: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/faith-schools/
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.