Last week, I wrote about various media reports on faith education, from Jewish yeshivas to ACE schools. After spending quite a lot of time thinking about ACE schools this week, I’ve decided to answer the charges of Andrew Copson et al against them.
There appear to be two main objections, skilfully combined to create an anti-Christian rhetoric – I have separated the strands of the argument to give a clear picture of the evidence. The first relates to the ACE pedagogy. Whatever your view on the way the classroom operates, evidence of an excellent education is beyond dispute. ACE schools are subject to Ofsted inspections, and they have generally been found to be either good (generally with capacity to improve to outstanding) or already outstanding.
The curriculum is broad and balanced; individual study each morning is usually followed by group work, physical or practical studies in the afternoons and provision for pupils is deemed to be very good. Self-motivation and self-confidence in learning were of particular note across a range of inspections, and these are virtues which ACE aims to nurture through its ethos.
Lost in the near-hysteria of its own media hype, the BHA has conveniently overlooked this empirical evidence, but it was spotted by the BBC in an interview with Ben Medlock, co-founder of the SwiftKey smartphone keyboard app, himself ACE educated. His view: his ACE education gave him motivation that ‘became critical’ while studying at Cambridge University. He went on to say:
‘While my own faith has evolved significantly from the conservatism of my childhood, I do feel that the values of the school provided students with a positive . . . framework in which to view the world and interact with those around them. The curriculum encouraged students to take responsibility for their own work, not only setting their own goals but also, where appropriate, marking their work against a key. For me, this stimulation towards self determination was a positive aspect of my school experience. In short, my experience of this school was one of rich opportunities, deep friendships and the usual mix of childhood joy and pain.’
This is exactly the kind of learning that the DfE espouses.
Inspectors found ACE schools compliant with all safeguarding and health and safety legislation. And when it came to pupil behaviour and welfare, the narrative was common in the schools inspected, too. Students behave positively towards each other, taking turns ‘graciously’ when playing. Bullying is virtually non-existent and pupils are socially motivated, caring and supportive of each other.
All the attributes of character education so beloved by this government were in evidence. But here’s the thing – character education is both caught and taught and if adults in a community don’t walk the talk, children will follow their example, not their words. So everything inspectors noticed about the social and behavioural attitudes of students will be evidenced by staff and parents too.
So what’s not to like? ACE schools teach from an explicitly stated Christian worldview, with the Bible acknowledged as the authoritative word of God, and it is this framework which causes all the angst. The Christianity litmus test for secularists relates to marriage and creation, and on both of these counts, they deem ACE schools to fail their test.
They teach that God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman and that we live in, and are stewards of, a world created by a loving God. Well, Archbishop Sentamu defines Christian marriage in the same way and he also makes the point very clearly that to believe that this is God’s design does not make a person homophobic. It was noted by inspectors that ACE students are taught about understandings of marriage that differ from the Biblical definition; they are also taught about God’s love for all humanity and the need to respect people, whatever their choices. The same is true of creation – students learn about evolution as a theory but are taught that the Bible says that God created the world. They are quite free to examine both views and form their own opinions.
Antagonists of Christian schooling would do well to consider all the evidence, not just make judgments based on predetermined prejudice. Christian parents choose Christian education for their children, and they have a right, enshrined in human rights legislation, to do so. Children are free, as was Jonny Scaramanga, their most vociferous critic, to make up their own minds about faith as they grow up. What he doesn’t have the right to do is seek to destroy what he no longer values.
Many ACE schools are due for inspections in the next few months. It will be interesting to see how much impact humanist lobbying has had on the views of Ofsted and how much the inspectorate is going to be influenced by liberal secular thinking. With the quality of education which ACE schools offer, judgment shouldn’t hinge on academic standards or compliance. It will, however, probably be determined solely by the current social orthodoxy and the determination of this government to impose its one-size-fits-all agenda on all schools, even at the expense of denying parents their right to educate their children ‘in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions’.
Watch this space…