In 2005, the Guardian printed probably the most thorough look at ACE schools there’s ever been in the British press (or anywhere). It’s long – even I didn’t make it through in one hit – so I’ll pick out my favourite bits.
It features comments from David Berliner and Harry Brighouse. Harry is my new favourite academic (apart from Michael Reiss, obviously), mostly because he is the author of the greatest comment about ACE in the history of the world:
The Accelerated Christian Education schools, for example, teach in science classes that evolution is false and that God created the world in seven days (literally). Their history presents a teleological account of American history as leading to the ultimate fulfilment of God’s will, a kind of Christian version of the Stalinist approach to history but without the intellectual subtlety.
If anyone wants to put the last bit on a mug, I would drink tea from that every day.
Anyway, Natasha Walters’ Guardian article.
The chief inspector of schools, David Bell, for example, recently criticised independent Muslim schools for failing to teach tolerance of other cultures. But after he had made that speech, his office released information that showed evangelical Christian schools are actually even less successful at that task.
Legislation lays down that independent schools can go their own way in many things – they do not have to abide by the national curriculum – but they must “assist pupils to acquire an appreciation of and respect for their own and other cultures, in a way that promotes tolerance and harmony”, and of the 40 evangelical Christian schools that were not yet fully registered by Ofsted, 18 had failed on that count…
Where other faiths, or even branches of the same faith, are discussed in the ACE booklets, the tone is telling. One social studies booklet on Martin Luther and the Reformation, for instance, is critical of the Catholic church in the 16th century and also, by implication, today, using such words as “idolatry” and “superstitious nonsense” to characterise supposedly Catholic teachings, and inviting children to underline the “correct” Protestant beliefs.
I’m very grateful to Ms. Walters for pointing this out, and very annoyed at OFSTED for continuing to write in reports that ACE students receive “good” spiritual development, and that they are “taught about other faiths” – which they are, if being told that other religions were founded by Satan to deceive the weak is learning. Still, you know what I think about OFSTED.
Most telling is the students’ attitude to the outside world:
Leah, a 13-year-old girl with a ready smile and her hair in pretty clips, moved from a state school to this establishment three years ago. “I had mixed feelings but now I like it a lot,” she says. “Sometimes I miss my old friends but I don’t think I’d like it at their school – the peer pressure and everything.”
I ask Alastair what was the best thing about being educated in this way. “I could study the word of God every day rather than defending it every day,” he states. What did he feel he missed by not being in school? “Temptation,” he says, and stops.
At ACE, I was constantly told what pits of sin and debauchery non-Christian schools were. When I made the decision to leave my ACE school, my friends warned me what horrible people my new classmates would be. The main reason ACE schools exist is because of Christian parents’ total paranoia about state schools, and this is fed by a stream of propaganda from the Christian Right and ACE themselves. Of course, if you think that watching a 15-rated movie, listening to BBC Radio 1, or saying “piss” are damnable sins, you see damnation everywhere you look.
There’s also a fair bit in the article about Creationism, but I’m not going to mention that here because, well, I’ve already done a few other blogs on the subject.
In addition to frequent incursions of the Bible, ACE also delivers a pretty solid, old-fashioned grounding in other areas. It begins with reading based on the newly fashionable synthetic phonics, and moves on to other core school subjects – maths, history, geography, physics, languages and so on.
Actually, I’d dispute this. It tries to give a sold grounding in the basics, but, as I’ve explained before, the way ACE tests are structured, you don’t need to understand the information to pass. You just – as is about to be discussed – need to memorise it parrot-fashion. So you might emerge with a solid knowledge of maths and traditional grammar. Or you might emerge knowing virtually nothing.
What stands out is the traditional delivery of the information with none of the role-play and speculation of current mainstream curricula. This is all about getting your head around the “facts” then retelling those “facts” in multiple choice and fill-in-the-blanks tests. Although that means children learn the basics in a way that many state-educated pupils may not, it also means they do not learn to question anything they are taught. Harry Brighouse, professor of philosophy and education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has watched the expansion of ACE in America with distaste. “It is a crude curriculum. It doesn’t encourage questioning or individual thought – it is very much based on rote learning.”
I want to put that entire paragraph in bold.
What is undeniably attractive about this curriculum – even for the sceptical observer – is the way that it moves at the same pace as the child. With ACE, children are assessed on entry and progress at their own speed, working through booklets and doing the tests at the end of each one before they can move on to the next. They work mainly alone, but if they get stuck they put a little flag up in their cubicle and a supervisor will help out. This flexible pace with its built-in checks can clearly work for children who have fallen through gaps in the state system.
But there’s a problem with this, and I already discussed it in a vlog. If you’re designing a single curriculum that’s the same for everybody, how do you know how much repetition to include? ACE insists that it’s based on a system of mastery learning, but how do you know if the students have mastered it? ACE’s solution is to repeat the hell out of everything, and it drove me nearly insane.
I, er, had some time on my hands recently, so I looked at the ACE English PACEs for grades 9-12 to see how much repetition there actually is. You can do this for yourself if you are incredibly bored and want to check my findings. The contents pages for every ACE PACE are online at christianbook.com, and every one of them has a set of objectives for the booklet. I simply counted how many times the same aim cropped up in the final four years’ worth of ACE English.
There are 48 workbooks in these grades, numbered 1097-1144. In them, I discovered that:
Sentence diagramming comes up as an objective four times (and I think it appeared in other PACEs where it wasn’t an explicit objective)
Subject-verb agreement, verbals (gerunds, participles, and whatever the other one is), kinds of verbs (action and linking), sentence patterns, and verb functions (transitive or intransitive) each appear four times.
Capitalisation and punctuation: five times (in grades 9-12!)
Learning the eight noun functions: seven times.
Learning the eight parts of speech: eight times.
Eight times. And this is just in the final four grades; all these things were introduced long before that. You could wake me up at four in the morning, shining a spotlight in my face, and I would still be able to tell you the eight parts of speech. And this knowledge has been useful exactly nought times since I left the school. It’s a big opportunity cost, because students could be doing something useful with that time they spend doing the eight noun functions for the seventh time. There are successful English teachers who couldn’t list those from memory.
So how is that “working at your own speed”?
Here’s my favourite bit:
Another parent, Des Starritt, tells me that one reason he wanted to withdraw his children from state school is that they were given books about witchcraft there. At first I don’t understand, but then I click – he means books by JK Rowling or Philip Pullman. “We would not put Harry Potter in the school library,” says Paul Medlock, the Maranatha headmaster. “It is a book without proper values,” says Ben Pike. “It treats witchcraft lightly.”
I don’t think that requires additional comment, really. Except to say that when the parents talk about the “temptation to sin” that’s present in state schools, you should remember that they’re thinking of the temptation to read Harry Potter.
There are some quite interesting comments from parents whose children were failing in the state system:
One 14-year-old boy here had behavioural problems that had led to his exclusion from a previous school. “But when we actually got the report from that school,” says Maxine, “which followed him quite late, we couldn’t believe it. He had only been with us for a few months, but it was as though they were describing a different human being. I believe he could go to university.” Later I meet the boy she is talking about, working through a booklet giving him comprehension and handwriting practice. “I like working like this,” he says of the solitary space around him. “It helps me to concentrate. It was hard to work at my old school.”
Of course, educators are well aware that the state system fails some children very badly, and they spend a lot of time looking at answers (which the government usually ignores). It makes me sad that ACE is the alternative in this situation, because a system as intellectually dishonest as ACE is harmful in different ways.
I’ll look at the rest of this article in a second part. Keep your eyes peeled.