What is a faith school really like? Part 1: Background and setting

Followers of the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association will be familiar with their opposition to the idea of faith schools. This gets my goat a little, not only because they seem to be wasting a lot of their hot air talking about matters which are not especially important, but also because the image they would like to paint of faith schools is misleading and inaccurate. Why do I claim this is so? Well, it’s because I spent 9.5 years in a faith school. As such, I feel I am in a reasonable position to say what does and does not go on there. Further than that, both my sisters went and my mother was a classroom assistant at the same school.

So this post is part-autobiography, part-mythbuster as to what goes on in the particular faith school that I attended.

The background to the school

In the early 1980s, my local church set up a school. Various parents at the church had some concerns with the quality of the education in the local mainstream schools. Some had started to homeschool, but there were enough qualified people in the church from which to resource the founding of a new school with a christian ethos.

Pupils would typically enter the school at the age of 7 (though admission did happen at later ages) and leave after the completion of their GCSEs (O-levels) when they were 16. I entered in January 1991. The school was split into two main classrooms, the Intermediate Learning Centre (ILC) and the Main Learning Centre (MLC). The ILC was for students aged 7-10/11 before you would go to the MLC. You would then stay in the MLC until you left, aged 16. The whole school was housed within the church building. The ILC occupied one room near the front of the church and the MLC occupied the basement. This necessitated a lot of shifting of furniture on a Monday and a Friday or, as happened sometimes, the church building was needed for a mid-week funeral.

Each student would have their own “office”. These were desks that were separated by yellow boards of wood, where you would keep your books and stationery. They were fairly small, so if you needed more space, you had to ask a member of the teaching staff if you could use a tressle table. To ask for assistance, you had to put one of 2 flags on top of your office. There was a union jack which was for a monitor (teaching assistant) and a random-looking “christian flag” for a supervisor (class teacher).

Admissions

One of the key objections to faith schools is that they are selective, and therefore potentially discriminatory. In my school, the criteria was the beliefs of the parents. Their parents did not need to have to be members of the church nor did they even have to be regular attendees. All they had to do was to show a commitment to a church and to agree to the doctrinal basis of the school, which was tied to that of the church. This was not binding on both parents; I can recall at least one family where one parent refused to have anything to do with any church, though the parent was a member. That said, the vast majority of the children at the school were from two-parent families where both parents were christians.

What was not selective was academic ability. This resulted in a wide of people actually being admitted. The year above me had 3 people in it. One was a chap who was great with computers long before it became “cool” to do so – he went on to do Computer Science at Oxford University. Another chap had a mental disability; had he not been in this school he would have had to go to a special school. If I recall correctly, his great achievement was leaving school with 2 GCSEs. Everyone was chuffed for him, as he had (and still has) a heart of gold. The third chap had missed out on several years’ worth of school, as his parents had moved around a lot and he had had to restart every time they moved.

As a student there, I was not party to the full details of the school’s finances. It was fee-paying, though I am unaware whether or not it received any government subsidy. I don’t think it did, but I can’t be 100% that that’s correct.

With all that said, I have no evidence of anyone ever having been turned away from the school. As it had to be fee-paying, some families in the church couldn’t afford them and so opted to home-school.

Uniform

When the school was founded, they wanted to have a school uniform that would mark the students out as being distinctive; something that couldn’t possibly be mistaken for belonging to another school. In so doing, there was a bit of a quandary. Most of the colours and styles were already taken. So the school opted for what was left: brown.

The boys wore brown jumpers, brown caps and predominantly brown ties (though the tie did have yellow and green narrow stripes in it), yellow shirts and grey trousers. One thing we were able to look forward to was turning 13, because then we were allowed to ditch the caps. The girls had 2 different uniforms: one for winter, one for summer. The winter uniform was similar to the boys’ except that they wore brown skirts and had brown bowler hats instead of caps. In the summer, they wore brown and white gingham-check dresses and had straw boater hats. For sports, we had dark green tracksuits. The rest depended on what sport we were doing.

As a result, we were very noticeable, though not always in a good way. Most students walked to school, and there was a high level of verbal bullying from students from other schools. I lived at the other end of town from most people, so was a rarer sight. As my mum worked at the school, she preferred to drive the 1 mile there and back, so I didn’t walk terribly often. But when I did it wasn’t unknown for me to have things thrown at me (often apple cores and banana skins) en route.

Coming up

In part 2, I’ll look specifically at the curriculum and teaching. To satisfy some people’s thirst, I have included a small section on creationism in this, as that seems to be a topic of interest and ire in equal measure amongst those who take an interest in faith schools.

In part 3, I’ll finish off the curriculum by looking at sports, before discussing the academic standards and the legacy of the school.

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