A Test of Faith

Photo: Powellizer/Flickr

The colourful, spacious room seems more like an adventure playground than a classroom. Two five-year-old boys are noisily playing cops and robbers, while a little blond girl, oblivious to the fact she is making her teacher trip on her awkwardly-placed chair, is noisily bossing a friend about. It is a far cry from the quiet GCSE class next door, where the maths teacher teaches enthusiastically to a smattering of pupils you could barely call a class. But both places share colourfully decorated walls, with artworks produced by pupils and class-projects adorning the space in between the windows from which sunlight pours in. This is what the Bethany School in Sheffield looks like, a Christian independent school whose administration intend to establish a free school with branches across Sheffield.

The most striking feature in the primary school classroom is a large mural that depicts the biblical creation story. This isn’t just a leftover from RE lessons: quite proudly, the teachers are “committed to developing our own distinctively Christian curriculum, based upon biblical principles”.

Controversially, the Bethany School is quite unashamedly, a school that prides itself on teaching creationism, and intends to do so in the proposed Christian free school. In their FAQs on the proposal website, the question “Will the SCFS curriculum include creationism?” is answered straightforwardly: “Yes. Christianity has a clear and distinctive creation story which is relevant to all areas of the curriculum. We know that ‘some people think differently’ so we will be sure to give full weight to other views of the origins and purposes of life.”  Considering Michael Gove’s public statement that he would not allow schools that teach creationism instead of scientific consensus to receive state funding, it’s a bold statement.

Their commitment to teaching biblical creation does not, however, necessarily mean that science teaching is lacking. The important distinction, the Sheffield Christian Free School initiative insists, lies with the qualifier “instead”: they intend to teach both. As for the actual teaching, all recent school inspections of the Bethany School have declared the teaching to be “good” (the highest mark), and, according to their website, their children continue do well after leaving. In fact, the school is extraordinarily successful: while the head teacher Ken Walze readily admits that while “some [former students] went to Oxbridge, some went to prison”, their GCSE results have almost consistently been above the national average. Walze calls the school a “progressive educational establishment.”

And in many ways, the school is indeed excellent. Tucked away 10 minutes from the University of Sheffield, the small, cosy stone building on the hillside looks warmly inviting, as though transported from another era. Its charm is only furthered on the inside, with the teachers often eschewing the traditional, frontal approach to teaching for a more engaged and hands-on approach. This is made possible by the tiny size of the school. With an overall student population of 96, it’s comparatively minuscule, and makes it as personal and family-engaged as possible. “Family-scale education” Walze calls the approach that included installing a lift for a single disabled pupil, personally picking up one pupil who broke a leg for a few months, encouraging parents to actively participate in their child’s education, and ultimately – perhaps most remarkably of all – accommodating for varying financial means by charging no fees.
Despite being an independent school and receiving no state funding, the Bethany School has managed to survive since its founding in 1987 by setting a budget and asking the families of pupils for donations. These donations have yet to fail at keeping the school afloat.

The model has proved popular with parents, and the demand for places far outstripped the available space. To accommodate the demand, the Bethany School staff helped set up Emmaus School, also based in Sheffield. “We’re passionate about this city, about serving this city”, Ken Walze emphasises, “and the only way to do this is through the independent sector.” While the Emmaus School proved successful, the demand still proved too much for the two small schools to handle.

Thus, when Michael Gove first unveiled his free schools proposal, Walze jumped at the opportunity. The plan is to set up a state-funded, 1,000-pupil Christian free school, spread over 10 sites across Sheffield, of which Bethany School would become one, and thus accommodate the rising demand while still keeping ties with the local community.
Despite all this, it’s no fairytale place: All the familiar school archetypes are easily visible, from the playful, boisterous younger pupils to the surly group of teenagers hunched over their GCSE coursework, sporting the occasional token punk or hipster. The school day follows the normal pattern that any school’s would.

It’s a school like any other, yet it’s hard to shake a feeling of distinctness about the place. Speaking to the head teacher, it becomes evident what sets this school from the state school horror stories of unruly students and disaffected teachers. In every decoration, every piece of equipment provided for pupils, the passion for teaching that motivated a group of parents to form the school in 1986 is evident. This passion for education could well be the school’s greatest strength, but also its greatest vulnerability.

It is this passion and investment that seems to drive the defiance voiced in the Free School Proposal’s Twitter account, challenging Michael Gove to stick to his guns on faith schools. The defiant tone is continued elsewhere: In person, Ken Walze, while assuring that all pupils are taught the value of “some people think differently”, patiently stresses the importance of the Christian worldview quoting a hymn: “Something lives in every hue / Christ-less eyes have never seen!” However, in a recent newsletter of Bethany School, a far more aggressive tone was struck: “We have discovered that secular indoctrination in society is virtually complete”, it alleges on the subject of the professionalism of keeping personal beliefs out of the classroom, “there is an implicit assumption that secularism is a default position that requires no justification”.
Lamenting that Christian parents and teachers fell for it “hook, line and sinker”, it dramatically warns that “a militant secular curriculum is pounding at the very foundation of our faith, namely: Our world belongs to God!”
The root of this confrontational defiance doesn’t necessarily lie in fanatical faith. There’s a sense that Ken Walze feels that, as a devout Christian, he is vilified in the eye of secularist intent on keeping religion out of the public sphere. It seems as though the fundamental problem is one of understanding: Avowed atheists shudder at the thought of the American brand of unscientific creationism being taught in British schools, yet Ken Walze has no problem reconciling a literal biblical truth with scientific theory as being two separate truths: A “faith truth” and a “scientific truth”. He never denies the value of Darwinist theory in the progression of science.

However, a recent the Guardian column about the Sheffield Christian Free School proposal exemplifies the vilification Walze talks about: In the column, the author Phil Beadle quotes liberally from the school’s website, and presents many of the more religious passages as anti-intellectual and, effectively, bad education. Walze wrote to the Guardian, and challenged them to view the school and the value of its education for themselves. Neither the author nor the Guardian responded. It’s easy to see why, given this reaction, Christians setting up faith schools would feel vilified and excluded.

It is bizarre, given Britain’s history as a Christian country, that the former religious majority would see itself as a persecuted minority. It seems as though the civil society, tolerant of all faiths, has not just failed to properly empathise and build bridges with new faiths such as Islam, it has also lost touch with the originally dominant religion. If multiculturalism, particularly in terms of religion, has failed, does this count for Christianity too?
But all debates about the role of religion in education aside, the public debate about education has become extremely politicised in recent years, with educational reform being the pet project of seemingly every recent election campaign. In this climate of politicisation across party lines complicated further by the debate about faith schools, the measure of education is in dire need of refocusing on the effectiveness of educational models, and the needs of the pupils. To dismiss Bethany School and its sister projects on grounds of their faith would drastically overlook the remarkable accomplishments they can and have achieved. Certainly, their model is not universally applicable: It is specifically Christian, and is designed by and for a holistically Christian worldview. Nevertheless, any school could learn from their successes.

As of April 28, the Sheffield Christian Free School proposal has been turned down. The rejection letter, published on the proposal’s website makes no mention of the issue of creationism. Optimistically, the proposal website states that this means “not yet”.

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