It might only be a chat on the phone but you can feel Steve Chalke's charm slipping by the second…Steve Chalke, tv personality, Baptist Minister and founder of the Oasis Trust, has been gushing about his proposed new Oasis Academy on Salford Quays when the links between Oasis and the Evangelical Alliance are brought up and how this might impact the new `non-faith' school…
"Have you read our ethos ?" he asks "That's got the answer in it…If you've read it through you'll see that we exist unconditionally for all faiths and no faiths, that's what we do…Faith isn't an issue at all, as you will see from the ethos…"
But surely the aims of Oasis are the Evangelical agenda ?
"That's not our aims at all" he cuts "You know what I'm talking about don't you, our ethos ?"
Yes, but it says that you expect your staff to buy into Christianity and the aims of the organisation…
"You must have read somebody else's…it doesn't say that at all" he snaps "It says that we're a Christian Foundation, it doesn't say that. I know for an absolute certainty that it doesn't say that…our Christian faith is what motivates us and drives us forward, it's not what we expect of anyone else…"
Cut to the job description for a curriculum leader at the new Oasis Academy in Enfield…OUR ETHOS…"It is vital…that our staff own our Christ-centred ethos and the values which flow from it".
Cut to an advert for someone to run the Oasis Enfield Academy…"We are looking for a Principal…who owns Oasis' Christian ethos…"
"If you're still worried, having read our ethos and values statement" adds Steve Chalke "check with the education authority and councillors who are working with us, if what you're saying is the case, which it's not…"
Er…I'm still worried…
Cut to the office of Jill Baker, Director of Education for Salford City Council…
"The staff don't have to buy into Christ" she says "My understanding is that you don't even have to be a Christian to be the Principal, let alone a member of staff…"
…But it says you have to "own" their Christ-centred ethos…
"It depends what you mean by `own'" she says "You wouldn't want to work for a school where you didn't own the philosophy on which that school was built…"
…But the Oasis Trust has as its object the "advancement of Christianity"…
"That obviously influences the organisation…"
…But Oasis are part of the Evangelical Alliance and it says here that they're …`people who want to see the Christian viewpoint inform and influence public opinion through media, through government and through public life…' They're about changing society…
"Aren't we all ?" she offers "It's just that we choose different ways to do it…"
Yeah…but we don't get millions of pounds from the government to `educate' a city's kids in a private school with no control from the local authority…especially when we're knocking down a non-faith state school, ironically called Hope High, to do it.
If it was Marxists doing this saying it wasn't political…or Muslims saying it wasn't religious, would it happen ? Maybe the fact that Cherie Blair endorses Steve Chalke's fundraising efforts has something to do with it…Or maybe that Tony Blair has given lectures at the Oasis church.co.uk in London…Or maybe that David Cameron visited an Oasis project in India…Or maybe that Steve Chalke hosted a book launch by Jim Wallis, hailed as Gordon Brown's `religious guru'…Or maybe that Jill Baker, Director of Education of Salford City Council, is an active member of Elmwood Church in Salford, which is linked to the Evangelical Alliance ?
So Jill, how did the relationship with Oasis come about ?
"I heard that Oasis sponsored academies" Jill Baker recalls "I looked on their website and thought `Yeah, they seem to have the sort of philosophy…a social inclusion philosophy…and they might be appropriate'…"
Nothing to do with Elmwood Church then ?
"As far as I'm aware there is no formal connection between Oasis and Elmwood" she explains "I think in the past Steve Chalke has spoken at our church, and I haven't been there when he's spoken, so I suppose there is some sort of connection there….I've never hidden the fact that I'm a committed Christian…I'm very up front about that so I was clear from the beginning that this was not me pushing Steve Chalke or his organisation…
"I've been very careful that all of the decision making has been very open" she adds "…My faith is fundamental to the person I am and the way I do my job, and I know that because of that, in this situation, some people will read things into it…I just wouldn't want to muddy the water with people thinking there's a personal issue here. But inevitably people do think like that…"
What we find a bit scary about this Academy, isn't the fact that it's being run by an organisation which wants to bring "the good news of Jesus to the poor", led by a bloke who wants "to drag the church into the big wide world and the world into the church". No, no, no. That's not the problem at all. Indeed Salford already has an Academy run by a church organisation called United Learning Trust. But the one that's already here declares itself as a `faith school'. The new Oasis Academy declares that it's not a faith school…
Oasis argues that it won't be pushing religion down the throats of its pupils, nor trying to convert them, nor teaching creationism. But we don't think that the organisation has made its aims crystal clear anywhere. It doesn't mention them in the press releases that Salford Council has put out about the Academy… "The charity, which was established by Steve Chalke MBE in 1985, delivers education, healthcare and housing initiatives in the UK and abroad”...It doesn’t say it also delivers the `good news of Jesus’…
Neither does it mention this anywhere in the consultation forms which parents had to fill in about the new Academy…the consultation forms that were designed by Oasis (check the subliminal `O’s all over it) and were sent back to Oasis, not the council. Anyway, on the forms it only says that Steve Chalke’s Christian faith has “inspired him”. So did parents have the right information on which to make a proper judgement on the proposed Academy ?
“It depends which parents” says Jill Baker “The ones who came to the meeting had the chance to sit down and cross examine the founding director – he encourages people to look at his website. He’s not ashamed.”
We looked at the Oasis website, and lots of other ones too. Amongst all the stuff about religion we also found how Oasis had recently employed the services of a design company to re-brand itself and its logo. `Holy Spirit’ doves and fishes were considered but rejected in favour of the `Circle of Inclusion’…which “reminds us that everyone is included when it comes to God’s love”. An exclamation mark - `!’ – from the Oasis name was dropped as it was felt to be “an expression of danger or warning”, and, the re-branding company wrote that the resulting new brand and identity for Oasis fitted the “need to attract parents to elect to send their children to these schools. The identity has the added benefit of being appealing to the kids”.
But behind all this `sophisticated’ marketing, what is Oasis actually providing ? Salford Council is giving Oasis the land on which to build its Academy free of charge. The government funds all the running costs of the Academy and all the building costs except “up to £2 million” which the sponsor provides. In the Expression of Interest for the Academy which we’ve obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Oasis are only promising “up to £1.5million”.
So, for a possible one and a half million quid investment Oasis gets a brand new multi-million pound iconic building on one of the most prestigious sites in Salford plus all its running costs, and complete control over what is taught in the Academy…
Not bad business at all for an organisation that is struggling financially. Steve Chalke, who has been running marathons to raise finance, said in The Guardian recently "We have no money". And this is borne out by the last set of the company’s accounts which stated “income fell short of plans” (although it didn’t stop one employee earning £50,000 - £59,000).
So, you have a financially insecure Christian charity getting public money to run a `non-faith’ private Academy. What does Salford get in return ? It says on the government website that Academies `draw on the expertise of the sponsor’…The Academy is going to specialise in `media and ICT’. Does Jill Baker believe Oasis has any expertise in these fields ?
“Steve Chalke works for the BBC, he has connections there” she offers, adding “But they don’t need to have that – they are the people who sponsor it…So their expertise is about community and regeneration, social inclusion…”
…And God squaddy things ?
“Parents will make that choice. In the future if you don’t want anything to do with a school based on a faith philosophy then you can still send your child to Buile” Jill concludes “We’re not saying you have to send your child here, there are a range of schools – we’re not taking anything away."
Oh but you are – you’re taking the local authority controlled non faith community Hope High school away. So is Salford Council happy with all this ?
“They’re happy” she smiles “They just need to find out if the community think it’s something they can sign up to…”
But did the community ever manage to find out what they were signing up to ?
“You'll never have community renewal…without individual renewal - it's impossible” Steve Chalke told the Jesus Army magazine “The only hope is the gospel.”