We begin with the joys of sexual purity.
I can see that here the staff strive to give children a sense of pride. But their learning is shaped by the narrowest interpretation of the Bible with all the preconceptions of this religious bias, including a very particular approach to sex education. Maxine responds first when I ask the Hargreaves about the subject. “We talk to the older girls about virginity,” she says. George takes up the theme. “We tell them that the blood shed when virginity is broken on the marriage bed is part of the blood covenant made between you and your husband under God, and if the blood is shed elsewhere it will weaken the covenant.” A few moments later, George reaches into his pocket for a tiny pink plastic doll foetus, and drops it into my hand: “180,000 babies like that are killed every year in Britain. That is what happens when you take sex out of God’s order.”
Then there’s this interesting part:
Although there is clearly a danger that children educated with ACE, especially at home, could end up unsocialised, it seems to me after meeting a few of them that they are no less socialised than the average product of a mainstream education system that tips a whole lot of 13-year-olds into a classroom together and expects them to get on.
I, and, judging from the comments I receive, a lot of others, felt socially retarded after nearly four years learning in silence in a carrel. After he interviewed me for Radio 4, Charles Carroll asked me, “What would you say if I told you that I met a lot ACE pupils today, and they all seemed bright and well socialised?”
I was so unprepared for the question that I didn’t have much of a good answer. I’d spent the last few years building my “ACE pupils are socially stunted” schema, and I was amazed he thought otherwise. This is a big enough issue that I think it deserves a separate blog post, probably in the New Year. Based on Christian Right literature, I think I have the answer: ACE schools are pretty good at teaching children to respond respectfully to adults, which makes a pretty good impression. By contrast, a typical secondary school kid, who is not drilled to death to treat authority with the deference and respect you would give to God, might well be monosyllabic when interviewed by a strange adult. It’s with their own peer groups (outside of their own, isolated environment) that the ACE students tend to struggle.
But I am mindful that, as a journalist, I am unlikely to be introduced to the children who lost out in this system, who rebelled against it, or who felt trapped within it. Because the question still burns about how this kind of education can possibly prepare children to make their own intellectual choices. In the US, where ACE is a much bigger force, that is really what exercises its critics…
A style of education that discourages doubt and debate clearly poses a question for the rest of society. As David Berliner says to me, “Their educational system is closer to ultrafundamentalism than is healthy for a democracy.” Yet ACE schools are independent, they ask for no state support, and families who choose to educate their children at home do so in the face of indifference or hostility from local authorities. Aren’t they just exercising their own right to free choice as to how their children should be educated? So long as their children reach a reasonable standard of learning, has anyone the right to interfere?
This is the whole debate, succinctly put. My recent guest blooger, Lyndell, argued that no one has a right to interfere. My counter-argument is this: My rights end when they start to infringe on someone else’s rights. I do believe parents have the right to decide raise children in accordance with their beliefs, but that right stops when it infringes their child’s right to a good education, or the possibility of that child reaching their own conclusions about belief later on.
I agree with the view put forward by Ben Rogers:
Ben Rogers, the associate director of the thinktank Institute for Public Policy Research, produced a recent report, What Is Religious Education For? which argued that discussion of atheism and agnosticism should be included within religious education for all children. “There is this view that parents own their children,” he says. “Nobody owns kids. Children aren’t yours to control, you hold them in trust, and you should cultivate certain qualities in them, including the ability to understand the value of different points of view.”
The future is likely to see more of this debate, since most of the people I interviewed believed that independent fundamentalist education is set to spread in the UK, partly because of the inspiration evangelical Christians seem to take from what’s happening across the Atlantic.
Fortunately, that last part is simply delusional. Numbers of ACE students have been pretty static for the last couple of decades. I grew up with evangelicals, and they were always talking about how a big revival is just around the corner, and we would see the spread of Christianity on a massive scale. It never happens. I think the UK has fairly good cultural immunity to that kind of crazy, thanks in part to the moderating influence of the Church of England. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be on the alert for things like ACE, which can seriously mess with a child’s future, but it does mean that the UK will almost certainly never have its own Rick Warren or John Hagee.
In the US evangelicals have effectively created a parallel system of education which has schooled hundreds of thousands of pupils in its messianic world view and the evangelical social and political agenda has moved into the mainstream. Evangelical Christianity is far from being such a force in Britain, but it is clearly the desire of many of those I met that it should become so. They are being inspired by the growing confidence of other faith groups. Supporters of ACE talked admiringly of Muslims who make it clear they do not wish to join the mainstream. Fundamentalist Christians point enviously to the fact that more children are currently educated in Muslim independent schools than independent evangelical Christian schools – about 14,000 compared with about 5,000 – and independent Muslim schools are growing more quickly. Rather than confronting this sectarianism with a call to inclusiveness, they would like to react with further sectarianism of their own. The goal is a more, rather than less, divided society. “Christians have been leaving it to the government to decide on their values, while Muslims have said, ‘This is mine, this is my culture, this is who I am’,” says Maxine Hargreaves. “Now we Christians are saying that we want to defend our culture, too. We want to take back our children.”
I’m sort of reminded of Rick Warren saying he wishes young Christians were as dedicated as the Hitler Youth (I know, right?)
Note to fundamentalists: If you’re looking admiringly at Nazis and Jihadists, you’re doing it wrong.
OK, that’s it from me for 2012. Thanks to all of you for making this blog a success this year. Next year will be even better for the blog, for reasons I’ll explain soon, but in the meantime, have a good Christmas/ Yule/ holiday/ whatever you want to call it (but seriously, atheists, stop pretending to be offended and just call it Christmas, alright?).