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Free to teach creationism?

Thanks to Roger Stanyard for the link.

When the free schools programme was first proposed in 2008 by the then shadow education secretary Michael Gove, it was Sweden that he held up as his inspiration. Mr Gove praised the Swedes for “breaking the bureaucratic stranglehold over educational provision” and introducing friskolor, state-funded yet independent schools run by parents, companies and faith groups.

For Mr Gove, the apparent success of Sweden’s 900 friskolor demonstrated that the state monopoly over English schools needed to be broken. “What has worked in Sweden can work here,” he said. The Conservatives went into the 2010 general election with a pledge to set up “Swedish-style free schools” and shortly after the coalition was formed the Academies Act, the enabling legislation for free schools, was passed.

But by the time the act received royal assent something had changed. The Department for Education (DfE) had quietly dropped references to the “Swedish model” and Mr Gove, now secretary of state, shifted his attention from Scandinavia to America. It was no longer friskolor but US charter schools that were cited as the main inspiration for the flagship education policy.

Some commentators put the change down to new research concluding the Swedish model was not quite as successful as Mr Gove had claimed. But the sudden focus on American charter schools may have been prompted by another development – the introduction of a new education act making Swedish friskolor significantly less free.

The act, which came into force in August last year, binds Swedish free schools to a national curriculum and makes them subject to the same regulations as traditional schools. Significantly, it also requires religious free schools to ensure that teaching is objective and free from religious elements.

The legislation was introduced by the centre-right Alliance coalition after a series of controversies surrounding Sweden’s 60 religious free schools, including allegations of physical abuse and the teaching of creationism. The future of religious friskolor became the subject of fierce national debate.

Per Kornhall taught in a friskola run by the evangelical Livets Ord (“word of life”) church for two years, but is now a vocal critic of free schools and the organisations behind them. His book Skapelsekonspirationen (“the creationist conspiracy”) alleges that the free schools programme has been exploited by a well-organised creationist lobby.

“Many of these churches are very authoritarian,” Kornhall explains. “They are run by one or a few leaders and without any democratic structure and are of course fundamentalist, with all the problems that brings when it comes to politics, evolution and issues about sexuality.” For Kornhall, the new legislation does not go far enough. He says extremist religious groups are adept at beguiling educational authorities and claims the only way to secure children’s rights is to abolish state-funded faith schools altogether. He has a stark warning for Mr Gove: “Do not be naïve.”

Despite developments in Sweden, the English free school model has remained largely unchanged since it was first proposed. Free schools will receive their funding directly from central government, rather than the local authority. They will be exempt from the national curriculum, although they will have a duty to provide “broad and balanced” teaching. Teachers in free schools will not be required to hold teaching qualifications and local authorities will play no statutory role in providing support. Planning rules have also been relaxed so that the schools can open in any suitable premises such as disused offices or church halls.

Opponents of religious free schools say these freedoms will inevitably lead to the same problems in England that Sweden experienced. When Mr Gove appeared in front of the education select committee last year, he acknowledged concerns about “inappropriate faith groups using this legislation to push their own agenda” but assured MPs that his department had been “working on the regulations to ensure that we don’t have any extremist groups taking over schools.”

But in a written answer to Tom Watson MP, schools minister Nick Gibb subsequently confirmed that no specific guidance has been issued to officials relating to religious free school applications. Critics say this makes the process acutely vulnerable to extremist influences.

It’s a warning that comes not only from expected quarters, such as the National Secular Society, but also from “Cameron’s favourite think-tank”, Policy Exchange. Its Faith Schools We Can Believe In report recommends the introduction of a centralised Due Diligence Unit to scrutinise free school applications and calls for legislation outlawing the indoctrination of children. The report’s focus is undoubtedly on political Islam, but it also raises serious concerns about Christian schools and particularly the teaching of creationism.

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