The Durham Free School (TDFS) opened its doors to Year 7 students in September 2013. Less than two years later it was closed. It’s a complicated story, but one which I followed because TDFS was a Christian ethos school which should have fitted perfectly into David Cameron’s Big Society and vision for a new, socially motivated Britain. So what went wrong?
Before a free school can open, a huge amount of work goes into the application, the planning and the preparation. The process is rigorous, so by the time approval is given, you can be sure that the school knows exactly what its core purpose is, together with exhaustive detail about every aspect of how it will be delivered.
TDFS planned to serve the Bowburn area of south-east Durham that was badly in need of school places after closures had left parents concerned about the distances their children had to travel. The vision was to offer ‘distinctive and inclusive education, shaped by traditional Christian values and welcoming to all. The School will offer a high quality education in a caring, Christian environment in which each student is known, valued and encouraged to achieve his or her individual potential’. Those who belonged to the school community (staff, governors, parents and students) found that to be a vision which was realised. The Department for Education thought otherwise.
There were obstacles to overcome from the outset. Free schools have no control over the choice of building – that is done for them by the Education Funding Agency. Instead of serving the area for which it was approved and where the first intake of pupils lived, TDFS found itself temporarily housed in empty school buildings in a different part of the city. There was opposition to the school long before it opened – Hansard records that Pat Glass MP (who was this week so briefly the shadow education secretary) had been ‘raising issues relating to Durham free school for several years’ asserting that ‘You cannot spit in Durham city without hitting an outstanding school. There were surplus places in that city, and I could not understand the reasoning behind the setting up of another school’, although Ofsted’s report into north-east schools would suggest that this wasn’t an accurate appraisal of the city’s secondary provision.
Then, on the back of Trojan Horse, British values burst onto the stage in a very unexpected way. TDFS suddenly found itself judged against new, untested and undefined criteria that were vague enough to allow for the Christian ethos of the school to be labelled creationist and homophobic, thus failing on safeguarding. The irony of the latter label is that several TDFS pupils had moved to the school due to homophobic bullying and both pupils and homosexual parents alike found the school to be caring, nurturing and supportive.
The conducting of British values inspections of Christian schools is well documented; the argument that Christians are intolerant, homophobic, creationist indoctrinators that propagate hate are rolled out with tiring regularity. The concerning issue here is the fact that the British values agenda was used against a Christian ethos school not just to satisfy a secularist liberal agenda, but also for political ends. TDFS was one of the first schools – it certainly won’t be the last.
Various other things struck me while I watched this story unfold. The first was the patience and self-control of John Denning, the chair of governors, exemplifying in all of his communications the Christian virtues which the school represented. The dignity and respect with which the debate was conducted by the school stood in sharp contrast with that of Pat Glass, who used Parliamentary privilege to say:
‘… as a former senior education officer in the north-east, I was aware that there were very high levels of teachers working at Durham free school that I knew had already undergone competency procedures with other local authorities. A head teacher in the region told me that the school had become a haven for every crap teacher in the north-east’
– an outrageous statement and potential breach of confidentiality against which none of the staff could defend themselves.
The second was the swiftness with which the school was closed. A school which starts with a Year 7 intake needs time to develop and it doesn’t really feel complete until that first intake becomes Year 11 – in other words, 4 or 5 years. Yet there was no real opportunity for the school to even implement a development plan. The end came so suddenly that staff were preparing for a monitoring visit from Ofsted scheduled for the following day when the closure notice was issued. It was almost as if somebody wanted the school closed, so the evidence (centring on the Christian ethos) was interpreted in a way which could make that happen.
A possible reason became apparent after the closure notice was issued, when the Local Council almost immediately indicated its intention to sell the land on which both the school and a local community centre serving over 1000 people each week are located. The Youth and Community Association which used the centre closed its doors a week before Christmas. Although it was expected that the land would be sold off for housing development, the buildings are still standing. Discussions continue about whether it’s cheaper to demolish them or find a new tenant, while local residents are fighting to retain the playing fields for the community.
But there’s a final sting in the tail of this sad story, should there be any doubt that the closure was political. Despite Pat Glass’s assertion that you couldn’t spit in Durham without hitting an outstanding school and that there is plenty of spare capacity, new schools are urgently needed in Bowburn, the very part of the city which TDFS was originally approved to serve. You can read a response here .
Parents, staff, governors and students walked out of TDFS with their heads held high after putting up a dignified, courteous and robust fight. At their final service at St Giles church, The Reverend Canon Alan Bartlett said the closure felt ‘like a bereavement, a taking away of hope’. For some students, facing a return to the schools where they had been bullied, it was exactly that.
Since the closure of TDFS, the climate of Christian schools’ inspections has significantly changed, but the political will to impose a one-size-fits-all agenda on all faith schools is still very evident. It may be a daunting prospect, but we must engage with this and be bold in explaining what we believe and why.
After the death of Moses, God told Joshua to lead the people of Israel. It must have been a daunting prospect to him, too. But God challenged Joshua three times to ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged’, followed by the promise ‘for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go’ (Joshua 1:9).
That is our challenge and promise, too, as Christians working in education.