Here, I conclude my look at what life was like in a faith school, where I was educated between the ages of 7 and 16. This doesn’t cover every aspect of school life, but I think it gives a fair impression, often contrary to the portrait painted by those fundamentally opposed to faith schools. For the other posts in this series, please see here:
The way PE was done might be considered a little odd; in hindsight it probably was. This was largely due to the small size of the school. The boys and girls would have separate lessons, but I can’t really comment on the girls’ lessons since I was never there.
The church had, as an additional ministry to the school, a theological college. Various people from inside and outside the church would come and attend small classes, preparing them for either church leadership or missionary work. It was these ministers-in-training who would lead the PE lessons and they had fairly free reign in what they chose to do. As it happened, at just about the time I moved to the MLC, the 2 ministers-in-training consistent of a former tank driver and a hot-headed Scottish rugby enthusiast (who was also married to the pastor’s daughter!).
Consequently, they introduced rugby to the school, which we had never played before. Previously the autumn/winter sport of choice was football. The rugby was kind of a mixture of league and union, and was semi-contact, rather than full contact. So we had lineouts, mauls and scrums, but not rucks. To tackle someone, you had to get both palms of your hands on someone’s torso or arm, but you weren’t supposed to use excessive force (this rule wasn’t always followed, not least by the PE teachers themselves). The trouble was that the MLC had a spread of ages. I joined the MLC early, at the age of 10, and was playing with boys up to the age of 16. As such, there was a significant physical difference and I did not enjoy myself one little bit.
In the summer term, rugby gave way to volleyball, which I was actually very good at, in spite of my short stature. Occasionally, though, we would do athletics. I had a reasonably good technique on the discus, and I was always better on the long distance runs than the short sprints.
The school was subject to regular OFSTED inspections just as any other school would be and, as far I know, always came out with a clean bill of health. Being a small school, we were limited in what we could offer. At the time I did my options in year 9, the total number of GCSEs one could sit was 9. I sat all 9. After I went to sixth form college, I met people who had done between 10 and 13 GCSEs, but such extravagance was not afforded to us. I may have been able to do more, but I suppose we will never know.
Of course, the ultimate aim of a school is to educate students. One of the key measures of this is the exam results and you can also trace how their subsequent academic career has panned out.
By the time I left, the school was on the wane. The school regularly outperformed all the other local schools in terms of their GCSE results and the sixth form college that I went onto held the school in extremely high regard as the handful of students it turned out every year were well-rounded, hard-working students with good academic pedigree.
The staff taught multiple subjects, which I think was unusual compared to most schools. The principal, who was qualified to be a chemistry teacher, taught chemistry, one half of the biology syllabus, history and geography. The vice principal, who was qualified to teach maths, taught maths, physics and the other half of the biology syllabus. The one teacher who was qualified to teach history actually taught English language, English literature and also French. The French was interesting, as our regular French teacher left shortly after getting married, but since one foreign language was compulsory, we were in a bit of a rut. So this teacher was actually learning French at evening classes and then teaching us on a lag of about a month. The fact that one-third of her first class (i.e. 2 of us) got a grade A made her quite chuffed. Her husband taught us the first year of IT, with her eldest son teaching us the second year. This was an odd situation, as her other son was in the year below me, so he ended up having his elder brother as his teacher, as well as his mum!
Not everyone lived up to their full potential, probably with no one falling shorter of what they were capable of than myself. In my mock GCSEs I picked up 7 A* and 2 A grades. At this point I became a little arrogant and embarked upon reading the entirety of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, with the bulk of my revision being done with the BBC Bitesize. Now Bitesize was designed for people who would struggle to pass and contained very little to take people from an A grade to an A*. Consequently, I dropped a grade on 8 out of my 9 GCSEs and ended up with a pretty poor showing of 1 A*, 6 A and 2 B grades. Some might say that they were good results. But given that my mock exams had me on 7A*s and 2As, I was pretty gutted.
When I left in 2000, the size of the school had dipped to just 38 students (aged between 7 & 16, remember); at times it had been nearly double that. My year, with 6 people in it when we finished year 11, was one of the largest year groups there was. The school closed down a few years after I left. There simply weren’t enough children coming through and so the projected funds weren’t enough to keep it going. I was informed of this during my 1st year at university, though I can’t recall if it shut down mid-way through 2003 or 2004.
To characterise the school as a centre for indoctrination would be grossly wrong. An intrinsic part of it being a christian school was that it actively promoted sceptical thinking and free enquiry. While some chose to become christians whilst there or after leaving, others did not. There was no coercion of any kind to force people down one route or another. There were some who chose to become christians while they were at the school, some who made the choice afterwards. There were some who later rejected christianity and some who
Today, I am a christian. But am I a christian because of my decade at a christian school? No. I would say I am a christian despite having spent a decade in a christian school. Over the time I was there, the church became more and more conservative. Some of this leached into the school, although the headmaster was avowed Thatcherite. Having learned to think critically, I rejected this conservatism in favour of a far more sensible worldview that was in closer accordance to the christianity I discovered for myself through reading the bible and conversing with others. This is a process that carried on after I left school, went through sixth form college, university and in my working professional life.
My decade in a faith school made me a life-long learner.