Following the report on ‘faith schools by stealth’ published by investigative journalist Warwick Mansell last month, we reflect on the worrying rise of surreptitious religious influence in one of the UK’s largest academy chains and the wider problem of ‘faith ethos’ academies and mixed multi-academy trusts.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the proliferation of academies and free-schools has given rise to a do-as-you-like culture within the education system. There has been much literature written on the issue of the autonomy enjoyed by academies and free schools, but in short, these types of school have tended to use the autonomy afforded to them as an excuse for a lack of transparency, something which regrettably has gone largely unchallenged. This is seen no more clearly than in the arrangements for ‘faith ethos’ academies – both unfortunate by-products of academisation.
The problem with ‘faith ethos’ academies is that, although they are not legally registered as having a religious character, they are nonetheless run by an organisation with a religious ethos. These organisations can then use their religious character to influence and exert control over aspects of the governance, employment, and curriculum policies of the school.
Mansell, like Humanists UK before him, draws attention to one such chain of ‘faith ethos academies’, Oasis. Despite the organisation having a clear Christian ethos, the academies are not formally registered with the Department for Education (DfE) as religious schools. Official documents reveal that Oasis is:
‘motivated by the life, message and example of Christ’.
One ex-Oasis school governor, described the organisation as a ‘faith school by stealth’, whereby he was expected to ‘police the ‘Christian values’ of Oasis, making sure they were ‘permeating through the school’.
This type of back-door religious influence is absolutely unacceptable, and it raises some serious concerns around democracy and freedom of choice. It is a testament to just how permissive our education system has become to religious influence, and has only been made possible through academisation.
Schools should be obliged by the DfE to provide an accurate description of their ethos, religious or otherwise, providing parents and guardians with the information needed to make an informed decision on what type of school they would like their child to be educated in. To not provide parents with accurate information on a school’s religious ethos is tantamount to infringing on their freedom of choice. That’s not to mention that a third of state-funded schools are already faith schools – troubling enough without organisations like Oasis, the third-largest academy sponsor in the UK, operating clandestine religious schools.
Unfortunately, organisations like Oasis are not the only worry when it comes to ‘faith ethos’ academies. Mixed multi-academy trusts (MATs) also have very dubious policies around their religious character and influence in governance, employment, and the curriculum.
Mixed MATs are the result of a less than harmonious union between schools with no religious character and religious schools. The rules of the union can assign more than half (and at least 25%) of trustee control to the religious organisation involved in running the religious school (ordinarily a diocese), regardless of whether the number of schools with no religious character is greater than those with a religious character. Ridiculous, right? This means the schools with no religious character can effectively become run by a religious organisation.
‘Faith schools by stealth’ are being imposed on whole communities, parents, and young people without their informed consent, and remarkably this is breaking no laws. The DfE needs to urgently review its current educational policies. Parents and young people deserve transparency and openness when choosing a school and this back-door religious influence cannot continue to go unchecked.