Even the vicar can’t stand ACE

Happy new year everyone. I hope December treated you well and you’re ready for another year of fighting the hydra that is Christian fundamentalism. I told you that this year I wanted to co-operate more with sympathetic Christians, so here’s a statement of intent: a guest post from a priest. To the kind of fundamentalists who think that baptism by sprinkling is a damnable heresy, this won’t make much difference. But to parents who are on the fence about whether to choose Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), or to those who believe that this website is simply a crusade to destroy religious freedom, I hope this will make you think twice.

Today’s post is by the Reverend Oliver Harrison, vicar at Holy Trinity Wilnecote, an Anglican church. Oliver enjoys shaving and dislikes ACE. Say hi everyone.

Oliver Harrison

Hello. My name is Oliver. I’m 42 years old, married with two kids and I work as church minister in England. Hobbies include shooting, fishing and riding my ex-Army Harley Davidson.

Here’s my story: I went to an ACE school for 4 years (The Kings School, in Oxfordshire, England) from when it started in 1984 to when I graduated in 1988 (school years 8-11 in the UK).

There were things I liked and things I hated.

Things I hated would include:

First, the petty ad hoc rules. These were made up by the staff as they went along yet enforced like the Decalogue writ on tablets of stone. One time I was guilty of “walking in a lackadaisical fashion.” Another time my haircut caused offence. And so on. The thing is, one never knew; there was no rule book to appeal to, no rights. It was Kafkaesque and capricious. This was made worse by the fact that the headteacher – sorry, “Principal” – American English, please! – hit me on at least one occasion as part of the school’s use of corporal punishment.

Second, use (misuse? abuse?) of the Bible. Ironically, the Christian school taught the Bible as piecemeal proof-texts to be learned by rote and taken literally. So, for example, the science coursebooks assumed the Biblical “fact” of young earth, six day creationism. I now know Genesis contains two cosmogonies and that as they are written in verse then maybe they are not to be taken as fact. (Although I should add here that, as a Christian, I accept the creation accounts in Genesis as Scripture and I therefore take them as truth. As an example of the difference between fact and truth, see Jesus’ parables; they contain and covey truth but are clearly made up stories and therefore not fact at all but pure fiction.)

Third, the extremely conservative social, economic and political ideology of the curriculum. This right wing bias was even manifest in the comic strip cartoons – which, incredibly, were racially segregated. Yes, in a word: Apartheid. To which I say: God bless Nelson Mandela – may he rest in peace and rise in glory. Oh, and when I spotted the racial segregation in the PACE cartoons (yes, I was smart kid) my questions and concerns were brushed aside. But let me say the “a” word one more time in case you missed it: Apartheid. And all in the name of God and Jesus. Amen. Hallelujah. This was the worst kind of Bible belt, redneck religion, and the school was run as a kind of a curious prison – albeit with some nice warders.

segregated learning center

This ACE cartoon depicting a segregated school was posted to a public Facebook group with the comment “There’s something a bit off.”

Things I liked:

Umm. One or two of the staff were OK (although I hesitate to call them “teachers”). Also the way it was so small and weird and we got away with stuff that I really don’t see my kids doing even in their big rough’n’tough secular secondary schools. Ha, in some ways we had a blast.

Did it prepare me for what came next – A levels, university, life? No, not even nearly. But there being no counterfactual, no alternative parallel history, I can’t see or say how I would have turned out differently. To be honest, I remember hating year 7 (the first year of high school) at the local state secondary before I was taken out and put in the ACE system so maybe I just don’t “do” schools / formal education / institutional establishments. I’ll never know. Or care for that matter. And it doesn’t matter now anyway.

Most importantly (by its own standards and mine) did ACE introduce me to God / Jesus / the Bible / the church – in a word, to Christianity? Answer most emphatic: “no”. I was in my twenties before anyone told me the first and most foundational truth of Christianity: namely, that God is love.

What one might call the secondary stuff of Christianity was also just as lacking: I can’t ever remember the sacraments (variously called “communion” / “mass” / “eucharist” / “the Lord’s Supper” by different denominations). Nor the social action side of Christianity (I don’t recall any mention of Mother Teresa but then maybe a Catholic woman didn’t fit the ACE definition of a Good Christian?). The impression I got was that the school wanted me to be more like Ned and less like Homer. But you know what? God loves Homers (oh, and homos). Jesus liked the tax collectors a whole lot more than the text collectors. Truly, I was taught by the scribes and Pharisees and teachers of the law.

But for reasons I don’t quite understand none of this really bothers me that much. I’m no Nelson Mandela and I certainly can’t claim to have mastered forgiveness but I don’t really hold any grudges against my old school. It wasn’t exactly Auschwitz and, besides, worse things have happened to me since (bereavement, redundancy, serious illness etc.) but no more than happen to most people I guess. The school is just another thing in the mix of my life and not a particularly big one at that.

But my brother, for example, is still very angry. Others also seem to be deeply scarred and are carrying burdens of rage and shame and grief and guilt all sorts of negative emotions. I’m sorry for them and for the legacy ACE has left in their lives. Perhaps it is amazing that after my experience of ACE I am now a Christian. Somehow – perhaps you would call it the grace of God – I have managed not to throw the baby out with the bathwater (and what water! Pretty disgustingly filthy.) But I wonder if I am in the minority. Certainly from those of my peers with whom I’ve kept in touch it seems to me that, among my cohort at least, the school was a pretty effective recruiting sergeant for skepticism if not outright atheism. Which is kinda ironic.

So, that’s me. And that’s my story.

Postscript: I understand my old school in no longer uses ACE materials. This pleases me, but also vexes me. Why the latter? Because I was right all along — just too soon, too early. I told everyone how bad it was AT THE TIME, especially my parents, who made massive financial sacrifices to send me and my two brothers to that school. So I was ahead of my time, the curse of Cassandra, my mantra: “I TOLD YOU SO”. Talking all this through with parents over the Christmas vacation I was genuinely moved when they heard me out, then replied to me by presenting their case (well, that sounds too strong: I guess “put their side of the story” would be better) and then apologized unreservedly. As a parent myself I understand they wanted what was best for me and, as Philip Larkin’s famous poem says, they got it wrong, they made a mistake. Such is life. So it goes.

Oh, and that Principal? He’s now in charge of the Bridge Schools Inspectorate which inspects faith schools (and which, incidentally, gave his old school a glowing report.). Yup, the same man who hit me while presiding over a curriculum that inculcated racial segregation is now responsible for monitoring standards at other faith schools. You couldn’t make it up. And I haven’t. Thanks for reading.

More from former ACE students:

Anaïs Chartschenko
Matthew Pocock (attended the same school as Oliver)
Aram McLean
Cat Givens
Tim Reinert

Related post:

Criticism of ACE from Christians

About jonnyscaramanga

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 January 6, 2014, in Accelerated Christian Education, Christianity, Creationism, Education, Faith Schools and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Please don’t send me any more of your fundamentalist shit as I am a born again Christian and serve a living God. I totally agree with Accelerated Christian Education. As i teach in a A.C.E. School. Keep your comments to your SELF. If you not happy with A.C.E. Education you need to search you heart if you have one, As one you and your followers will answer to God one day. NOW I DON’T WANT ANY E-MAILS FROM YOU.

    • I am very, very confused by your use of the word ‘fundamentalist’…

    • You teaching in an A.C.E. school doesn’t exactly read like an endorsement of it. Perhaps one of your students ‘subscribed’ your email onto this site as a spot of fun? Though I suppose they would have to know your password. Did you make it ‘Jesusismyhero’ again. Because I’d say they’re onto you with that one.

  2. michaelcross609

    I appreciate what you’ve written but I was there and even if it was not actually offensive, I believe that your hair did not submit itself fully to authority at the time.

  3. Thanks for sharing your story Vicar.

  4. Rather subjective account to be honest. Many of these ‘survivor’ stories are. Also you say ‘I was in my twenties before anyone told me the first and most foundational truth of Christianity: namely, that God is love’ . ‘God is love’ is an underlying basic principle which is often stated in the PACES. Perhaps your experience of ACE was negative because of the people that administered it. Don’t blame the actual curriculum for this.

    • What can one person’s account of their experience be but subjective? Of course, when you have a lot of people speaking out and saying the same things, that might speak more to generalisations.

      I find the “subjective account” response quite heartless. Let’s say that all the survivors speaking on this blog are a minority, and most people have wonderful experiences of ACE. Great. But don’t those who suffered still matter?

      Also, you know the offer’s there for you to write your own post any time.

    • Hi AislingNB

      You said that: ” ‘God is love’ is an underlying basic principle which is often stated in the PACES.” You know, I think you’re probably right. So omit that from my testimony. I’m keen to be as accurate as possible and not overstate my case. But the rest stands. And the rest is enough. Subjective? Yes, of course.

      “Perhaps [my] experience of ACE was negative because of the people that administered it.” No kidding.

      But back to the objective: racial segregation – care to comment? More than that, care to say how that squares with “God is love”?

  5. I think “Mary” meant “Anti-Fundamentalist” rather than “Fundamentalist.” It was a typo.

  6. Firstly: I totally support Jonny’s decision/attempt to make this a ‘let’s work together to fix this problem’ site rather than a ‘let’s rag on Christians’ site.

    Secondly: I’ve got 6 years of ACE experience. 4 as a student, 2 as a volunteer for my kids, and I never had a particularly bad experience in all that time. Certainly I had better experiences than I had getting the shit kicked out of me on a weekly basis in public school prior to ACE.

    Thirdly, and most importantly: I have to thank the Vicar for pointing out something that was PAINFULLY obvious, and yet I continually failed to notice it over the course of my 6 years in/around the program. Namely: There is no mention, none, nada, nicht, null, of Baptism or of Communion. Those are two HUGE aspects of Christianity, and ones specifically commanded by Jesus Himself, yet the system completely ignores them. It’s weird that they’d go endlessly over the minutia of creation again and again and again, which is of only arcane interest, and yet they’d completely ignore specific “This is what I want you to do” comments from the Lord Himself.

    I intend to contact them to discuss that. So thank you!

  7. Regarding the picture and the comment, ‘There’s something a bit off’, I think it is referring to the hand that appears to be just ‘floating’ in mid-air! There is a line drawn from the hand and then part of a written comment that starts with what looks like ‘fl’.

  8. Okay…so the comments make me laugh. First: since when to Fundy Christians cuss (Specifically “Shit”)? That would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap when I was a kid. I would have also been “spanked” with a belt until I had welts on the back of my legs. Unless I had bruises, it was not a real whipping. Second: I did ACE paces in elementary school(the early 80s) and I can say that they put me behind my peers, and were factually wrong in many cases. Full disclosure: I am an atheist, molecular biologist now and would never go back to fundamentalism, but it is sad to see the anger that is heaped on people who leave. As an aside my parents no longer speak to me, or see their grand daughter even though I am a productive member of society and I never bash them. This is because of my lack of religious faith. I have no illusions of changing anyone’s mind, but my experience in the the fundy world (Baltimore, MD in the US) was very negative.

  9. I’ve looked at ACE from both sides now, firstly as a student, now as an occasional substitute monitor, and I note many many many problems with the system now that I didn’t because I was young and stupid in the years between 1977 and 1981.

    Curiously I didn’t have an academic problem transitioning back into public school for 9th grade. I’m not sure why. Probably it’s just the crappy state of public schools around here when I was a kid, but I was able to follow everything, and I was more-or-less on grade leve in everything except Math and English Grammar. Math is related to a learning disability, I can’t blame that on ACE. I did argue with my teachers in public school constantly about evolution an whatnot, but I have to say they were pretty tolerant of my fanaticism. “You don’t need to believe this,” they said, “But you need to understand what it is that you don’t believe.” I didn’t accept that then, but I find it pretty wise now.

    Something that may not be common knowledge to British folk (Or Americans who came up in the generation after me, I guess), but Corporal Punishment was still pretty common in the US in the ’70s. I got spanked perhaps three times in private school in 4 years. In public school, in a similar time frame, I got spanked twice. So while it’s alarming now to hear about this stuff happening now, it didn’t raise any eyebrows back in the day.

    I should also mention that while the ACE system is basically a loaded gun with no accountability in the hands of crazy-assed fundamentalist authoritarians, I think based on what I’ve seen, most of the schools aren’t like that. A significant minority are – maybe as much as 1/3rd – but the majority are not. Example: while my kid’s school insists on maintaining the right to spank kids, they haven’t actually spanked a single child in seven years. And I probably got sent to the office 3x as many times as I got spanked, but was let off with a lecture, or a warning, or an eyeroll if the principle felt the Supervisor was being too strident.

    I rambled a bit there. Sorry.

  10. Perhaps your brother’s anger stems from the fact that your parents’ (and your) ongoing beliefs in religion fail to validate his suffering at the hands of it?

  11. I am an ex-pupil of the school you are criticizing. I don’t agree with many of your points of view. This is a very biased account it implies that the school taught nothing but A.C.E whereas actually A.C.E was only part of the curriculum. Subjects such as Science, English, Foreign Languages, Art, R.E, History and Geography were taught as lessons using a British-based standard curriculum up to G.C.E and subsequently G.C.S.E level.
    I don’t quite understand how you can say that you were not taught about the love of God because it was taught in every assembly and it was a huge part of school life. It so happens that I did a school project on Mother Teresa!!
    My experience of this school was the teachers were extremely caring and always had the students best interests at heart.
    In those days corporal punishment in schools was allowed. For one to be disciplined by the principal it means they must have done something wrong. But I know that the Head and staff disciplined students with love, correction and prayer as I was also disciplined there.
    Your use of the word ‘hit’ is very emotive. You make it sound as though the Head and teachers just lashed out and that was not the case.As you are a Vicar I would have expected to hear more about forgiveness.
    I agree that A.C.E did have it’s faults as a system and was subsequently changed. I personally quite enjoyed it at times as it enabled the individual to progress at their own pace.
    Many of the ex-pupils that I have spoken to respected the Principal and spoke highly of him as a caring man of God.
    If this School was such a bad experience as your opinion indicates then why is it that so many ex-pupils have chosen to send their own children there throughout the years?

    • Thanks for engaging in the debate Kara. Good to hear a different point of view.

      I was careful to say that I was hit “as part of the school’s use of corporal punishment” not as random violence. Please read what I wrote. You say “I was also disciplined there” – were you subject to corporal punishment (i.e. being hit)? Or not?

      The love of God may have been taught but as has often been said there’s three ways children learn: by example, by example and by example. In my opinion, law was higher than love and the whole system was very legalistic. (Put your flag up if you disagree.)

      I suspect yours is an equally subjective opinion. Perhaps you were there at a later time than I and the school had changed? When the school started in ’84 I would say it was very conservative and possibly relied on ACE more than it did subsequently. (Maybe they phased it out?) Certainly, in the first few years I would say ACE formed the majority of the syllabus. I think it got better and is now not the place it was (ACE isn’t used at all, for a start.)

      (It’s worth putting this in context: the early 1980’s were a time of Thatcher and Reagan, the Cold War, the Moral Majority and the backlash against the permissive and liberal 1960’s and 70’s. I can quite understand ACE from a sociological or historical point of view.)

      Finally, “As you are a Vicar I would have expected to hear more about forgiveness.” But surely that’s the one thing we both agree on: neither of us think there’s much to forgive. You, because you think it was OK; me, because I really don’t care that much, 😉

      But seeing as I am, indeed, a Vicar I don’t mind shining a light on some of the fundamentalist and cultish nonsense pedalled in the name of my religion — and I was certainly subjected to more than my fair share.

      Glad you had a good time at the King’s School. Could you tell me what years you were there and whether or not you were ever (for want of a better word) hit? I’m genuinely interested.

      Thanks again for sharing and putting another perspective. Pax.

  12. Oliver – I think it’s sad you see the need to vilify the head teacher of that school so much. Yes, ACE is dreadful, yes plenty went on at that school that was not good. (And yes, I went there too but after you). But I also know that this head teacher is a good man who had good intentions, is able to apologise for mistakes and simply is not the racist sadist you imply he is. Nothing could be farther from the truth – I spoke to him recently. When did you last speak to him?

    • I don’t know David Freeman and I have no dog in that particular fight.

      But if what you say about him is true, I would be impressed if he reached out to former students feel that the school was abusive and made a genuine apology. He could do it publicly or privately. It’s what I’d do. If I found out one of my former students had grievances, I would be desperate to see if I needed to make any changes to my own teaching style.

      Like I said, I don’t know much about David Freeman and I can’t speak to this situation. But in my experience, ACE and ACE teachers have done everything possible to dismiss and ignore grievances from ex-students. That’s no way to behave. If they really have changed and can admit their mistakes, they should have no problem doing it.

    • Hi Mel.

      First up, may I ask your real name? I’ve gone on record with my full name and other details; I’d like to engage you on equal terms.

      “The head teacher is a good man who had good intentions, is able to apologise for mistakes and simply is not the racist sadist you imply he is.” This begs a lot of questions.

      For the record I DO NOT think he is a racist sadist. I never said nor implied it. Let’s stick to the facts: I said he hit me as part of the school’s use of corporal punishment while presiding over a curriculum that inculcated racial segregation. That is the truth (and one which nicely falls under your delicious understatement: “ACE is dreadful . . . plenty went on at that school that was not good.”) Or do you wish to dispute and disagree with that fact? I think there’s enough evidence to back me up and if the head teacher is as good a man as you say he is he wouldn’t deny those facts. More than enough went on at that school that was not good without the Head being a racist sadist.

      (Incidentally, as an aside, I don’t recall any girls ever being hit. Do you know of any that were? Were you? Maybe you’d feel differently if you had been. It’s the sort of thing that can change your mind about someone.)

      Intriguingly, you also say that the Principal is a “good man who had good intentions [and] is able to apologise for mistakes . . . . I spoke to him recently.” And yet by your own admission “plenty went on at that school that was not good.” These things happened on his watch. He was in charge. Are you implying that he has apologised to you?

      If I were a “good man” and “able to apologise for mistakes” and had overseen a school where “plenty went on . . that was not good” then the inescapable conclusion is that I would apologise. Is that what you are hinting at? Has he apologised to you? I’d be amazed and delighted if so. And feel free to add me to the list of people to whom he might want to apologise. You know who I am and where to find me. Unlike you, “Mel” – who are you? Come out from the shadows and into the light so we can talk openly and honestly on the same terms. Or are you afraid?


  13. Answer comes there none 😦

    “Hello, is that NHS Direct? I’d like to report a case of Stockholm Syndrome . . . . “

  14. Btw, the whole the “head teacher is a good man who had good intentions [and] is able to apologise for mistakes” thing?

    Yeah, I’m *able* to leap tall buildings in a single jump. I, er, just, um, choose not to. 😉

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