Sexist, limiting, manipulative: my education at a church-run private school

“I wish I’d been taught about contraceptive choices and consent. Instead, I was sent out into the world naïve, judgemental and feeling like an outsider who needed to go along with things so that I wasn’t discovered.”

Photo: Charlotte90T
Photo: Charlotte90T

I went to a church-run private school in a generic town from the age of eight all the way through to the end of my GCSEs. The school was the result of the idealistic thinking of enthusiastic non-denominational charismatic Christians in the 1980s. It started off with some unqualified volunteer teachers, a classroom converted from a World War II bunker and some sexist rules about women not being able to wear trousers. By the time I got there, the bunker was out of bounds but the rest was the same. Faith was intrinsic to the school day; we had hands-in-the-air worship in assemblies, prophesy practice in tutor times, and memorised bible verses alongside our spellings and times tables.

One emotion that stands out from my school days was a growing frustration at the lack of opportunities for females. My year group consisted of lots of smart girls with natural leadership abilities, and a few quiet and retiring boys. Every opportunity was catered towards the boys, regardless of who was the best candidate for the role. From running a mock election, to writing the school newspaper, going on an exchange trip, or learning STEM subjects – the boys were the priority. It was so subconscious that I’m sure the teachers weren’t aware of their bias. I was too young to understand that I was disrupting classes out of protest for being overlooked and under-challenged. I eventually bought a Science GCSE syllabus, and taught myself and some of the other girls after school. One girl retook a GCSE module she had previously failed and got a B. She wasn’t a low achiever like the teachers assumed, she had just never been taught.

There was no sex education, just an atmosphere of scorn and disapproval. We had just one lesson in Science about the biology side of things and were told in Sociology that we shouldn’t vote for the Liberal Democrats because they were pro-choice. There was one special afternoon in Year 9 where youth leaders from the church came in, the boys and girls were separated, and taught respectively not to masturbate or kiss anyone before marriage. The emphasis on female purity was really strong. I remember thinking at the time that I would rather be murdered than raped, because then at least I would still be a virgin. I wish I’d been taught about contraceptive choices and consent. Instead, I was sent out into the world naïve, judgemental and feeling like an outsider who needed to go along with things so that I wasn’t discovered. My school friendships became toxic as we hit puberty, and those who rejected Christianity were shamed for normal teenage behaviour by their peers, including me.

With teachers sourced from the church, there was quite a lot of spiritual manipulation. My report card from Year 4 stated that I should work on my sharp tongue. This comment destroyed me when I read it, and stayed with me for years as something that was fundamentally flawed about my personality. I struggled with guilt throughout my childhood for not feeling how every adult in my life was telling me I should feel. As I got older, I would fluctuate between wanting to fit in with other teenagers and an intense guilt for not being pure enough. I would drive this into trying really hard to be a good Christian, and then feel disappointed in myself for God still not seeming real. This led to bouts of depression until I gave up trying all together.

The place became more normal during the eight years I was there, and I heard it became more secular after I left. I wouldn’t say going to the school damaged me permanently. The small class sizes suited me on the whole and I got good enough GCSE results to carry me through to A Levels. More importantly it taught me how to adapt to survive. It taught me how to spot when someone is trying to manipulate me. It gave me a sense of optimism that everything will work out for me because a deity has got everything planned, even if I’m now missing the God. These skills allowed me to leave the school behind and transition quite smoothly to a large secular sixth form, then university, and a career after that, albeit with a few years of grappling with a conflicted identity.