No freedom of belief, no freedom really at all: growing up in a fundamentalist Christian school

“Everybody that was in the school was from the church. Everybody I met was from the church”

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Cubicles or ‘offices’ in an Accelerated Christian Education school

I went to an Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) school from when I was nine until I was fourteen. My parents were deeply religious, so when their church decided to open a school, I, along with my sister and seven other kids, were put into this experiment. The church and the school were blurred into one institution.

I had been bullied a lot at junior school because I was a soft target. The ACE school seemed like a safer environment to start off with, but it became apparent quite quickly that I was really contained within this structure that I couldn’t escape from. Everybody that was in the school was from the church. Everybody I met was from the church. I became frustrated very quickly because you were so closely monitored.

I was punished for asking questions. I really didn’t buy their creationism. When I was 11 or 12, I started to see holes in their argument. Everyone was so fervent in their beliefs, that this was the only way. As a kid, you think ‘Why are you so entranced with it that you’re unwilling to look at other things?’ I started asking questions about dinosaurs and Noah’s Flood.

The church actually brought in an American creationist preacher, a Ken Ham type, trying to fight science with ‘science’. For me that was the final nail in the coffin.

One morning I just went ‘I don’t believe this’, and at that point they started coming down on me really heavily. In a small school, if you’ve got one kid that’s really rattling the pot, they try and close you down and shut you up. Back then, because it was a private school, corporal punishment was legal, and my parents had agreed to it. You’d get the ruler if you were in too much trouble. Every week without fail, I got the ruler, either on the palm of my hand or on my backside. I got numb to it. It was just part of the process of going to school.

The church actually brought in an American creationist preacher, a Ken Ham type, trying to fight science with ‘science’. For me that was the final nail in the coffin. I was like ‘Nah, this guy’s talking guff as well’. They told us humans and dinosaurs were wandering about at the same time. When I asked questions they told me that the reason we find fossils on mountains is because the Flood put them there. A few times I even heard the old argument that the devil put dinosaur bones in the ground. The Piltdown Man hoax was brought up a lot. Even as a kid I was thinking: Yeah, but the scientists put their fingers up and went ‘We made a mistake with that one. Sorry about that’. Sometimes they just said this was God’s Word and I shouldn’t question it.

My mum volunteered in the school, so if I got in trouble with a teacher it would always feed back to my parents. It was a combination of the school ramming what they wanted down my throat and then when I get home my parents ramming their agenda down my throat. I said one thing out of line in a lesson, and I’d get it in the neck from the teacher and then I’d get it in the neck from my parents when I got back. I spent most of my school life in detention.

One morning I just went ‘I don’t believe this’, and at that point they started coming down on me really heavily.

I was just getting angrier and angrier, especially as I hit my teenage years. I was still getting picked on because I didn’t fit into the system. I remember praying to get the flu so I wouldn’t have to go to school.

There was definitely favouritism—the more pious you were, the better you did. Those who were more ‘godly’ were given special privileges, and they’re the kids now that have become leaders in their own churches and missionaries. We had a merit system, and at the end of the week the pastor would take the kids with the most merits to get an ice cream sundae or something. I think I managed that once.

For two or three hours a week, I’d watch services where my parents were speaking in tongues and falling over. They conducted exorcisms and all sorts. It was like mass hysteria. They were normal people until you put them all in a room together and threw in a couple of Bibles, and they’d all just go crazy. I show people videos of stuff like that now, and they can’t believe I was ever part of it. As soon as I hit ten or twelve, I backed away. My parents compared me to the kids that did better in the school. They’d tell me ‘They’re doing it. Why don’t you do that?’ I was like ‘I’m not them. I don’t believe that. I’m not gonna be the person you want me to be.’

When I left, the transition to a normal school was the worst thing ever. The church had told my parents that I would fall in with the wrong crowd and end up getting up to no good. I did exactly as they prophesied. I got labelled by the church. They’d say ‘We’ll pray for him. He’ll end up getting in trouble because he is the way he is’. My parents thought it was down to the devil. Nobody looked in the mirror and thought maybe we’ve put a foot wrong here. It was just because I didn’t believe.

Going to the school affected my life for a very long time afterwards.

It wasn’t until I met my long-time partner that I realised how much it had affected me. As you progress through a relationship, issues come up. As a teenager I was a party animal. I liked to drink and take a lot of drugs. I wasn’t really angry or aggressive, I just blanked stuff out. As I progressed into my mid-twenties, my anger issues were affecting my relationships, so I put myself through counselling. It wasn’t until the second or third load that I got down to the nitty-gritty of the church, the effect the containment had had on me, the inability to escape the confines of it. I was unaware that it had had that much of a negative effect on my life until I spoke about it openly. Now I understand where it’s come from I can turn it into something positive. For a long time it weighed me down.

The thing that affected me was the feeling of being constantly judged. As a kid, I didn’t feel like I fitted in. It wasn’t for me. You were constantly being judged by everyone within the church. They were always praying for you, always trying to get you to participate in the services and stuff like that.

Going to the school affected my life for a very long time afterwards. In hindsight, you look back on it and think it’s crazy. But getting through it has definitely made me a stronger person.


Lack of ‘SRE’ in schools leaves pupils exposed to the damaging lies of pro-life groups

“The result had been devastating for three young women, who ran out of the assembly crying after it was inferred that they were murderers, because they had had an abortion.”

Julia Bradley – Education Manager at BPAS

I have been involved in teaching sex and relationships education for the last 15 years.  Both, as a school nurse, then working for my local authority, and now as education manager for British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).  Over these years, we have seen different political parties come and go, debates about making sex and relationships education (SRE) compulsory, and new guidance being needed, but never produced.  What has actually changed? Well nothing at the time of writing.

The problem with this is it puts young people at risk from organisations with very strong (not always accurate) views and beliefs, and in these days when money for school SRE is very tight or non-existent, these same organisations offer their services for free.  Which for cash strapped schools can seem like a great option to ensure their students get these vital life skill messages.  But do we really want to trust such organisations?

When I was working for my local authority I received a very upsetting call from a school nurse at a mixed secondary school.  She had been asked to support an assembly on abortion, delivered by a pro-life organisation.  The result had been devastating for three young women, whom had run out crying after it was inferred that they were murderers, because they had had an abortion.  This was a 6th form assembly with 150 young people present, so the odds of someone in the room either having had or knowing someone who had had an abortion were high.

In what other part of a schools’ curriculum could you get away with giving young people such wrong and misleading information? 

As we know 1 in 3 women will have had an abortion by the age of 45.  Why then is so little planning and prep given to such important areas of young people’s lives?  If the school had asked their visitors exactly what they were going to deliver (a very graphic DVD with misleading information given out afterwards) and watched it beforehand, would the fall-out have been as awful?  If the students knew the content, then they could choose to attend or not.  This unfortunately is not my only account of such practice happening in schools.

In my BPAS role, I visited a mixed secondary C of E school last year in the home counties to deliver a pro-choice session, as the school the week before had a pro-life group in.  I was hoping in the intervening years since my last experience of such groups things would have improved.  Sadly I was wrong.  The head-of-year greeted me, with a rather worried look on his face. The woman that had come to deliver was quite aggressive with the students, waving her finger at them, almost admonishing them.  I reassured him I deliver facts and evidence based information, for them to research and make up their own minds.  I was also worried that the students had been given misinformation regarding emergency contraception (being told it was the same as abortion), despite the entire medical evidence to the contrary.  Emergency contraception aims to interfere with ovulation and fertilisation before implantation happens, where as medical abortion ends a pregnancy.  I corrected other things they had been told, and pointed them to local NHS clinics or unbiased web sites, such as NHS choices for YP, for them to find support and information.

In what other part of a schools’ curriculum could you get away with giving young people such wrong and misleading information?  The answer is, I don’t think we could in any other subject.

The British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS) 

I was booked to go to a sixth form boy’s grammar school later this year, again, to do a follow-up after a pro-life session.  The school then asked to change the format, so we had a head-to-head debate, which I declined, as I don’t feel it would have been supportive of the young men’s education, or given them the correct information about sex and relationships, particularly, condom use.   When I explained my concerns, the school decided to cancel the whole idea.  It’s such a shame for those young men at a pertinent time of their lives.

My last experience of helping to put accurate information to young people, was after a pro-life group set up a stall and banners outside a 6th form college on the south coast.  They were not invited by the college, but set up on the pavement outside.  It was brought to my attention, because a mother of a young woman at the college contacted BPAS through Facebook, because she was so worried, as she had collected her older daughter but had her younger child in the car.  She was also concerned that a young person at the college may have been experiencing unintended pregnancy or may have had an abortion, and the effects it would have on them.  I approached the college, and was invited to have a stand during their ‘Be Well’ week teaming up with the local sexual health drop-in.  It was a great success with many young people dropping by for accurate information, exploring contraception, condom use, STI’s and un-biased places to obtain a pregnancy test, or access sexual health services.

I recognise the desire of schools to present young people with a balanced education, but there is no virtue in any balance struck between information and misinformation. Unfortunately, in my experience, that is the kind of balance that many schools end up presenting when they ask both a pro-life group and a group like BPAS in to speak. That makes my job, and potentially these young people’s lives, all the harder.

I am passionate about sexual and reproductive health and have devotion for teaching young people about SRE, and I believe that all young people should have access to accurate, unbiased, up-to-date information about relationships, puberty, sex, consent, contraception and STI’s.  Delivered to them in (and out of) schools, by people who want to impart this knowledge in a manner that will allow them to obtain the facts, in order for them to have safe, enjoyable and healthy sex lives, either now or in the future.

Julia Bradley – Education Manager & Lead Nurse BPAS.

Inside Britain’s homophobic Christian schools

“Though the researchers do not put it this way, the evidence suggests that attending a New Christian School makes you more likely to be homophobic”

There has recently been a flurry of interest in alleged homophobic teachings at Islamic and Jewish faith schools. In particular, unregistered schools reportedly promoting “misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic material” have come under fire. Of course, it is right that homophobic teaching is challenged wherever it is found. Strangely, however, numerous Ofsted-inspected private Christian schools have promoted similar views, yet attracted comparatively little scrutiny.

Known collectively as the ‘New Christian Schools’, a group of evangelical schools have long been open about their teaching of what they would call ‘traditional Christian morality’. Accelerated Christian Education schools are a part of this loosely-affiliated movement, which also includes numerous other kinds of evangelical school. In a 1988 book, an advocate for these Christian schools listed “homosexuality taught as a valid alternative” among the reasons for parents to reject mainstream education.

Husband: means a man who has a wife. Wife: means a woman who has a husband.
Image from ACE Social Studies 1029, a workbook used in some New Christian Schools.

In a 2005 study, 21% of boys aged 13-15 in non-religious secondary schools agreed with the statement “homosexuality is wrong”. For boys attending New Christian Schools, that figure was 70%. It’s an alarming statistic, but these boys’ negative attitudes to homosexuality might not be caused by their schools. Students in the New Christian Schools are much more likely than secular school students to come from evangelical homes and attend evangelical churches. Maybe they get their negative attitudes to homosexuality from their family or religious leaders.

Using the same data, a 2014 study tried to find out. Using statistical analysis, they tried to disentangle the effects of attending a New Christian School from other demographic factors: age, sex, location, social class, and religious affiliation. Unfortunately, the study did not control for parents’ religious affiliation and observance, which limits the conclusions, but it did control for students’ religious practice and belief.

Boys attending New Christian Schools are over three times more likely than secular school boys to agree “homosexuality is wrong”.

Before controlling for demographic factors, the researchers noted that “students in independent Christian schools were less accepting of abortion, contraception, divorce, homosexuality, and sex outside marriage”. They then found that even after demographic factors had been taken into account:

Independent Christian schools seem to shape students … who hold more conservative views on sexual morality (abortion, conception, divorce, homosexuality, and sex outside marriage).

Though the researchers do not put it this way, the evidence suggests that attending a New Christian School makes you more likely to be homophobic.

Just 20% of New Christian School students think gay couples should be allowed to look after children. We should ask why. Children are not born bigots.

More recent data supports this conclusion. In 2009, Sylvia Baker, a senior figure in the New Christian Schools movement, completed a survey of the schools’ secondary students for her PhD thesis. Explaining the schools’ position of homosexuality, Baker writes:

The new Christian schools tend to take a conservative line on the Christian view of marriage as it has traditionally been defined and regard the Bible’s teaching as precluding homosexual behaviour …

The schools would deny the accusation of homophobia and would claim that in their teaching they stress love for one’s neighbour and the importance of non-judgemental attitudes. However, historically, the teaching of Christianity on the subject of homosexuality, based on various passages from the Bible, is that homosexual practice and lifestyle is a sin.

Baker collected questionnaires from almost the entire student bodies aged 13-16 at 25 New Christian Schools. For our current purposes, three of the items on her questionnaire are of particular interest:

Homosexuality is wrong. Agree 68%, Not Sure 15%, Disagree 16%. Gay couples should be allowed to care for children. Agree 20%, Not sure 18%, disagree 62%. Gay couples should be allowed to marry. Agree 15%, not sure 16%, disagree 70%.

Just 20% of students in these schools thought gay couples should be allowed to care for children, and 15% think they should be allowed to marry. Baker seems to regard these findings as a success. Elsewhere in the thesis, she denies that the New Christian Schools indoctrinate their students, and she seems to take these findings as evidence:

While these data certainly support the view that the schools are upholding traditional Christian teaching on the issue of homosexuality, it also indicates that 30 to 40% of the pupils feel able to either reject or question that teaching.

The data, of course, tell us nothing of the sort. This was an anonymous survey, so we know nothing about whether students feel able to express support for homosexuality openly in their schools. And no system of indoctrination—not Hitler’s Germany, not Mao’s China, not North Korea—has ever been entirely effective, so these data also tell us little about how many students (if any) are indoctrinated.

The findings do give cause for concern, however. Rather than point to the 20% of students who agreed gay couples should be allowed to look after children, Baker should ask about the 62% who said the opposite. Children are not born bigots.

Since the introduction of the Government’s controversial ‘British Values’ programme, many Jewish and Islamic schools have come under scrutiny for their teachings on homosexuality. One school was recently banned from accepting new students in part because it did not teach students about same-sex relationships or encourage “respect for people who have such characteristics”.

If Ofsted and the Government do not apply these criteria evenly to all schools, including Christian schools, then the ‘British Values’ scheme will start to look less like it’s about promoting tolerance and more like a crusade against ‘alien’ religious beliefs.

Jonny Scaramanga also blogs at Leaving Fundamentalism.