Which school?


Whilst many parents may think that their children are getting a ‘Christian’ education in a state school with a church foundation, or a Free School sponsored by a Christian group, this is far from the case.  Many discerning Christians make sacrifices to educate their children in a privately-funded Christian school, despite the bewildering choice of free State education to choose from.  This article illustrates why this is, by examining the root of our education system and challenges parents to consider seriously what their children are being taught.

'Good' education

Education secretary Michael Gove is currently pushing Free Schools in the UK as a way of giving parents or cooperatives more control over the education of their children and driving up standards.  He’s also encouraging local authority schools to transform into academies, again with the aim of driving up standards.  His latest push is to revamp GCSEs, all with the aim of proving that British education is up to standard, compared with the rest of the world.

The newspapers frequently bemoan the failure of the state education system to provide ‘good’ education for all.  Ofsted inspections deem some schools inadequate, whilst others are given the accolade of ‘outstanding.’  Some have been demoted, and will have to try harder, to achieve the goal of being the most coveted choice for parents.

So what is ‘good’ education?  Is there more to education than a high academic standard?   There is a fundamental difference in the ideology of the various forms of State education and distinctively Christian education – and therefore a very different definition of ‘good education’, as we will go on to see.

The National Curriculum

We need to look first at the National Curriculum in the UK.  This was introduced into England, Wales and Northern Ireland following the Education Reform Act 1988, with the purpose of standardising the content taught across schools in order to enable assessment, which in turn enabled the compilation of league tables, detailing the assessment statistics for each school.  The league tables were intended to encourage a ‘free market’ by allowing parents to choose schools based on their measured ability to teach the National Curriculum.  Whilst only certain subjects were included at first, in subsequent years the curriculum grew to fill the entire teaching time of most state schools.

What wasn’t publicised, however, was that the National Curriculum, which is now so prescriptive that there is little time in the school day for any kind of spontaneity, was a step towards bringing the UK into line with a global curriculum first devised by Robert Muller.

Robert Muller

Robert Muller (1923-2010) was an international civil servant with the UN, and Assistant Secretary-General for 40 years, as well as having serious interest in New Age spirituality.  After WW2 he won an essay contest on how to govern the world, which gave him an internship at the newly created UN.  He devoted the next 40 years to nurturing a better world, including working for the environment, economics and peace.  Part of this was his creation of a ‘World Core Curriculum’ that earned him the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education in 1989.  It helped inspire the growing Global Education movement.  More than 30 Robert Muller schools were founded throughout the world at that time, and many more since.

Muller realised that the most effective way of influencing a society, nation or world, is through the education system.  His global agenda for education was the means whereby his vision of utopia would be realised.  If you get everyone thinking and believing the same things, because that is what they are taught in their formative years, you have willing servants to implement your vision of reality; in Muller’s case, based on the new (neo-pagan) spirituality.

John Dewey

Muller’s contemporary, John Dewey (1859-1952) meanwhile, was developing his ideas, which were to bring about a major revolution in education and social reform.   His name is associated with education in particular, but he actually wrote about many subjects including experience, nature, art, logic, inquiry, democracy and ethics.  He believed school should be the social institution through which social reform can and should take place.  But what kind of society did Dewey envisage?

Dewey saw education as a place to gain knowledge but also a place to learn how to live.  Rather than acquiring a pre-determined set of skills, he saw the aim of education as the realisation of one’s full potential, and the way to bring about social reconstruction.  Subtlety, ‘school’ became the arena where young people learnt how to live, rather than the home, based on the ideology of those determining the curriculum.  ‘Education’ became the means to an end.  Full potential was the goal of education so ‘good’ education had to be sought at all costs. 

But learning how to live was not meant to be determined by the education system; the Bible clearly states that children belong primarily to their parents and it is their God-given responsibility to be their main teacher and educator, both by precept and example.  Education, knowledge and understanding, were not meant to be the means or the goal to gaining one’s full potential.  To reduce potential to an academic achievement is to belittle the fullness of the destiny God has for us.

Dewey’s ideas greatly influenced the West; every teacher-training establishment in the late 20th century advocated child-centred education according to Dewey’s ideas.  Some aspects were laudable.  For teachers to encourage hands-on learning, by investigation and experiment was and is a good way to keep students engaging actively in the learning process, and essential in the teaching of young children.  

However, he stated that the teacher should be there as a member of the community to select the influences which affect the child and assist him in properly responding to them.  The worldview of the teacher – secular humanist? Neo-pagan? Atheist? – therefore, is what the child will imbibe and emulate.

Whilst teachers are still encouraged to rise to Dewey’s aspirations, the time constraints of the National Curriculum prevent as much interactive learning as most would like.  More importantly, Dewey was driven by a humanistic ideology which removed parents from being the prime influence on their children, or even their prime owner.  He created the situation we encounter today, where the State acts as if it owns our children and determines what they will believe.  Moreover, Dewey’s children were a generation of young people who believed they and their selfish desires, not God, were at the centre of everything.  The same ideology was also imbibed, and is being passed on, by the generation of teachers who now teach our children. 

Free schools

In recent years, since it became compulsory, the National Curriculum has dominated education in England.  Education ministers have come and gone, but the curriculum has remained relatively unchanged - other than the inclusion of the prescribed national views on social and sexual education in line with current legislation, which fly in the face of Judaeo-Christian ethics.   Regular Ofsted inspections in all schools ensure the entire curriculum is being implemented.  It is so established, in fact, that the introduction of Free Schools by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition in 2010 has not been a threat.  What is taught in any school funded by the State is clearly determined.

Free Schools are an extension of the Academies Act 2010 which not only authorised the creation of Free Schools but also allows all existing state schools to become academy schools.  It grew out of a Labour party vision for providing schools in deprived areas, but changed dramatically with the change of government.

The original Labour vision was an attempt to give a fresh start and new impetus to struggling schools.  Local businesses, philanthropists and educational charities were involved as sponsors.  These had to contribute £2 million to the cost of new schools, which were usually new-builds with excellent facilities and a new name.  Labour soon dropped the financial requirement and broadened out the range of people who could sponsor academies.  The need for a sponsor was removed by the Coalition government.

Basically, a Free School is an all-ability state-funded school set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community.   (Free Schools for 16-19 year olds are able to select pupils based on GCSE grades.)   The programme enables talented and committed teachers, charities, parents and education experts to open schools which are funded by tax-payers and are free to attend; also, they are not controlled by a local authority.  The first 24 Free Schools opened in Autumn 2011.

Free Schools are governed by non-profit charitable trusts that sign funding agreements with the Secretary of State.  The funding agreements for Single Academy Trusts and Multi Academy Trusts are somewhat different.  Applications have to be made to the Department for Education and if approved, on-going funding for the school is on an equivalent basis with other locally controlled state maintained schools, although additional start-up grants to establish the schools are also paid.  Most groups except religious fundamentalist groups may be approved.  They are subject to Ofsted inspections and are expected to comply with standard performance measures.

Since the Education Act 2011, local authorities must in most circumstances seek proposals for an academy or Free School if they need to create a new school.  They can only propose a traditional community school if no suitable free school or academy proposal is proposed.

The DfE accepted only 102 entrants from 263 applications to open free schools from September 2014, in the fourth wave of free school openings since the policy was launched.  There are several thousand Free Schools in the England today, compared with 203 back in May 2010.

What is the difference between a school and an academy?

Besides the obvious difference mentioned above, in that Free Schools have no local authority control, they are also free to set their own pay and conditions for staff; they have greater freedom around the delivery of the curriculum, and they can change the length of terms and school days.

Although academies are required to follow the National Curriculum in the core subjects of Maths, English and Science, they are otherwise free to innovate.  They still participate in GCSE exams and SATS, which effectively means that they teach a curriculum very similar to maintained schools, with small variations.

The level of per-pupil funding is the same as local authority schools, but they have additions to cover the services no longer provided for them by the local authority.  There is more freedom over how the budget is used, and the funding comes directly from the Education Funding Agency (EFA).

Academies have the same principles of governance as maintained schools but the governors (who must include 2 parent governors) have more freedom.  The admissions, special educational needs and exclusions policies have to comply with the same rules and guidance as maintained schools.  If a school already selects pupils, it will be able to continue to do so if it becomes an academy; a non-selective school will not be able to become selective if it becomes an academy.

Academies, both primary and secondary, have to ensure that the school will be at the heart of its community, collaborating and sharing facilities and expertise with other schools and the wider community.  To gain academy status, a school must either be performing well (gaining ‘outstanding’ from Ofsted) or working in a formal arrangement with another school with high standards, to spread good practice across the board.  Collaboration and partnership are key aspects in the school system, both maintained and academies.

Some academies have a sponsor; this applies generally to those set up to replace underperforming schools, in which case their vision and leadership is vital.  Sponsors may come from a wide range of backgrounds including successful schools, businesses, universities, charities and faith bodies, and they are held accountable for improving the performance of their schools.  This may be done by challenging traditional thinking on how schools are run, in order to break the culture of low aspiration and achievement.  Academies are therefore established in a way that is intended to be creative and innovative, thus giving them the freedoms considered necessary to deal with the long-term issues they are intended to solve. 

Michael Gove advocates that academies will drive up standards by putting more power in the hands of head teachers and cutting bureaucracy.  It appears, on average that they improve twice as quickly as other state schools.

The benefits to a State school of becoming an academy

The DfE provides an initial £25,000 towards conversion costs, as well as the usual pupil funding, which may potentially top-up a school’s budget by 10%.  In the case of non-academy schools the extra money is held back by the local authority for providing services such as special needs support across the borough.  If those services can be bought in more cheaply or are not necessary, an academy benefits financially.  Where large academy chains run schools, there are economy-of-scale benefits to the schools.

Additionally, more freedom over staff pay means they can make savings or attract and retain good staff by paying more.  More control over the length of the school day enables more to be fitted into the timetable.

If a school was deemed outstanding by Ofsted prior to converting to academy status, it will no longer be subject to routine inspections.  It is still answerable directly to the Education Secretary, however, and league tables and exam results are published by the DfE.

How does a State school convert to an academy?

For a state school to become an academy, an application is submitted by the governing body to the DfE.  Once approved, the Secretary of State issues an academy order and a trust is set up which is effectively contracted to run the academy for the government.  The academy trust registers the school with Companies House and agrees leasing arrangements for school buildings and land.  Then the Funding Agreement is signed by the Secretary of State.  Some form of consultation has to be held by the school before the signing, but the procedure and personnel involved is somewhat arbitrary.

No permission is required from the local authority for a school to become an academy, but academies are subject to the same admissions code as other schools.  The academy trust becomes the admissions authority for their school rather than the local authority.  This means that it can set its own criteria for awarding places if it is over-subscribed.  They also have to follow the law and government guidance on excluding pupils, but they have to consult the local authority before deciding to exclude a pupil and they can arrange their own independent appeals panel.  Academies with specialisms can select up to 10% of their pupils on the basis of their aptitude for a particular subject such as music.

How are Free Schools funded?

Initially, £50m, taken from an axed technology fund for schools, was allocated for Free Schools for the first year of the policy.  In November 2011 an extra £600m was ear-marked for building 100 new Free Schools over 3 years.  The DfE said that the first 24 schools would cost £110-130m but since many were housed in temporary buildings the cost of acquiring permanent buildings has not be revealed.


Free schools are all-inclusive, and designed to serve a local community.  With reference to faith-based Free Schools, the only difference in the admissions policy is that if a faith-based free school is undersubscribed, every child who has applied must be admitted, regardless of faith.  If the school is oversubscribed, its oversubscription criteria must allow for 50% of places to be allocated to children without reference to faith.  School founders’ children in any type of Free School have the right to an immediate place in the school.  Free Schools must use their ‘best endeavours’ to meet any special needs requirements, and disability legislation requires them to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to provide for disabled students.

What do the critics say?

The Labour party and several teachers’ unions say that Free Schools will prove divisive.  They are likely to be centred disproportionately in middle-class areas, they will weaken already weak schools by attracting the best performing pupils, and will contribute to creating a two-tier system.  Moreover they open the door to privatisation – since private providers already run large ‘chains’ of schools.

Teachers’ unions have already held strikes against conversions in several schools, angered by the fact that national pay agreements negotiated by their unions may no longer apply.  They are also concerned that not all teachers in Free Schools have to be qualified.  Others criticise Mr Gove for not allowing the schools to be run for profit.  Other criticisms include the idea that Free Schools are an expensive gimmick introduced during a climate of cut-backs and austerity, and that local councils have less ability to provide support services for state schools because money is being lost to the Academies Fund.

Critics also fear the changes will give too much freedom to faith-based schools or fundamentalist agendas, although the curriculum has to be ‘broad and balanced’ and it is forbidden for a Free School to teach creationism as a valid scientific theory.  The National Curriculum, in line with the view expressed as truth by the media and found in every modern school science textbook, teaches godless evolution as fact.  The State doesn’t ‘do’ the living God in any shape or form.

It is also important to note that there is a growing debate in the education sector concerning the benefits or otherwise of the growing role of religion in the school system.  The concern stems from the fact that many academies are sponsored either by religious groups, or by organisations with religious affiliations.  This is obviously seen as a threat by secular humanists and neo-pagans.

The prescriptive element of the curriculum should be a concern to Christian parents who may consider a Free School sponsored by a Christian society or trust to be a preferable alternative to a state school.  In reality, Free Schools can only exercise freedom within very strict State-ordained limits, and the ungodly agenda at the root of our education system and pervading it with increasing force is right at the centre of Free School philosophy.

State-controlled Faith schools

The English education system historically developed in partnership with the Church, whose involvement in education pre-dates that of the State and was primarily focused on education for the poor.  Since 1944 faith communities have been able to apply to set up state schools in response to parental demand.  These are referred to as faith schools, and account for about one third of maintained schools.  The Coalition has stated that they want to ensure that all new academies follow an inclusive admissions policy and they will work with faith groups to enable more faith schools.  Maintained faith schools, like all maintained schools, must follow the National Curriculum, participate in National Curriculum tests and assessments, follow the School Admissions Code, and submit to regular Ofsted inspections.  The education is therefore State controlled and rooted in the same ideology of Muller and Dewey as all other state schools.

A maintained faith school is a foundation or voluntary school with a religious character.  The foundation holds land on trust for the school; it may have provided the land for the school in the first instance and it appoints school governors.  Usually it stipulates that the land held on trust must be used for providing education in accordance with the tenets of a particular faith.  New maintained faith schools are established by a statutory process involving the local authority or the Schools Adjudicator.  Approved proposals also have to apply to the Secretary of State in order to designate the school with a religious character.

Voluntary Aided (VA) schools may fill their teaching staff with people of their particular faith and can apply a faith test for appointment of support staff if there is a genuine occupational requirement. Voluntary Controlled (VC) and Foundation faith schools must reserve up to a fifth of their teaching posts as religious posts, where those teachers are specifically appointed to teach religious education.  This can include the head teacher.  Other teachers and support staff cannot be subject to this discrimination.

All maintained schools are required to teach RE and have daily acts of collective worship.  In VA faith schools, the syllabus is decided by the governing body in accordance with the trust deeds.  Foundation and VC faith schools have to follow the locally agreed syllabus but parents have the right to request that their child receives RE in accordance with the tenets of the faith and the school should provide this for these pupils.

A faith school may give priority to applicants who are of the faith of the school, but if it is undersubscribed, other applicants must be admitted, and the admission arrangements must comply with the School Admissions Code.  There is, therefore, limited control over the faith of the families who attend the school and many of the staff involved in the running of it.

All the freedoms mentioned above remain if a maintained faith school becomes an academy.

There are around 20,000 maintained schools in England, of which nearly 7000 are faith schools (DfE, 2011).   The majority are Church of England or Roman Catholic, but there are a number of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools.

What is a faith academy?

A faith academy is an academy with a faith designation order.  It must provide religious education to all pupils in accordance with the tenets of the academy’s faith as set by its faith body.  It is expected that they will teach an awareness of the tenets of other faiths as part of their RE curriculum.  Faith academies can apply a faith qualification in appointing their teachers and give priority to children of their faith in their admission arrangements.  They must, however, give places to non-faith applicants if they are under-subscribed.  Entirely new academies, i.e. Free Schools that do not replace predecessor schools, by contrast, are required to admit 50% of their pupils without reference to faith, so that priority goes to all local children.

There were 218 faith academies in 2011, the majority had a Christian religious character, but there were also Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish faith academies.

Independent faith schools

Since the Education and Inspections Act 2006, independent schools which have been registered as such for at least two years can apply to become maintained state schools.  Independent faith schools can also apply to become Free Schools, so long as they comply with the requirements on all maintained schools and have access to an appropriate site and any necessary capital funding.  The National Curriculum stipulations would preclude many such schools from becoming maintained state schools or Free Schools.

Of the 2400 independent schools in England, 1010 are independent faith schools.  Of these, 821 have a Christian ethos.  The others are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist.

Why independent distinctively Christian education?

The benefits to Christian parents of an independent Christian school are many.  Whereas all state-funded schools have to give primary allegiance to the State, privately-funded Christian schools are free to recruit staff and support staff who are all devoted Christians.  In this way the school can advocate a coherent and consistent Biblical world view throughout the curriculum.  This can only be done because there is no obligation to follow the National Curriculum or to teach anything considered inappropriate or ungodly. 

The children, who would be drawn from families who uphold the biblical worldview of the school, would be nurtured in an environment where the Holy Spirit is welcome and present.  Academic progress would be seen as only one part of a child’s development; the vision would be to develop disciples of Jesus.  Those with academic ability would be stretched, as in any school, but those with other gifts would be encouraged to develop them and to know that their gifts are essential and equally valuable.

In practical terms, Christians would be free to teach ethics, morals, social and sexual education from a biblical point of view to children with sympathetic parents.  Ideally, the values of Church, home and school would overlap and would be seamless, since they would be upheld, supported and encouraged in school.

In order to avoid having to give primary allegiance to the State, and thus retain the freedom to educate in a Godly way, independent Christian schools choose not to receive any government funding.  They therefore have to charge fees, and staff work for greatly reduced salaries.

Independent schools are subject to Ofsted inspections, and whilst some are inspected by a faith inspectorate (the Bridge Inspectorate inspects a number of Christian and Muslim schools) some are inspected by the same Ofsted inspectors as state schools.  The inspection is as rigorous as in any other school, and even though there is no obligation to teach the National Curriculum in the prescribed way, academic standards and all the elements of the National Curriculum must be included. 

In closing

The rising generation of children are growing up in an increasingly hostile environment towards Christians and the Christian faith.  The agenda behind state education is strongly influenced by the same humanistic and neo-pagan spirit.  School accounts for the lion-share of a child’s waking life.  What do we want them imbibe for 40 weeks each year and for 14 years of their life?  We are convinced there is no better environment for Christian parents to choose for their children to be educated, and consequently they receive a ‘good’ and a truly Godly education.   

Whilst many parents may think that their children are getting a ‘Christian’ education in a state school with a church foundation, or a Free School sponsored by a Christian group, this is far from the case . . . 

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