A neutral observer’s view of ACE schools

This is from the Times Educational Supplement, Scotland, July 2007:

“The modest building is home to the River of Life Christian School, where pupils aged 5 to 18 sit quietly in a network of booths and work through a vast pile of booklets throughout their school days.

Standard grade and Higher are unfamiliar terms here. Individualised learning with a religious thread is preferred, built around the American Accelerated Christian Education system. Testing goes on throughout each child’s time at school, but there is no build-up to pivotal exams at a pre-determined age. Staff liken ACE to the International Baccaleaureate.”

Unlike most press coverage of ACE in this country, the writer, Henry Hepburn, reserves judgement, and is happy to point out what seem like positives. In doing so, he reminds me how wonderful an ACE school appeared to me for my first couple of terms.

“Some River of Life methods will raise eyebrows, but the school’s pupils prove it does some things very well. They are polite and caring, older children often spend spare time playing with younger ones, and bullying and indiscipline are almost non-existent. Some pupils are introspective, others engagingly cheeky. Creativity and intellectual discussion may appear muted, but senior pupils are eloquent and contemplative, aware of the school’s religious basis while open to other ideas.

“Many will see the school’s booths as divisive and the reliance on biblical values as inculcation. Staff believe the booths are liberating and that biblical values provide a moral template. What is certain is that River of Life’s pupils are not scripture-quoting clones. Perhaps they are quieter, perhaps better behaved but, all in all, they are not so different from children in any other school.”

Please do read the whole thing. For my money, it’s not critical enough, but that’s exactly why I’m posting it. I’ve given nothing but criticism of Accelerated Christian Education on this blog. I’m not finished yet, but if you’re not persuaded by now that ACE gives us some genuine cause for concern, I doubt I will ever change your mind. I’ll give you my thoughts on the article after the jump, but if you’ve only got time to read one or the other, go for the TES article.

I first read this article three or four years ago. Although I don’t remember my action clearly, I suspect it made me furious. I’m pretty sure it was this article that prompted me to write in my TES article, “It shocked me when Ofsted inspectors gave the school glowing reports. They could not possibly see what was happening.” Henry Hepburn, the Ofsted inspectors, and I all had similar reactions after seeing an ACE school for just a brief period: It seemed an incredibly peaceful and loving place.

Now, it’s not true that there’s no bullying in ACE schools. I know this because I distinctly remember doing some bullying while I was at Victory. Mainly, I bullied other children whose beliefs about God were different from mine. The conception that I had, driven strongly all the way by ACE, was that I knew the absolute Truth. That meant that any other view was inferior, and therefore a reasonable target for abuse. That’s a risk you take when you teach children they have the ultimate answers. I feel awful about it now.

But it’s true, bullying is virtually non-existent between pupils in ACE schools. I would argue that’s because the teachers bully the pupils instead. “Intimidation” is the word the Reverend Stephen Parsons uses in his book Ungodly Fear: Fundamentalist Christians and the Abuse of Power.

It also annoys me that they were able to get away with, “Staff liken ACE to the International Baccalaureate.” They can liken it all they want.

“The conditions make for a quietness that pervades the school. The teachers speak softly, gently encouraging pupils, while the head, Helen Smith, keeps an eye on things from a raised stage in the room, where she often works.

The quiet diligence can border on the monastic. Even at lunch time, there is a conspicuous lack of boisterousness inside. The dining table is orderly and after meals the older pupils find corners where they gently pluck at unplugged electric guitars or update personal networking websites.”

This is a near-perfect description of the ACE learning centres I’ve seen. I loved this quietness for the first year I was in ACE. After a term, I moved from a smaller learning centre with fewer than 20 students to a larger one with more like 60, and didn’t like the increase in noise that came from having more bodies in a bigger space. There was always gentle background music playing, usually classical, but sometimes godawful panpipe renditions of pop songs. One of the CDs had a panpipe version of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” on it. One of the boys occasionally mimed the words in his office, and if he was feeling particularly rebellious, made some grand gestures while doing so. My immediate neighbour found this very amusing. It didn’t happen often because that kind of monkey business could engender a serious bollocking. And our supervisor dealt out the kind of bollockings that are not swiftly forgotten.

“School inspectors were unstinting in their praise for the rapport between pupils and staff, perhaps unsurprisingly given the school’s origins in home tutoring.”

Again, this is undeniably true. Despite the fact that our supervisors could shout at us in ways that were genuinely frightening, and deal out punishments that were far worse, there was a genuine sense that they loved us in my learning centre. And there was a genuine sense on the part of the pupils that we were where God wanted us to be. Unquestionably, if you ask students in ACE schools, I would expect the vast majority to say they like the school and wouldn’t want to go to a state equivalent, faith school or otherwise.

So what’s wrong then? Certainly, my ACE school made me incredibly unhappy. A number of people feel they were abused by the system, among them  my guest posters (Matthew, Cat, Tim), various other people on the internet (and more), and several people who have emailed me but declined to speak publicly. But does it follow from this that ACE is bad or wrong? Is there any reason why children who feel they enjoy the system shouldn’t go through it?

You know what, I’m not going to try to answer that, for once. I’d like to know what you think though. Let me know in the comments.

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About Jonny Scaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on November 19, 2012, in Accelerated Christian Education, Education, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism, School of Tomorrow and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. So what’s wrong then?

    I have no experience with ACE, so I might be way off. But this part seems strange to me:

    The school’s 24 pupils spend much of the time isolated from each other in individual booths, going at their own pace, setting themselves weekly targets and marking their own work.

    Children learn from each other. I certainly learned from other students. This is particularly true in subjects where there can be class discussion. I would see one student tackle a question in a way that had never occurred to me. And that can be an eye opener.

    It is easier for older, more mature students to work alone. But I think that is difficult for younger children. I would expect them to be feeling lonely while in a group.

    That’s my immediate reaction.

    Let me add some more to that. My own view is that learning facts and skills is not enough. One of the most important things to learn is how to self-evaluate. How to recognize for ourselves how well we are doing. Being able to see how others are doing gives us a chance to hone our evaluation skills that we will eventually apply to ourselves.

    • Thanks Neil. David Berliner argues this is the reason:

      In many of the Christian Right schools interaction between students has been cut off and intellectual activities in groups rarely occur because group work is not valued. Cooperative learning, which invests some power in and attributes some wisdom to the group, is seen to undermine the relationship of subservience of children to adults and to God. Cooperative learning is considered bad learning.

      I agree with you, but I still don’t feel much closer to a reason why parents ought not to send their children to one of these schools if they think it’s right.

  2. I wonder if the claim that virtually no bullying occurs in these schools is simply the result of a possible “redefinition” of the activity depending on the perpetrator and the victim. Having been raised through a public school system, I know that teachers would tend to look the other way if the children who were being regularly harassed were the unpopular / socially awkward / “nerdy” kids who, in their mind, possibly had it coming to them. Combine that with the moral certainty of having the correct interpretation of God’s word in a place like an ACE school and it becomes that much more dangerous … and much less likely to be reported for what it is.

    Having gone to public school in the US, I can’t say anything from personal experience about ACE. I do know that in this country, they’re the ones trying to push ideas like the Loch Ness Monster is alive and well … therefore evolution is false. So … I can’t begin to take them seriously. Additionally, it would seem that the school under review espouses “beliefs” as part of the curriculum … and then points to the same problem we have here:

    ” Inherent biases can emerge, however. Matthew, an intelligent and independent minded boy, says he has learnt about creationism and evolution in almost equal measure, but adds: “It’s kind of one-sided in favour of creationism.” He says he would like to find out more about evolution.

    Mr Smith, whose beliefs tend towards a literal interpretation of the Bible’s message, emphasises that staff are scrupulous about presenting all sides of an argument. He overhears Matthew in passing and is surprised, but says he will look at putting more emphasis on evolution when the origins of humankind are taught.”

    The fact that creation and evolution are being taught as if they were two equally valid points of view and nothing more is a sign of a larger issue with the way they view science. Because their beliefs have the apparent effect of hindering their students’ ability to learn things that the scientific community has all but established as fact, it raises a huge red flag about the overall quality of their education, regardless of how well manered they are, or how much they enjoy it.

    Just my two cents from the other side of the pond.

    • Hi Jason, thanks for commenting.

      I think part of the problem at my ACE school (where there genuinely was hardly any bullying), is that it became a school dogma: “We don’t have bullying here.” I think this meant staff just weren’t alert to the potential for it, and possibly wouldn’t have taken suggestions of it seriously.

      The Creation/ Evolution thing I think is a genuine problem, especially in the case of ACE, who misrepresent the facts to support their position (as most YECs do). If you could persuade them to stop lying, though, they would still claim that evolution is false. They would just say that you can’t trust human reasoning because it’s not God’s reasoning. They would say, therefore, that you have to take Creation on faith.

      And that’s fine – I have no problem with adults believing that, even though I think it’s absurd. But I think children ought to be taught to consider the merits of faith, and question what beliefs deserve to have faith placed in them, and which ones don’t. Good luck persuading the people involved with ACE of that. So then our options are to leave it alone or to legislate against it.

  3. Let’s say that the ACE school that this guy went to was a good school. Let’s say that the public schools in an area are really bad and the private religious school is doing a better job of producing students who can actually read and write. Let’s say that most of the schools who use these whacky curriculum’s supplement science and history with books that present some actual facts.

    I would still do away with ACE and any other non accredited system religious or not. There is just no way to deal with or even know about abuse in systems without real standards or accountability. An over crowded public school providing little in the way of academics will still do a better job of preparing children for the real world than an ACE school, so long as it is a reasonably safe place. I base that on my experience of going from an ACE school into the army. I did great on the tests that the military gave me but I had no life skills and did horribly in life. If you recall, ACE trains children and staff how to act when there are visitors there. Do you remember singing There’s a Christian Welcome Here? I hope someone who is thinking about sending their kid to one of these schools reads this and realizes that ACE is really good at being two faced.

    • I’m starting to think ACE is a bit like the Catholic church. There are things about it that are bad on purpose (for ACE, providing an indoctrinative education; for the Catholic church, standing in the way of women’s rights and contraception), but there is also a tendency to abuse which is the result of bad design.

      In both cases, there are secretive structures in place that mean that abusers can get away with a lot. The people at the top might well say they abhor abuse, but they maintain systems which are wide open to it, and they don’t seem to follow up strongly when it happens.

  4. I went to a conservative christian school but the school was very focussed on academics and getting kids into university so we followed a standard syllabus (international baccalaureate – so I am outraged that they would say ACE is like IB). While we did not learn about evolution the rest of the science curriculum was ok. Learning the scientific method helped me enormously. I learnt a way of thinking about things and this method helped me to evaluate what I had been taught in religion classes at my school, my church and my home. It also provided me a basis to evaluate things once I had chucked out the bible. When I stopped being Christian I had to re-evaluate LGBT issues, abortion etc. If I hadn’t been taught this way of thinking I could have stopped being religious but kept my harmful and bigoted views, I am not saying I would have but I think it would have been more difficult for me to escape from them.

    From my point of view it is vital that the curriculum is standardised because all children are entitled to a good education. We cannot keep children (or at least due to freedom of speech etc) from brainwashing in their homes and churches but we as a society can ensure that all children receive a decent education. It allows children to know what people outside their small social set think and more importantly it allows them to meet these other children which makes it harder for their churches to demonise them. Decent education provides children with the opportunity to do whatever they want in their lives. It provides them with a method of thinking which may help them to think critically and escape dogmatic traditions. While I know it won’t work for everyone, I don’t think we as a society can say that the children of fundamentalists and conservatives are less worthwhile than the children of liberals and secularists. I know what decent education did for me, and I am so grateful as without it I don’t know where I would be.

    • Thanks Lexie. I’m glad to hear you say that about the IB. I hear that claim from Christian Education Europe from time to time and it annoys the hell out of me.

      I agree with you. This is about children’s rights. Unfortunately – and I’m not even joking here – ACE doesn’t believe in children’s rights. Seriously. I’ve just read three different books from various people with connections to ACE, and they all say children’s rights don’t exist.

  5. The 9 years I had my children on the ACE programme made me see palpable changes in them; my eldest daughter has always used other material to balance out her learning and when it came to art, she never took on board ACE’s painting reeds or other unchallenging ‘artistic’ projects though she has always been the most spiritual of her siblings but not religious or bible driven. My second eldest always questioned the reliability of the existence of God, he has always been logic driven, the only thing that is missing on him are the pointy Vulcan ears like Mr Spock’s. My youngest started to find the illustrations in the PACEs irritating and grating, she hated the accompanying books with the literature PACEs and most of the time she’d read quite mature novels and devote her free time to fashion designing with the aid of her digital art pad, she too is very much like her older sibling in the spiritual sense. If I had stuck them in an ACE approved school there would have been riots, fists flying and objects thrown across the classroom; their father and I would have been held accountable for our children’s conduct and undoubtedly been made examples of because of our stance on respecting the individual regardless of age and gender. Most of the time, how the child views his/her surroundings and the wider world is down to adult driven concepts, I find it very sad that ACE, supposedly a deferent encouraging organisation, could convolute and pervert the spiritual good therefore resorting to unethical and biased tactics which people have so long faught against in order to bring about human rights. Perhaps it would be very encouraging if a handful of brave and gutsy kids were to plunge an ACE school into a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario, just fan the flames a bit! A child’s natural inquisitiveness needs plenty of scope to develop healthily with plenty of positive encouragement. Constant put downs, restraints, censure and punishment encourages mutinous results brought about by subjecting the youngsters to abject misery. ACE’s god is all about pain and suffering.

  6. My mother was a qualified teacher and left her job at the local comprehensive to run an ace school in Bridgend. She always praised the ace curriculum in the highest terms, and used it to do some private tutoring in her spare time. The children she tutored were state school pupils and well behind in their normal schooling. The results seemed to show that the ACE materials had some use, at least in giving children who were struggling academically a good grasp of the basics in some subjects. This may also have been due to my mother’s years of experience of teaching academically poor children. I wonder how more academically gifted pupils would find it, it always seemed quite restrictive to me. When I 1st saw the PACE’s I though how great it would be to only have to fill in the answers to pre-written questions. Looking back, I’m glad I was too old to enter to ACE system when the school opened, I can’t see how I would have coped at university, with it’s emphasis on critical analysis, having been educated using this system. I would have enjoyed the isolation, but that’s just me. I wouldn’t dream of placing my own children in such a system, purely because social interaction is such an important part of development (also because I am now an atheist).

    Interestingly, my mother was bullied out of her job by the head of the school (the church’s pastor).

    • I could see how an individualised curriculum with emphasis on basic education could be of use in the situation you describe. The big problem with ACE is that the methods of assessment don’t need the students even to understand the material – you can pass just by rote memorisation. But having a good teacher on hand, like your mother, could even solve that problem.

      The only trouble then is the highly indoctrinatory nature of the curriculum. But I do think that’s a fatal problem, and it’s one I think matters regardless of any religious convictions the user may (or may not) have.

  7. Many years ago I attended Temple Christian School in Dallas for high school. It is now closed, but at the time I was there most of the high school classes were learning through the use of ACES. We had little cubicle and we would read the lesson and then take the test. A teacher was there to help us if we needed it. But most of the teachers were educated at the unaccredited Pensicola Christian College or they had no degree at all. Because of this any times if you had a question about a science ace they did not have enough knowledge to help you themselves. It was all rote memorization. So even today if you put me in a science lab I would be completely lost. Everything we learned except Bible class was through aces. The school used aces before they moved into using Abeka.
    The school had no library, science lab, nor computer labs. So while I have nothing against self paced education I do believe that this type of education should be supplimented. I myself read a lot at that age and when we did standardized testing I was the only person at the college reading level. The bad side of the school was that christianity was presented to us a thing to do. Not something we had in a relationship with christ. The school was more concerned about appearing to be christian. Ladies had to wear skirts or culottes otherwise you were not considered right with God.We were supposed to be submissive to the staff, teachers, and our parents even if there was abuse going on. Otherwise you were supposidly being rebelious, and you were not “right with God”. The principle of the school made a point of making fun of students he felt did not fit the “appearance” of being a Christian.
    So I knew by 10th grade that the education was crap and I asked the principle at the end the school year if I could complete the rest of my degree though aces. He said no. So I dropped out and went strait into community college. I did not mind the self paced learning process of aces. I hated the religious dogma at the school, and that is why I left.

  8. I was a student in the ACE system for 10 years, so I think I’m fairly well qualified to say that the system only teaches what its creators believe. They don’t know that they are teaching political or religious agendas; they’re just teaching what they truly believe. If you believed that all sinners were going to hell, all Christians were going to heaven, and that a big part of being a Christina is teaching the “word of God” to the whole world, that is probably how you would teach it.

    Because I am not a Christian any more, I can see that a lot of the education regarding science was wrong, and that the creators of the system are obviously brainwashed (these people will never teach anything but Christian values, because they believe 100% that they are right and everything else is wrong, so why would they?), but I will be forever thankful for the Christian values tough to me through ACE (I have never once been in trouble with the law and hold down a good job in the law industry), and I think that I am much better off than I would have been in a state system. It does help I suppose that we had more teachers than some schools might employ when using this system, and they were fantastic teachers who knew their subjects inside and out, especially the Maths and English teachers.

    So I might be in the minority here, but I think ACE is a very good education for people who can either keep an open mind or for people who want their children to have a brainwashed education, especially when it comes to science. And if they’re not brainwashed in an ACE school, there’s a very good chance they’ll be brainwashed somewhere else (and on Sundays), so I think it’s a good thing that the children are at least getting a good education in maths, English, geography, etc.

    I’m not convinced that rote learning is necessarily the best form of learning, but to to re-iterate a previous point, I attended an ACE school from Year 1 to Year 10, had no tertiary training and have been successful in an industry where you need quality education to succeed!

    Thanks for taking the time to read my (quite lengthy!) comment.

    • Hi Alex, thanks for commenting. It’s certainly a challenge to my position on this blog that ACE is actively harmful. Your first paragraph is bang on the money. I have no doubt that the creators of ACE are well-intentioned.

      You’re obviously an intelligent person (I’m guessing from the UK? You say “maths” not “math”, and “state system” not “public school”), and it seems like you were well-placed to get the best out of ACE. You’ve been able to think your way out of the brainwashing; not everybody can or does. Did you ever believe it all? Did you have access to alternative viewpoints outside of the school?

      I don’t think that the standard of ACE’s basic education is any good, regardless of content. I can see how individual learning benefits some students (I was well suited to it, in fact), but it can also be very detrimental to others. Also, even if you are a student well-suited to individual learning, I think that all subjects should be taught interactively and co-operatively for at least some of the time, because that’s a better preparation for life. I like studying on my own. I hated working in groups, and that highly introverted tendency wasn’t a good thing. It needed to be kept in check. Although my ACE school had group activities occasionally, it wasn’t integrated into the curriculum. There were whole areas of learning where the students only learned in silence.

      So I’m interested that you don’t seem to feel your social skills suffered. I know that mine did, and many of my blog commenters feel the same. Obviously, this will be in part affected by your life outside of the school.

      I’ve also argued, frequently, that it’s possible to pass ACE tests without understanding the material. That doesn’t mean that you definitely won’t understand, though. I learned a fair bit in English grammar that I’ve retained (not much of anything else). It’s certainly possible to achieve in ACE. I just don’t think it’s set up to give most students a good chance of that.

      Also, your view of ACE must be affected in part by how much of a moral problem you think indoctrination is. I think it’s a big one. I know what you mean about the Christian values. I too have never been in any real trouble and lead a generally good life. But there were moral values espoused in ACE that I find utterly repugnant – attacks on gay people, an absolutist stance on abortion, a Hawkish pro-gun and pro-war position, intolerance for other beliefs – which I’ve had to unlearn. So I’d call that a qualified success at best.

      Thanks for your comment. I found it fascinating (as you can hopefully tell from my lengthy reply!)

      • I’m from Australia actually. I don’t think many people would know that any schools here teach the ACE system, but when I finished Year 10 in Tasmania (one of the smallest states of Australia), my school had grown 1000% over the decade I was there and had opened 4 part-classroom/part-home school institutions in the small state, all of which used the ACE system, so it was actually quite prominent.

        Regarding “thinking my way out of the brainwashing”, I think it has always been in my nature to be very inquisitive and need facts to back up what I’m being taught. One of my passions is sports statistics, which I think suggests that I have quite an analytical mind, which obviously does not lend itself to the blind faith that Christianity requires. I have wondered for a while why I was able to see Christianity for what it really is and other people couldn’t, and that is all I can come up with.

        It’s funny you mentioned that my social skills must have been positively influenced by life outside of school, because I grew up with just my father, living on a farm, which you wouldn’t think would be the best upbringing in regard to social skills, but it was! Maybe the fact that my father was a door-to-door insurance salesman (so would have to ave good people skills) rubbed off on me and moving to a big city when I was 18 probably helped.

        I know what you mean about limited group activities in ACE schools, I would have liked for there to have been more of that, especially in science. Having said that, I think that by the time I graduated, the teachers had at least started to realize the importance of group learning. However I do think that being able to work on you own is an important skill, but then again I guess that in preparing you for life situations, being able to work in a group would be important too depending on the industry.

        How long did you attend the ACE school for?

        I certainly agree that you can pass the system without having really learnt the information, or more importantly learnt the skills to learn new things, and to think outside the box, etc. I think the lack of that teaching is probably the biggest flaw in ACE, but as I said earlier, they teach it because that’s what they believe, and Christianity certainly doesn’t encourage creative thinking. I guess if you take a step back, you see that Muslim schools would only teach Muslim values, creation theories, etc, Islamic schools would only teach Islamic values, creation theories, etc, and so on and so forth, none of which I think would teach any tolerance towards other religions, or much to do with what science has proved. A bigger question might be “Who should control what is taught in our schools? Religious groups? Parents? Government?”

        I’m glad I stumbled across your blog and commented; I’ve never put this much thought into the topic before, it’s very eye-opening!

      • I just realized that Muslim and Islam are the same thing, woops. Shows how much you learn about other religions when you’re bought up Christian…

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