A controversial chain of schools teaching Biblical "creationism" has been given Tony Blair's personal support despite serious doubts raised by parents and teachers, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
Mr Blair, said to be the most religious Prime Minister since Gladstone, has backed the millionaire car dealer Sir Peter Vardy in his attempt to take over seven comprehensives and turn them into Christian Academies promoting Old Testament views of the world's creation. This includes the claim that it was made in six days, 10,000 years ago. Two of Sir Peter's schools are open already, in Gateshead and Middlesbrough, and a third is under construction in Doncaster.
Last week, parents launched a campaign of opposition to his attempt to control a fourth school through his Christian Vardy Foundation. The protesters are supported by the scientist and author Professor Richard Dawkins, who has described creationism as "educational debauchery".
Mr Blair, a committed Christian, has presided over an extraordinary growth in the number of faith schools, with 80 new Church of England secondaries now running or in the pipeline.
He personally opened King's Academy in Middlesbrough, run by Sir Peter, an Evangelical Christian. When Emmanuel College in Gateshead, the first Vardy school, came under attack for teaching creationism, Mr Blair sent Andrew Adonis, one of his most senior policy advisers, to smooth the issue over.
In 2001, Mr Blair's government approved a knighthood for Sir Peter, head of the Reg Vardy car firm, for services to business and education.
The IoS can disclose that the links between the two men go back even further. They attended the same primary, the Chorister School, Durham, and Mr Blair was a classmate of Mr Vardy's younger brother, John. Mr Blair's constituency is, coincidentally, in Sedgefield, while Sir Peter is based in nearby Sunderland.
Academies are a category of "independent" school devised by the Downing Street Policy Unit in the late 1990s to help revive inner-city education. They are built and funded by the Government, but controlled by businessmen, church officials and other "sponsors", who make a 10 per cent contribution - about £2m.
According to John Rentoul, his biographer and an IoS columnist, Mr Blair is "the first Prime Minister since Gladstone to read the Bible habitually", a man who describes prayer as a source of solace. Although not a Roman Catholic - or, for that matter, a creationist - he attends Mass with his Catholic wife, Cherie, and their children.
Mr Blair has said the criticism of the Vardy schools is "overblown" and is more impressed that Emmanuel College has outstanding results at GCSE and glowing reports from Ofsted inspectors.
This is not a view shared in South Yorkshire. Next Saturday, parents and teachers at Northcliffe School in Conisbrough, near Doncaster, will demonstrate to block Sir Peter's plans to redevelop the local comprehensive.
One of the organisers, parent and youth worker Tracy Morton, said: "Our main concern is that a private organisation is going to have control over our school for an input of only £2m, and that it will have the opportunity to influence young minds. They have spoken about ... bringing a 'Biblical perspective to the teaching of science'."
A spokeswoman for the Vardy Foundation, Sarah French, said the schools teach creationism as part of a range of views. "The schools have a Christian ethos ... All faiths are taught in the school and children are encouraged to make up their own minds," she said. The national curriculum ensures that all children cover evolution, but it does not ban teaching creationism.
Critics, though, suggest that the Christian influence runs deep. The principals of King's and Emmanuel are both committed Christians, while the head of science at Emmanuel has, in the past, urged colleagues to show the "superiority" of creationist beliefs.
Nigel McQuoid, principal at King's Academy and director of schools at the newly created Emmanuel Schools Foundation (covering all the Vardy colleges), has said: "Clearly, schools are required to teach evolutionary theory ... Clearly, also, schools should teach the creation theory as literally depicted in Genesis. Ultimately, both creation and evolution are faith positions."
The spread of the Vardy Foundation schools has prompted criticism from a group of senior churchmen led by the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries. They spoke of their "growing anxiety" and urged close monitoring to ensure that the disciplines of science and religion are both respected. They do not accept the Vardy Foundation's position that evolution can be regarded as a "faith position".
Martin Rogers from the Education Network, an education think-tank, said there wasnothing wrong with the principle of academies, and that large investment in struggling schools should be applauded. But the lack of accountability was a big concern. "For a very small sum of money ... you can peddle the most appalling garbage," he said.