Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Preaching to the unconverted

One of the main arguments used to support academies is that parental ‘choice’ will increase. Of the 84 academies that have opened 24 are sponsored by different Christian organisations.

In West Sussex the Woodard Schools organisation, which mainly runs fee-paying schools is considering academy bids for three schools. It is an Anglo-Catholic grouping with fairly ‘traditional’ views on most subjects. The most controversial academy bid is in Norwich where millionaire former used car-dealer turned Pentecostalist preacher Graham Dacre is proposing to takeover Heartsease School.

The National Secular Society revealed that according to the 2001 census Norwich had the highest proportion of non-believers in the country – 37%. Not only that the standard Pentecostalist positions are that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, abortion is ‘evil’ and homosexuality can be ‘cured’.

So how did ‘faith schools’ appear in England? The 1870 Education Act created School Boards to fill in the gaps left by existing voluntary or religious schools. The denominational schools (overwhelmingly Anglican) then found it difficult to compete; they lost teachers to the Board Schools which paid better salaries.

The Non Conformists (Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists) had several grievances – some of their pupil-teachers were forced to convert to gain employment. Parents had no choice but to send their children to a Church of England school, in 1900 the Primitive Methodists (a group expelled from mainstream Methodism at the start of the nineteenth century) calculated that in 1,976 preaching places, 1,124 of them only had an Anglican school.

The 1902 Conservative Education Act replaced School Boards with Local Education Authorities, however, for the first time money from the rates was given to fund ‘voluntary aided’ schools – overwhelmingly Anglican with some Catholic and Wesleyan Methodist as well.

The Baptists, Congregationalists and Primitive Methodists organised meetings and demonstrations to oppose the Act. The Baptist minister Dr John Clifford raised the slogan ‘Rome on the Rates’. They established a Special Resistance Committee and called for ‘passive resistance’ – the refusal to pay rates for denominational schools.

By December 1904 35,000 summonses had been issued and the process of court action began. In 1905 50,000 summonses were sent out and 150 were jailed, including 61 ministers. The Liberals promised to repeal the act and the previously ‘non-political’ Free Churches called for a Liberal victory.

However, their hopes were dashed as Bills to repeal the 1902 Education Act foundered in 1906, 1907, and 1908. The campaign of ‘passive resistance’ began to subside but even as late as 1909 thirty Non-Conformists were jailed for non-payment.

This week the ‘Guardian’ reported on Park academy in Sheffield, sponsored by another Christian organisation, the United Learning Trust. Plans for the new building reveal that there's to be a prayer room, much bigger than any of the classrooms. Its provisional name will be the “reflection room” but there will be no mirrors on the wall. The rumour is that this will be the school chapel by another name.

There is a long tradition of religious tolerance in England; most existing faith schools don’t exactly push religion down children’s throats. It will be interesting to see if this survives the tender mercies of the Pentecostalists and Anglo-Catholics. How many 15-19 year olds attend church? The national figure is 5% and in West Sussex it is 3.9%.

As the Primitive Methodists said in 1902, ‘All schools which receive public money shall be under public control’.


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