Backlash over emphasis on religion as suspensions soar in ‘covert’ selection
Among the parents who had gathered in the back bar of the Moorends Hotel there were tales of curious expulsions and strange practices. One mother said her daughter had been removed from school after being accused of wearing the wrong trousers, another that her son had been permanently expelled for smoking.
A father claimed his son had been sent home for walking the wrong way down the corridor, another that his 16-year-old daughter was kicked out after getting a kiss from her boyfriend at the school gates. And underlying it all was a feeling that Trinity, the third state funded secondary to be run by an evangelical Christian and friend of Tony Blair, Sir Peter Vardy, was pushing an aggressive religious agenda. Cindy Denise, whose two children are both at Trinity, claimed pupils were disciplined if they did not carry the Bible on certain days and summed up the mood at the meeting, describing the school as “a complete joke”. “They are kicking children out for nothing and won’t listen to anyone who wants to know what is going on.”
Trinity opened last summer next to the chicken factory in the former mining town of Thorne, near Doncaster, and is the latest school in the government’s controversial academy schools programme. In its first six months 148 children have been suspended, leading many parents to claim that it was using excessive discipline to weed out children it does not want to teach.
The 1,250-pupil school strenuously denies the charges but the parents at the Moorends Hotel insist that the school is operating a system of covert selection to get rid of difficult to teach children. They say the problems surfaced before Christmas when their children began complaining of “Dickensian-style” discipline and parents noticed an “excessive” number of students being sent home. Pauline Wood, whose daughter was excluded after being accused of having bought her school trousers from the wrong shop, decided to call a public meeting. A few weeks, and several home-made posters later, more than 200 people turned up to air their concerns.
“We thought it was just one or two cases to start with but when we talked we realised the scale of what was happening,” said Mrs Wood. “We were really surprised at the strength of feeling at that first meeting and the stories that were coming out about what was happening in the school.
“The strong feeling locally is that the school is aiming to get rid of the pupils that have problems or are considered difficult, they’ve already got a waiting list with kids from outside the area and they want to get them in so the exam results go up and they can say the school is a success. But what happens to our kids – the kids they don’t want?
“When all this started we thought they were trying to get rid of the under-achievers but now we think they are getting rid of any child, regardless of academic ability, who thinks for themselves, who challenges things … I don’t care what anyone says, it’s covert selection.”
Sarah French, a spokeswoman for Sir Peter’s Emmanuel Schools Foundation, which runs the school, denies the allegations. “The idea that we are selecting pupils is a complete red herring and really quite offensive. There is no evidence whatsoever to support that claim, in fact we give priority to children with special educational needs and although we have the right to select 10% of our children by aptitude as an academy we don’t because we aim to help each child achieve its potential.”
The school says more than 200 pupils were suspended in a similar period at the school Trinity replaced. “The vast majority of parents back what we are doing and see that the measures we have in place are helping change the ethos allowing the children to work in a stable, calm environment,” said Ms French.
But parents say the figures do not reflect what they are seeing on the ground. “There was a clampdown at the old school once they knew it was going to be an academy and it has just got worse,” said Mrs Wood. “I don’t know how they are measuring it but we are certainly seeing more and more children being sent home or kicked out.”
Although the allegations of tough discipline and covert selection are the parents’ main concerns, some are also uneasy about the religious ethos behind Trinity, citing the decision to give each child a bible as proof that religion pervades every aspect of the school. “They get into trouble if they don’t have it [the Bible] with them on certain days,” said Ms Denise. “It’s not what I want my kids to be doing in school, but I don’t have a choice because this is the only school round here and they won’t listen to us.”
These concerns reflect allegations at another of Sir Peter’s state schools – Emmanuel College in Gateshead, which has been repeatedly accused of teaching pupils creationism alongside science.
Tracey Morton, a mother who successfully campaigned against a proposed Vardy academy in nearby Conisbrough in 2004, agreed that the religious nature of Vardy’s schools was a real worry for many parents. “These schools peddle a hardcore Christian message and parents don’t have any choice about whether that is what they want for their children,” she said.
The parents’ group in Thorne say they had no idea what they were letting themselves in for before the school opened and they intend to step up their campaign with a march and a protest outside the school gates. Ms Wood said: “Of course we welcome a new school, but we need it to be run by a fair system. There was only a few weeks consultation here and we weren’t told anything about what the school would really be like. We want the local education authority to get back involved because at the moment the school is not accountable to anybody. We have no one to go to when things happen – not local councillors or the MP because there is nothing they can do. The school has 100% power over us and all we can do is try and highlight what is going on.”
The school denies the claim. Last night a DfES spokesman said academies were improving results. “Quite rightly academies are putting discipline first because it is vital to help children learn, and the early signs are that behaviour is improving and the number of exclusions falling,” said a spokesman.
The history: Schools founded on discipline
Sir Peter Vardy’s Emmanuel Schools Foundation runs three schools, two in the north-east, one of which was opened by Tony Blair, and the Trinity academy in Thorne, near Doncaster. Sir Peter is a millionaire car dealer and evangelical Christian whose beliefs pervade every aspect of his schools – they all have a reputation for discipline.
Although academically successful, the schools have been dogged by controversy. Emmanuel has been repeatedly linked to the teaching of creationism – most recently in a Channel 4 documentary – and Kings was criticised for having an exclusion rate 10 times the national average.
Last year, as part of a wider investigation, the Guardian revealed that the number of children eligible for free school meals at Kings, the standard indicator of deprivation, had dropped by more than 100 compared with the school it replaced, leading to renewed claims that it was cherry-picking pupils who were easier to teach.
The foundation says that all its lessons comply with the national curriculum, and that creationism is taught in RE rather than science lessons. But according to the head of the foundation, Nigel McQuoid, “schools should teach the creation theory as literally depicted in Genesis” because creation and evolution are “faith positions”.
Both Kings academy in Middlesbrough and Emmanuel college in Gateshead have improved their GCSE results. At Emmanuel 97% of students gained five or more GCSE passes at grade A*-C in 2004 (the national average is 52%). The first set of GCSE results at King’s showed that it has more than doubled the performance at its predecessor schools, with 43% of pupils now getting five or more good GCSEs.