My experience at the only Christian Science school in the UK

There are only 12 Christian Science schools in the world

I went to a small independent school nestled in the heart of Surrey. It was, as small independent schools go, fairly normal but for one thing: it is the only school in the UK run by Christian Scientists.

Most of the time it was all quite innocuous, of course. The teachers and pupils were all pleasant and fairly normal. The most explicit references to faith tended to be fairly untoward affairs, like assemblies that propounded virtue and annual trips to the local Christian Science church. That made the times its influence was obvious all the more memorable.

First, there were the guidelines for Charity Week, in which students could pick three charities to support. Any charity was eligible at all, any at all, except those that funded medical research.

Second was its effect when, like humpty dumpty, I had a great fall. Emerging rather bloodied from it, I was rushed to first aid, where I got all of a clean cloth, water, and a copy of the Christian Science Monitor.

This is because Christian Science is a sect founded by Mary Baker Eddy which believes a number of interesting things, the most relevant of which is their own form of Manicheanism, in which the spiritual world is the truly real one and our ailments in the physical one are all indicative of spiritual ills. As such, curing our ailments requires only that we resolve our spiritual issues, all else being a distraction. They are very serious about this: their first church, located in Boston, maintains a list of every case their form of faith healing has worked, although it’s rather short on cases where it failed.

It was all rare enough, and Christian Science is small enough, to be unthreatening and even occasionally quaint, but their aversion to medicine is troubling. Luckily, very few pupils took it seriously.


Five ‘ACE’ years: my story of a fundamentalist education – part two

This is the second part of a two-part piece. The first part, posted last week, can be read here.

When I tell people I was home-schooled, they think one of my parents must have been a teacher (or at least educated beyond GCSEs), or that I had a private tutor. I’m met with faces of disbelief when I try to explain that I didn’t have a teacher at all.

I could memorise the information I was fed by Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) in their published booklets, but if I didn’t understand, or had questions, or wanted to learn something outside of that very narrow, biased curriculum, I had nowhere to turn. I feel like I didn’t learn anything at all over the four crucial years between 13 and 17. I wasn’t supervised on any level. After an initial period of enthusiasm for home-education, my mother lost interest and indeed the energy to try and make sure five young children were engaged with their studies. Most days, the youngest kids would be taken out to run errands and make visits to friends with mother, while the (slightly) older children were left in a house to get on with chores, clean and cook dinners. This is how I spent the majority of my days – keeping house and child-minding.

“I lost years of my life that I can’t get back and the consequences of which I will always have to live with.”

Because PACEs (Packets of Accelerated Christian Education) only require those learning from them to read a comprehension text and fill out the blanks in the sentences that follow, or to answer questions by slightly rewriting what you have just written in the text, it is very easy to fill out without any understanding or gaining any knowledge from them. What is more, the child is meant to mark their own work by checking their answers against an answer booklet. If supervised, the child should ask permission to mark their work. However, alone at home, it was easy to cheat. Entire PACEs could be filled out in one go by copying from the answer book. Without an atmosphere conducive for learning, with nothing to inspire or engage the mind and with no adult attention whatsoever, it is surely no surprise that the ACE curriculum, such as it is, would be misused.

What is more, as home-schoolers, we would only be inspected once a year at most. We would know of the date of the visit in advance, allowing us to knock-up a portfolio of examples of what we had been doing the past year. The portfolio would largely be made up of cute photos of us all crafting. Here we are basket weaving, here we are oil painting, here we are stroking a rabbit and learning about animal-husbandry. On the day the inspector would come, I would be in the kitchen making home made scones to offer him. We would be so pleasant and twee, how could anyone think that these children were being neglected in anyway? The inspector would then have a chat with the parent rather than the child who would be left alone for another year.

“Had I been allowed to develop my mind, broaden my understanding of the world, meet people different from myself, I am sure my eventual transition into the outside world would have been a lot more manageable.”

When thinking of home-schoolers, people tend to worry about their social skills. Will they be able to integrate into society later in life? Will they be super nerdy and unable to socialise? While I’m sure being home-schooled can make things more difficult due to the physical isolation from other children, I believe this is not as damaging as the isolation that comes from being totally alienated from the culture, common knowledge and shared experiences of the majority of the population. I put my social anxiety down to the deep inferiority I was left with once I entered the outside world and found out how very alien I really was. I didn’t seem to know anything that anyone else knew; from basic math, science, geography and history knowledge to understanding popular culture references, ways of communicating and finding areas of commonality with others. I couldn’t spell well, my vocabulary was restricted, I didn’t know the names of countries and capitals, I’d never been abroad. I hadn’t watched TV or “secular” films. I didn’t know any songs on the radio or the names of any celebrities. Wherever I went, I was always the freak and the outsider.

A quote from the first part of this piece.

The combination of physical, intellectual and cultural isolation has resulted in my suffering from social anxiety disorder, selective mutism, generalised anxiety disorder and chronic depression. If I had had at least one of those areas intact, had I been allowed to develop my mind, broaden my understanding of the world, meet people different from myself, I am sure my eventual transition into the outside world would have been a lot more manageable.

I don’t know what my future would have looked like if there wasn’t an intervention around the age of 17. This did not come from a government worker or any other official. Simply, my mother had a nervous breakdown and I could no longer safely live in the same house as her. This being known within the church, another family took me in temporarily. I continued to do my PACEs during my stay with them; sometimes I had the company of the mum of the house who was doing an Open University course, sometimes I was alone because the parents were at work and their two children at school. They had a daughter who was my age and she was applying to do her A Levels at a local grammar school. They thought, why not try to enrol me as well? This was how I escaped. The school took a chance on me. A family supported me. Of course it was extremely challenging entering the school system, but that’s more than I can say here.

Ten years later, I still feel the effects of having been stunted in my education and development. I feel I was prevented from achieving my full potential, even from achieving a small percentage of my potential. I lost years of my life that I can’t get back and the consequences of which I will always have to live with.


Facts vs falsehoods: churches continue to mislead on how inclusive their schools are

“It is a sad state of affairs when a humanist organisation will stand up for the rights of Muslims to access a wide variety of schools, but a group purporting to be the national Muslim body won’t do likewise.”

Last week the British Humanist Association (BHA) published research challenging misleading claims made by both the Church of England and the Catholic Education Service that their schools were inclusive of pupils from Muslim backgrounds, with many schools even taking a majority of Muslim-background pupils.  

The research was published on the back of a Sunday Times report last month which found that ‘Muslim pupils outnumber Christian children in more than 30 church schools’, with the report saying that ‘The Church of England estimated that about 20 of its schools had more Muslim pupils than Christians and 15 Roman Catholic schools had majority Muslim pupils, according to the Catholic Education Service.’.

The Church of England in particular was quick to herald these numbers as a telling demonstration of just how ‘wide open to the communities they serve’ their schools are. Indeed, in comments that received widespread media coverage across the national press, the CofE’s education chief Nigel Genders noted that whilst ‘some still seem surprised when they hear of Church of England schools serving people of other faiths’, many parents tell him that they choose church schools precisely because ‘they know they will get a much more diverse sense of community rather than being separated out’.

Unfortunately for both the Church of England and the Catholic Education Service, the BHA then did some research which revealed that only a quarter of CofE and Catholic schools situated in areas where most young people identify as ‘Muslim’ actually take most of their pupils from Muslim backgrounds. Not so ‘wide open to the communities they serve’ after all.

Bizarrely, the CofE’s response to this was not to debunk the BHA’s statistics, which in fact are simply drawn from official Census data and remain unchallenged. Rather, the CofE has sought to distance itself from its own figures. Quoted in Schools Week, Mr Genders accused the BHA of:

‘attempting to contrast a purely anecdotal figure calculated by a Sunday newspaper with entirely separate census statistics.’

Now, even if we forget for a moment that the CofE was perfectly happy with the supposedly ‘anecdotal figure’ when it was using it to launch into a very public exercise in patting itself on the back, for it to say that the figure was ‘calculated by a Sunday newspaper’ is misleading in the extreme. It may have been published by a Sunday newspaper, presumably at the Church’s urging, but calculated? No. Let’s have a look again at exactly what was reported:

‘The Church of England estimated that about 20 of its schools had more Muslim pupils than Christians’

Note: ‘The Church of England estimated’. An anecdotal figure it may be, but if it is, then it is the Church’s own anecdotal figure. And discrediting a Sunday newspaper for publishing it is some way to thank them for a writing a puff piece in the first place.

At any rate, very little was made in the Schools Week piece of the Catholic figures. We found that 73 Catholic schools are situated in areas where most young people identify as ‘Muslim’, while just 15 were reported by the Sunday Times to actually take most of their pupils from Muslim backgrounds. Even if the Church of England’s figure is in fact an inaccurate ‘anecdote’ that they should never have told the press was an ‘estimate’ of which it was proud, the Catholic figure is undoubtedly accurate. Because unlike the CofE, the Catholic Education Service surveys all the pupils in its schools to find out their religious backgrounds. So it is definitely the case that Catholic schools are woefully exclusive.

Incidentally, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was also quoted in Schools Week leaping to the defence of the Church of England’s schools – another bizarre response given how exclusive they are of the people the MCB is supposed to represent. It is a sad state of affairs when a humanist organisation will stand up for the rights of Muslims to access a wide variety of schools, but a group purporting to be the national Muslim body won’t do likewise.

In any case, the lesson here should be clear: if you don’t want your falsehoods (if, indeed, they are falsehoods) undermined by the facts, don’t publish falsehoods in the first place. Unfortunately, given all that we know about the proponents of religious discrimination and segregation in our education system, we can’t imagine it’s a lesson they’ll learn.

FSA staff