When an evangelical Christian offered to start up an "academy" to replace a Doncaster comprehensive, teachers and parents revolted. But the government's academy revolution - state-funded schools run by private sponsors - is here to stayby Andrew Brown / December 18, 2004 / Leave a comment
Conisbrough, a small town west of Doncaster, is one of the poorest places in England. Since most of the pits closed 20 years ago it has known two generations of high unemployment. Few people own a car, there are not many shops and the police station has gone. In April this year, the local comprehensive, Northcliffe, slowly recovering after years of abject failure, was threatened with closure after an Ofsted report condemned it. Doncaster council wanted to replace it with an “academy”: a purpose-built school that would be mainly state-funded but privately run – in this case controlled by the evangelical Christians of the Vardy foundation.
No one I spoke to doubted that the new school, if it were built, would do very much better than Northcliffe. There are already two Vardy schools in the northeast, one of which is an academy, and another academy is due to open next September in Thorne, on the other side of Doncaster. The Vardy schools have excellent academic records. Though they are comprehensives with deprived catchment areas, and do not operate a selection policy, between 95 and 99 per cent of pupils at the first one, Emmanuel College in Gateshead, achieve five or more A*-C GCSE grades. The second, King’s Academy in Middlesbrough, formed last year from the amalgamation of two failing schools, managed around 34 per cent in its first year, which is only slightly higher than Northcliffe but represents a considerable improvement over the schools it replaced, one of which had an A*-C pass rate of 14 per cent in 2003.
The Vardy foundation, which is funded by Peter Vardy, owner of Reg Vardy, one of the largest car dealing franchises in Europe, had offered to put £2m into Conisbrough through its offshoot the Emmanuel Schools foundation. This would be topped up by a further £22m from central government, money not otherwise available to Doncaster, and enough to pay for a shiny new school with state of the art equipment. So what is the problem?
For some scientists and secularists, the answer is clear. Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, jointly condemned the plan because the people who run the Vardy foundation deny the truth of evolution and prefer the authority of the book of Genesis to that of science.
One Saturday in June this year I attended a cheerful,…