Thursday, 10 April 2014

Oasis in the news for establishing churches in their schools

For the last 12 months, people in Waltham Forest have been debating whether or not Walthamstow needs more schools. They have not been debating whether it needs another church. And they certainly weren’t aware that in the case of Oasis, if they got one, they might very well get the other too.

Tuesday’s Guardian carried a story about Oasis Community Learning that raised serious questions about whether the group, which now runs more than 40 academy schools and which wanted to set up a Free School in Walthamstow, was in fact using these schools as a base to set up churches.

This story has its origin in research and a Freedom of Information request undertaken by Our Community Our Schools toward the end of last year. Wanting to know more about Oasis we delved into their activities in other academy schools and looked in more detail at the way they run their academies.

Oasis is structured as a series of charitable companies, including Oasis Community Learning, which runs the academies, underneath Oasis Charitable Trust. The Trust’s aims are: the advancement of Christianity, the advancement of education; the advancement of health and the preservation and protection of public health generally'.

They aim to achieve this by building Oasis ‘hubs’, which include their schools. As far as the Trust is concerned, the Hub is as important as ‘Community Learning’, even though the latter is the source of the vast majority of the funds and assets controlled by Oasis as a whole and the hubs are completely dependent on the Academies for sites, resources and focuses of activities.

So, what do the hubs do? The 2012Financial Statements for the Oasis Charitable Trust, the ultimate body at the top of Oasis’s group of companies, describe the Hub as: ‘A Christ-centred place of activity that provides integrated, high quality and diverse services to benefit the whole person and the whole community’. More intriguingly, the statement goes on ‘...the aim of OCT and the national teams of OUK, OCL (Community Learning), Oasis College and STOP THE TRAFFIK is to support and serve the Oasis Hubs.’ It would seem fairly clear then that in the views of Oasis’s highest body, the schools are supposed to serve the hubs, not the other way around.

A key player in building the ‘hubs’ is the chaplain. The Charitable Trust works to recruit and appoint chaplains to serve each hub, sometimes more than one. According to Oasis Charitable Trust’s 2012 financial statement, ‘Chaplains build chaplaincy teams in our Academies to support staff and students. They are also responsible for building churches in order to engage the wider community in the Hub.’ The job description we’ve seen for an Oasis chaplain confirms that part of their role is to ‘Develop and grow an Oasis Church within the Hub setting’.

We wanted to know more about these churches, so we asked Oasis. In their FOI response, Oasis explained “Oasis churches are not what would be understood as traditional church groups. They are small groups of local people who are keen to serve the Academy students, their families and the wider community as an expression of their faith. They are made up of parents, teachers and members of the local community who are committed to the Oasis ethos and the process of community transformation.” Stripped of its language about keenness and community transformation, that’s pretty much a description of any evangelical church. But more importantly, as we’ve seen above, as far as Oasis are concerned Oasis Community Learning - and its academies - are there to support and serve the hubs.

Our initial research indicated that many of these churches were meeting on academy school premises (take for example, the Oasis Academy in Enfield). So we asked Oasis to confirm this and confirmed that ‘some of our churches do meet in academies at various points in the week but on days and times when the academies are not functioning as schools;. So we asked do they pay any rent? To which the answer was ‘No. The church groups are treated like other local groups who use our academies who either pay a reduced rent or no rent at all, depending on the conditions set by the local lettings arrangements.’

We also asked more about the chaplains who are tasked with building the churches. In their response, Oasis were very clear, they are not paid for by the academies but are funded out of private donations. Yet there is some very worrying ambiguity about their role. We asked which chaplains had responsibility for any pastoral, pedagogical or curricular input into academies? Oasis’s answer was:

“None have overall responsibility for any of these areas. However, they all contribute to the curriculum and pedagogy through RE lessons (which reflect the SACRE (the standing advisory council on RE) standards, PSHE (personal, social, health and economic ) education and SMSC (social, moral, spiritual and cultural) education and all have a pastoral function for staff and students.”

To us, that’s quite a wide remit which bleeds at crucial points into contributing toward curriculum and pedagogy. It’s particularly worrying as they are not required to be qualified to teach.

To summarise. Oasis Charitable Trust aims to establish ‘Christ-centred’ hubs, which all the arms of Oasis, including its academies under Oasis Community Learning, are supposed to serve. The Trust is recruiting (out of private money), chaplains, who are supposed to establish churches as part of the ‘hub’. These churches meet, at a reduced rent, or entirely rent free, using academy premises, and the chaplains, who are not qualified teachers, have a role in some areas of pedagogy and curriculum development.

This raised serious questions about what people in Waltham Forest were signing their children up to supporting. Were they aware that the school would most probably be acting to provide premises for a church and to support evangelically inspired social activism?

And what about the role of the chaplains? From the results of the FOI request and the job descriptions we’d seen it is clear that they had some role in advising on at least religious aspects of the curriculum. This takes us back to the old issue of where the church ends and the schools begin.

And finally, is it appropriate that public funds be used to support the establishment of churches? It’s quite clear that public assets in the form of school estate, are being used to support churches in the Oasis academies. It is also clear that the EFA purchased a site in Waltham Forest that would have been used by Oasis to establish a church.

As the British Humanists Association commented when this story broke,

“we are deeply alarmed to have discovered that the state-funded Academy system is enabling this organisation to establish a parallel network of churches, often rent-free. This raises questions as to whether proselytising is taking place thanks to public funds. We are also alarmed by the employment of chaplains to work at the schools. We are not aware of any other schools that are not designated as religious behaving in this manner and we believe that it is extremely bizarre and a misuse of public property.”

They further commented,

“the establishment of the chain of Academies has allowed Oasis’s network of churches to grow considerably from the one church Oasis ran a few years ago. More people are attending Oasis churches than would be if it were not for the wholly state-funded Academies that the organisation now runs. These churches are promoted through the schools’ websites which variously describe them as ‘inspired by the life, teachings and ministry of Jesus Christ’ and say ‘We are spiritual people, which means that we believe that spirituality is real – and behave accordingly, looking for God in unexpected places, and shaping our lives to listen.’  This does not seem to us to be appropriate given that the churches have only been able to come into existence thanks to state funds for the Academies.”

We would tend to agree. How many of the parents who were encouraged to add their names to the list of supporters of this school, whose names were used to evidence local demand and led to this school getting to the point of opening its admissions, really knew what they were signing up for?

In the end, the real culprit in this story is the government, whose destructive legislation and practices have created this situation and which is now resulting in almost daily press stories concerning the disastrous consequences of the Free Schools policy. About which more soon...