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”

alcatraz (2)
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.


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.

What are the UK’s ‘New Christian Schools’?

cee-colourlogoMost people are unaware that the UK has a movement of private evangelical schools similar to those in the USA. They refer to themselves as the New Christian Schools, and the first (The Cedars School, Rochester) opened in 1969. It is difficult to give a precise number of the schools, because there is no official body to which they are all affiliated, and some of them are not members of any larger group. Sometimes the schools have been set up to serve only a particular local religious community, and do not advertise outside it. The largest group is the Christian Schools Trust (CST), which currently has 33 member schools. Outside of the movement, these schools are best known for teaching creationism, and for their opposition to the 1998 ban on corporal punishment in private schools.

The founders of the New Christian Schools were concerned that their attempts to raise their children as Christians were threatened by attending mainstream schools (even mainstream faith schools). They wanted the religious philosophy of the schools to match their homes. “We were working hard to instil Christian values into them at home,” writes Sylvia Baker of Trinity School, Stalybridge. “Did we really want all those values to be challenged as soon as they stepped into school?”

Professor Geoffrey Walford was the first academic to study the New Christian Schools seriously. He observes:

These schools share an ideology of Biblically-based evangelical Christianity that seeks to relate the message of the Bible to all aspects of present day life whether personal, spiritual, or educational. These schools have usually been set up by parents of a church group to deal with a growing dissatisfaction with what is seen as the increased secularism of the great majority of schools. The schools aim to provide a distinctive Christian approach to every part of school life and the curriculum and, usually, parents have a continuing role in the management and organisation of the schools.

The New Christian Schools usually charge much lower fees than elite private schools, and teachers, if they are paid at all, earn very low salaries. They tend to see their work as a calling from God, and make sacrifices to achieve this vision. The founders of the Christian Schools Trust, Sylvia Baker and David Freeman, have written a book called The Love of God in the Classroom which gives a good insight into the nature of the schools. One academic paper summarises the book this way:

The new Christian school movement is grounded in belief in the God who takes the initiative within the lives of the people of God to bring to fruition the purposes of God. Here is the God who communicates with individuals and with groups through the word of scripture, through pictures and words of prophecy. Here is the God who authenticates the message through answered prayer, through healing, and through the release of the necessary finances.

Reading Baker and Freeman’s book, it becomes clear that a number of the schools’ founders believe that God speaks to them. At the Cedars’ school, for example, the authors recount a conversation between Betty Harris, the school’s founder, and God. Betty had just employed a property surveyor to inspect a building that turned out to be unsuitable for the school:

As she left the building and went out of the gate, [Betty] talked to the Lord, voicing how puzzled she felt about what had happened. “Why should the surveyor have spent all that time doing a thorough survey that you, Lord, knew wasn’t going to be needed?” Straight away the reply came.

“Because there was someone in the house that day who needed me. I want you to learn from this that each child is precious in my eyes and that no trouble is to be spared in the training of my children, in prayer and in the care that I am asking you to give them.”

“Thank you, Lord,” said Betty, “and what shall I do now?”

Most of the New Christian Schools are not part of a denomination and do not accept any label beyond ‘Christian’. In his judgement on a court case brought by several New Christian Schools, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead observed:

The claimants claim to speak on behalf of a ‘large body of the Christian community’ in this country … The claimants are reticent about the name, organisation and other particular beliefs of the group of which they are members, stating only they are all ‘practising Christians’ and that there are 40 schools conducted in accordance with these beliefs.

Accelerated Christian Education

Although the first school was founded in 1969, by 1980 there were only about ten schools. By 1990, according to Walford, there were nearly 90. Part of the reason for this expansion was Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), which arrived in Britain when Emmanuel Christian School, Fleetwood, opened in 1979. ACE is a US import in which students receive most of their education working individually at desks facing the wall, separated by vertical screens. There do not have ‘teachers’ in the conventional sense, but ‘supervisors’. If students need assistance, they raise a flag. Students complete worksheets called PACEs (Packets of Accelerated Christian Education), which incorporate Biblical lessons and Bible memorisation into every academic subject.

A row of four wooden desks, each separated by vertical screens. A child sits at each desk wearing a blue sweater.
An ACE learning centre. Image: YouTube.

A number of ACE’s features made it suitable for rapid expansion. Because the students largely teach themselves from worksheets, there is no requirement for expert teachers. This means that small schools, which could not afford a range of specialist teachers, can get by with just one or two supervisors, who do not necessarily need qualifications. It means that a wide range of ages and abilities can be taught in the same room. It was cheap, too: in 1984, ACE’s UK distributor said, “‘To commence an A.C.E. school we inform parents that they will probably need £2,500 – £3,000 to set up. It costs £600 to come on to the A.C.E. programme and then there are the curriculum materials on top of that.” ACE schools could be operated in church buildings during the week, so there were often minimal building costs.

Today, ACE is distributed by Christian Education Europe. CEE’s website currently lists 30 UK schools, of which two are also CST members.

Williamson case

In 1999, corporal punishment was banned in English schools. The New Christian Schools saw this as an infringement of religious liberty. They practised corporal punishment on the basis of such Bible verses as Proverbs 23:13-14:

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.

In response to the ban, the Christian Fellowship School, Liverpool, started a legal challenge that was supported by 50 other New Christian Schools. Christian Education Europe hosted a protest rally in London, at which the guest speakers were Garie and Marie Ezzo. This prompted a Newsnight investigation into the Ezzos, who advocated spanking children up to five times a day from the age of 18 months, and whose advice on withholding feeding from ‘disobedient’ children had been linked with failure to thrive in infants. At the time of writing, CEE still sells the Ezzos’ books on its website (to which I am deliberately not linking).

The legal challenge to the spanking ban was defeated in the European Court of Human Rights and then in the Lords. Of the outcome of this case, the Christian Schools Trust comments:

The upshot had been a ruling which they regarded as very unsatisfactory and which seemed to confirm their fears that it was becoming increasingly difficult to fulfil the purpose for which the new Christian schools had been established, to provide a setting in which children could be educated according to a Christian, rather than a secular, worldview.

I trust I am not alone in being concerned that these schools feel that hitting children is an important component of a ‘Christian worldview’.

List of Christian Schools Trust (CST) member schools (as of June 2016)

Bethany School — Sheffield
Bradford Christian School
Bournemouth Christian School
Christian Fellowship School – Liverpool
Covenant Christian School – Stockport
Emmanuel Christian School – Oxford
Emmanuel Christian School – Leicester
Emmanuel School – Walsall
Emmanuel School – Derby
Emmaus School – Wiltshire
Grangewood Independent School – London
Hope House School – Barnsley
Immanuel Christian School – Westerleigh
Immanuel School – Romford
Jubilee House Christian School – Nottingham
Kingsfold Christian School – Preston
Leeds Christian School of Excellence
Lewis Independent Christian School
Mannafields Christian School – Edinburgh
New Life Christian Academy
Plantings School – Plymouth
Regius Christian School – Edinburgh
Springfield Christian School – London
Sunrise Christian School – Glasgow
Tabernacle School – London
The Christian School – Takeley
The King’s School – Witney
The King’s School – Basingstoke
The King’s School – Harpenden
The River School – Worcester
The Vine Christian School – Reading
Trinity Christian School – Reading
Trinity School – Stalybridge

List of CEE (Christian Education Europe) affiliated schools (as of June 2016)

Branch Christian School – Dewsbury
Carmel Christian School – Bristol
Christian School of London
Emmanuel School – Exeter
Excellence Christian School – London
Faith in God’s Word – Peterborough
Greater Grace School – Chester
King of King’s School – Manchester
The King’s House School – Windsor
Kings Kids Christian School – London
London Christian Learning Centre
Luton Pentecostal Christian Academy
Maranatha Christian School – Swindon
Nursery Moksliukus – London
New Hope Academy – London
New Life Academy – Hull
Oxford Christian School
Paragon Christian Academy – London
Phoenix Academy and Nursery – London
Promised Land Academy – London
Redemption Academy – Stevenage
Regents Academy – Louth
Seed of Light Christian Academy – Manchester
The Lamb’s Christian School – Birmingham
The Vine Christian School – Reading
Zion Christian Academy – Luton
Bridgend Christian School
Cardigan Christian School
Living Rivers Christian School – Ballymena
So He Cares – London

Jonny Scaramanga also blogs at Leaving Fundamentalism.