'Creationist' school blocked over fears of indoctrination

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The Independent Online

A millionaire businessman accused of setting up a network of "creationist" schools has been barred from establishing a city academy because of concerns about his philosophy.

A millionaire businessman accused of setting up a network of "creationist" schools has been barred from establishing a city academy because of concerns about his philosophy.

Local anxieties about Sir Peter Vardy, who wanted to build a £22m academy in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, prompted a wave of demonstrations and marches.

Parents were worried by claims that another school run by Sir Peter was indoctrinating its pupils in creationism, which rejects the Darwinist theory of evolution. The town's elected mayor has subsequently decided the establishment will not be built.

The city academy, a business-driven model championed by the Prime Minister, seemed a near certainty earlier this year when Mayor Martin Winter welcomed plans by Sir Peter's Emmanuel Schools Foundation to open its fourth college in northern England on the site of Northcliffe School at Conisbrough, near Doncaster. The school is currently operating in Ofsted "special measures", meaning it is classified as a failing school.

But the strength of local resistance was unexpectedly strong. An initial protest march coincided with a declaration by the Oxford geneticist Richard Dawkins that the teaching of creationism, which rejects Darwin's theory of evolution, was "educational debauchery".

Opponents of the school were gathering to formulate the next stage of their campaign when they were told the academy was to be dropped.

Tracy Morton, a youth worker who organised a local parents' action group said yesterday: "It has been a long, hard fight. It seemed as if anybody who comes along and fits the criteria can take over a school with this government. If parents want to send their children to a faith school then that's fine but this is the only comprehensive in the area so we will have no choice but to send them to a place with a strong Christian ethos whether we want it or not."

The National Union of Teachers welcomed the decision.

Eleven years ago, Sir Peter, whose Sunderland-based company has 80 car dealerships, gave £2m to set up Emmanuel city technology college in Gateshead.The college achieves some of the country's best GCSE results, and similar establishments have been hailed by the Government as the future for secondary education. City academies are structured to allow sponsors to bring in finance and leadership. They also give principals and staff greater opportunities to develop their own educational strategies.

But some are suspicious about the Emmanuel environment, despite the Vardy foundation's insistence that its academies' Christian ethos is only a backdrop to the way they operate. "Our pupils are taught the national curriculum, we have Ofsted inspections like any other school and our academies are not indoctrination centres," it said yesterday.

Mr Winter said: "As Mayor, I sometimes have to make difficult decisions and this is one of them. I know that currently we are not doing our best by the learners of Northcliffe. We all want attainment levels to be much higher. We produced what seemed to be a solution with the Emmanuel Schools' Foundation sponsoring an academy. But a significant number of the local community, the teachers and pupils have spoken loud and clear. They do not want it."

The Vardy Foundation would have contributed £2m towards what was to have been the Northcliffe academy for 11-18 year-olds, with the Government picking up the rest of the cost.

Sir Peter said: "It is a missed opportunity [not] a victory for the campaigners. Far from celebrating they should be reflecting on the opportunity they have denied their children for an education of the very highest standard in the state-of-the-art facilities."

The Foundation, which also runs colleges at Gateshead and Middlesbrough, said it would still be opening its £24m academy at Thorne, near Doncaster next year.

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